Fast forward a few years, and when acquaintances over in Leyton opened Uptown Burger on the High Road, they took “me in for a job,” he says. He simply wanted to learn everything he could.
But that venture soon started to struggle, and it was then that Shaheen – who goes by his last name – and wife Rumi had a lightbulb moment: to take on the outlet and launch their own dream restaurant. “Rumi would always have an issue with the Indian food in every restaurant we eat at,” he says, with a smile. “Something was never right.”
For passionate home cook Rumi, who learned her skills from her mother, other people’s food is just never quite tasty enough. So, despite no professional experience – let alone cooking for a 78-cover restaurant – the enterprising couple gave it a shot, with Rumi running the kitchen as head chef.
They opened Masala India on a shoestring in June 2018. Their USP? A tiffin-focused Bengali menu, the idea being to allow customers to try things they might not usually order.
“It’s actually a British invention, the tiffin,” says Shaheen, whose father came to London in the 1950s. “Tiffin time was tea time, but the Indians put it into practice – and it’s now this big thing.” The menu, which is full of helpful little explainers and witty asides for those who unfamiliar with the concept, says that in India it’s a “food roulette” and supposed to be “pot luck, so traditionally your mother or wife chooses for you.”
Endearingly, they don’t pretend that what they’re doing is special. “It’s what we eat at home. So it was all about being bringing comfort food. Rumi puts the same passion into how she cooks for her children into how she cooks for her guests. It gives her a buzz.”
Shaheen admits it was a slow start but the restaurant gradually became busier due to word of mouth. “It really is the best marketing,” he says. “We grew organically, through our guests, just telling the neighbours, telling their siblings, bringing their parents.”
And were there any teething troubles? “Oh, Rumi knows what she’s doing,” he says, with a laugh. “But at the start delivery time was the issue. Can we have our guests dine here within that hour? That became very challenging for us because when we first opened food was taking ages to come out. But as soon as customers tasted it they forgot about that; one of our guests set up an online page, and people posted glowing reviews in on it.”
Shaheen prides himself on service: tap water is served swiftly to the table, and papadoms with a selection of dips before the customer asks. “Munching on something makes people comfortable,” he says. And operating a rare and welcome BYO policy, customers are encouraged to bring their own wine (an off-licence is conveniently next door).
Best of all in the age of Covid, the heated covered Tiffin Garden is now essential for mixed households to observe social distancing. The characterful wood floor was, in fact, the old boarding from the burger shop; plants, rugs and ornate Indian screens add visual interest.
“It was originally the bin area. And now some customers say they feel like they’re in India, some say Morocco; everybody has their own experience in the garden.”
So what’s next? The couple have big hopes for both a lunch and Sunday brunch service launching soon, as well as putting more fish on the menu, especially now that A&M Seafood has opened down the road. “I’ll be cooking some new sea bass, cod and monkfish dishes,” says Rumi.
And plans for the future don’t stop there. “People always say that the heated garden would make a lovely work space to bring a laptop in, have a chai and some pani puri, and work from here,” Shaheen says.
Dishes costs from £2-13. Tiffins are £16. There is no corkage charge if you BYO wine or beer. Find Masala India at 466 High Rd, Leyton, London E10 6QA, open daily 5-10pm except Tuesday. More info here. Follow Masala India @masalaindiauk
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