Here’s the best advice I can give you:
Do not visit and leave London without tasting an authentic Indian curry.
First off, curry has become a national institution (albeit a pilfered one), more on the commandeering and colonialism later.
Secondly, your taste buds and sensory memory will thank you as there are few things as evocative, warming and restorative as a well balanced, delicately prepared Indian curry.
Finally, if we discount the Kingfisher beers you’re likely to sink alongside your curry, then it’s actually very good for you. Indian cuisine developed alongside Ayurvedic, an ancient ancestral wisdom that we are only just discovering the deep truths of today. The fact that turmeric reduces inflammation, an aggravated symptom of serious diseases.
A National Dish
Ask just about anyone what the British National dish is and you’re likely to get one of three stock answers :
1.) Fish n’ Chips
2.) Sunday Roast
3.) Chicken Tikka masala
Number three is perfectly correct:
Britain’s national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala.
Let’s look into how this came to be…
For many years, you may remember, English cuisine was the butt of one too many predictable jokes. It was tough.
Geographically, the United Kingdom is a mere splash across the channel from a country so synonymous with Haute Gastronomie, that an unfavourable comparison is almost unavoidable. The British were never going to compete with Coq au vin and the Croquembouche, after all!
British cooking conjured up unappetising ideas of school dinners, tepid meat and two veg, one of which was a greying mashed potato, the other having been boiled to an inch of its life and thus devoid of any nutrition by the time it was plonked on your plate.
The desserts, or as we called them ‘puddings’, weren’t much to write home about either. Boarding school spotted dick with custard that began growing an unappealing skin the very second it was taken off the heat. Trifle as a special treat for a birthday party, but always served cold, and my goodness you better like gelatine.
So you can understand why these colourful dishes with unique and delightful tastes were automatically adopted. The addition of spices, such as turmeric, cardamon and ginger intrigued an audience unused to such perfumed delicacies. These aromas explain a large part of why Indian food became increasingly favored by the British.
As soon as people noticed that there was something appealing about such foods, it gave chefs fresh ideas and inspiration. The new imports allowing them to become more inventive with their menus and recipe choices.
A Colonial Past
Before the 1800s, Indian food was a mystery to the British.
The first Indian curry house – the Hindoostanee Curry House in London – opened its door in 1809, then promptly closed three short years later.
Why? Lack of business, they couldn’t get the customers.
You see, 18th century England was an era of pies, boiled and roasted meats and puddings. The British taste buds weren’t accustomed to anything but the blandest of palettes.
However, the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947 changed all of this. This was to have a big influence on the British diet, changing it once and for all.
As recipes of Indian food were brought back to Britain, the British Raj noticed military types as well as civil servants attempt to recreate meals they had eaten in India after they had been repatriated back to Britain.
It was clear that this was more than a passing trend for those who had been on deployment when Queen Victoria herself ate food prepared by Indian chefs and grew rather fond of their cuisine.
This ultimate celebrity backing, if you will, expanded the popularity of Indian cuisine like nothing else could have done.
Queen Victoria’s Indian staff would prepare her favourite Indian dishes to her taste, on demand.
Queen Victoria’s attachment to all things Indian was most famously portrayed when she appointed her much-loved Indian secretary.
In 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Karim was one of two Indians chosen to become servants to the Queen. Victoria came to like him a great deal, appointing him to be her Indian Secretary and showering him with honours. She obtained a land grant for him in India. Occasionally this caused tension with other members of the royal household.
Mohammed Abdul Karim, became known as “the Munshi” , meaning teacher or clerk. He served her during the final fourteen years of her reign, gaining her maternal affection over that time.
Discovering Daal (and all curries)
As a girl growing up in west London followed by rural Gloucestershire, my childhood wasn’t actually flavoured by warming curry flavoured memories.
I put the fact that I didn’t eat takeaway curry until I was sixteen with a boyfriend down to my father not having much of a tolerance for spicy food.
Later I discovered my mother would often get in a ready made M&S curry meal for one on the nights that she was eating in alone.
However, to say I was a little out of step with the times, as well as my peers wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Many of them had curry at home, both home-cooked and take away versions. In addition to my father’s somewhat pedestrian tastes for foods more foreign than French or Italian, we also lived the kind of rural where not one single restaurant takeaway delivered to us. NB, my childhood was well before the days of Deliveroo.
The cultural benchmarks for curry, even living on the agricultural side of rural Gloucestershire were that everyone from Wetherspoons to the pubs fancying themselves a bit gastro had curries on their menu.
Now in modern Britain , there are over 100,000 curry restaurants in the UK, employing upwards of 80,000 staff. Together the serve about 2.5 million customers weekly.
In addition to this veritable boom, the popularity of Indian cook books shows no signs of slowing down. Self-proclaimed British foodies are eager to create their own curries at home as well as forking out for a takeaway treat once a week. The advantages being financial, but also control over the ingredients.
Restaurants and takeaway outfits tend to add plenty of delicious tasting unhealthy ingredients; sugar, ghee, fatty oils. If like many Brits you love curry but your waistline doesn’t, you can see why home cooked curries have become a popular healthy answer to this new, nationwide craving.
Curry is deep-seated in British cultural consciousness.
It speaks volumes that as a Brit living in Paris for the best part of a decade, the only time that I ever feel homesick is when I visit ‘Velan épicerie’ in passage Brady near metro station Strasbourg Saint-Denis.
Here is there site, if you’re visiting and you read French.
London’s little India
It was probably London alongside other centres of Indian immigration in the North of England, which was best known for curry culture.
Brick Lane is the beating heart of India’s influence on British cuisine. It is a colourful, joyful mess of a neighbourhood, bursting with energy, spirit and Street Art.
Different cultures jostle jovially for space, living their different lives in close quarters, in a way that is so utterly London, you wouldn’t find it elsewhere.
Immigration of individuals from the Indian subcontinent continued, all bringing with them their traditional dishes. At some stage curry became a popular dish among the Brits. These meals were often altered and changed by the British.
In Hindu and Muslim culture alcohol is abhorred, and yet few could imagine tucking into their Brick Lane curry without a thirst quenching Indian Pale Ale.
In fact many restaurant owners on the Brick Lane mall, compete with each others’ set menus by offering a free bottle of basic wine to boot.
Brick Lane is the bustling heart of London’s little India. I cannot recommend a trip here strongly enough.
Coming out of Whitechapel tube station and down the street you will smell the spices infuse the city air. The garish, neon signs jump out at you beckoning you inside the many encourageable establishments.
This whole area is a no-brainer for where it’s at for all cuisine hailing from the Indian subcontinent.
Travelling up in the backstreets past Aldgate East towards Whitechapel rail you’ll find the overlord of Punjabi North Indian cuisine in the form of Tayyabs restaurant.
This traditional outfit was established in 1972, meaning they’ve been serving up award winning Indian cuisine for nearly half a century.
Customers range from city slickers to down n’ out art school students. However here, whatever your budget everyone is happy to pay the price for the undeniable quality and unrivaled consistency that are the benchmarks of Tayyabs’ success.
It’s not all Curry…
You’d be wrong to think that Indian cuisine is exclusively limited to curried meat and rice. In fact, many other Indian specialities became popular in Britain and were adapted to English tastes. One of these was chutney.
You can find chutney in many parts of the world where Indian folk have immigrated.
So what exactly is this Chutney?
Chutney is a sauce or even a dry base for a sauce. It is used with cuisines of the Indian subcontinent and can present in a variety of forms, including: a spicy coconut dip, a tomato relish, a ground peanut garnish, or indeed a dahi ( a yogurt dip) or indeed a cooling cucumber and mint dip.
An offshoot of chutney is usually made from a tart fruit such as sharp, zesty apples, rhubarb or damson pickle, tempered by adding equivalent amounts of demerara sugar to the mixture.
The English-style chutney showed a preference for adding vinegar to the recipe in a bid to preserve and enjoy autumn fruit throughout the year in the larder.
Whilst traditional Indian pickles use mustard oil as their pickling agent, the Anglo-Indian version opts for malt or cider vinegar for a milder taste. This renders the result ideal for enjoying with hard cheese or cold meats.
This sweet sort of chutney cheers up leftovers no end and is a staple in a small ceramic ramekin of the cold cuts pub lunch.
In second place, worthy of an honourable mention, we have a king of the snack lunch : The Samosa.
A samosa is a fried or baked pastry which has a savoury filling. This could be spiced potatoes, onions, peas, meat, or even lentils.
It may be made up in different shapes, however the most famous one is triangular. The Indian style samosa is often accompanied by a chutney.
Samosas enjoy popularity as a starter/ appetizer, or snack in the local cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. In Britain they have ballooned in size, allowing them to work well for either a lunch on the go, or a generous snack that will set you up for hours.
Curry, chutney and samosas go hand in hand.
Modern and Fusion Food
The youngest and hippest purveyors of Indian cuisine in the UK have learnt that it’s not all about sticking doggedly and rigidly to the classics: There is plenty of room for innovation and he who dares wins.
Let’s take a look at some of these movers and shakers who have opened the traditional curry house up to incorporate innovative takes on the great classics.
My ultimate favourite example of this type of modern Indian cuisine reworked is Dishoom.
Dishoom’s tagline is “from Bombay with love”. There site declares in English and Hindi ‘All Welcome’.
The decor and design hark back to a colonial past.
The exceptional food, ambiance and service are interwoven and inseparable from the romance of a backstory and a sense of romance that Dishoom communicate strongly with.
The menu is modern Indian revisited. This means that they are also rather well-known on the Londoner scene for their brunch. For groups of over six, you’d be wise to reserve.
When I first went to Dishoom, (before the paint was fully dry, during the period that every journalist, scenester and his dog was trying to get a table), I ended up queueing for upwards of an hour and a half.
This experience was made considerably more bearable thanks to the tipple of sherry and warming chai that I was offered on the house, whilst waiting in line.
The Dishoom kids have locations in Kensington, Shoreditch, Carnaby Street and Covent Garden in addition to their Kings Cross flagship, so you’ll be able to enjoy it without venturing too far, whichever neighbourhood you’re staying in.