Ben Norum takes a look at Indian food in London in the first part of a blog series exploring the world of cuisines on offer in London, created in honour of Taste of London’s most international year yet and a truly global summer for London.
No cuisine is as embedded in the British psyche as Indian, and no high street is complete without a curry house. Therefore it’s no surprise that statistics show Indian to be our most popular alternative to traditional British dishes, way ahead of next runners Chinese and Italian.
Recent years have seen a tide of change for Indian cuisine. Whilst ubiquitous anglo-indian curries and ready-meal chicken tikka masala will always have their place, us Brits are starting - slowly - to take into account the style of cooking which actually goes on in India, and the vast regional differentiations within it.
There is not really any such thing as true ‘Indian’ food, but rather an excess of thirty different regional cuisines which just happen to come from that same, vast country. Take a look at this list of some of them on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.
It’s Britain more than any other country which tends to lump all these cuisines together. And this is without even getting started on the cuisines of countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, which we’re often all too happy to call Indian, as well.
Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle’ has been the traditional home of Indian in the UK, with over fifty Indian restaurants spanning many of these different regions. And here in London, we all know Brick Lane as the place to go for a curry. So long as you don’t mind fending off the ever-competitive touts outside each establishment, that is.
Just as China Town is no longer where the most exciting Chinese cooking takes place, Brick Lane isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Too many times have I ended a night there with enthusiastic bartering leading on to greasy bhajis and gelatinous curries before an argument over the bill because apparently that prawn dish wasn’t included in the specially negotiated offer and no one thought this might be useful information to pass on at the point of ordering.
I find the more recent move of Indian cuisine into the finer dining arena much more exciting. It’s not about poncy waiters and starched tablecloths, but about a finesse and intricacy which so suits the spiced nature of Indian dishes, and about treating the cuisine with the respect it deserves, using good quality ingredients as you would with any other. A truly great Indian chef can create towering layers of flavour and dishes that provide a whole taste journey with every mouthful. Indian done well can border on the magical.
There’s a small scattering of restaurants across the capital which can claim to offer food of this standard. Some of these are tucked away and reserved solely for those in the know, and I’ll get to these in a minute. But spearheading the move and laying the groundwork for the rest are a core of more high-profile chefs who manage to take time out of cooking to fly the proverbial flag on a national and international level, changing the cheap & cheerful (or indeed dirt cheap & dirty) image of your neighbourhood curry joint to show off the full potential of Indian cooking.
Atul Kochar, chef at Michelin-starred Benares in Mayfair is perhaps the country’s best known Indian chef, and having been lucky enough to try his food on several occasions (in the restaurant and at previous Taste festivals, as it happens) I can vouch for his talent. Vivek Singh of Westminster’s Cinnamon Club has also become something of a celebrity ambassador of late. After ten years of running his flagship restaurant, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. The newer, less formal spin-off restaurants Cinnamon Kitchen in the City and Cinnamon Soho, which opened just last week, are testament to his success.
Alfred Pasad may have less time in the spotlight, but his restaurant Tamarind certainly isn’t camera shy. Another Michelin-starred joint, it’s not only wooing London diners, but has recently expanded to Los Angeles. The fact that a British restaurant can cross borders to offer Indian food to the Americans shows just how big it is here. Indeed, London alone boasts three Michelin-starred Indian restaurants: Benares, Tamarind and Quilon. Coming from an organisation not known for its fondness of out of Europe cuisines, this is quite an achievement.
So, with your appetite whet, you’re probably wondering where to go for Indian, then?
Benares, Tamarind, Quilon and Cinnamon Club are undoubtedly the big four, and each one is worth a visit and worth the money. More budget friendly offerings come courtesy of their offspring, Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho, as well as the less formal but still fantastic Imli from the Tamarind stable.
Namaaste Kitchen in Camden isn’t yet as well known, but really ought to be. They’re currently showing off monthly changing regional menus from across India. Fast and furious Punjabi kebab house Tayyabs in Whitechapel is justifiably famous in foodie circles and not unaccustomed to out-the-door queues, but worth the wait if you haven’t yet experienced the succulence of their lamb chops.
Further out, try Saravana Bhavan in East Ham for authentic vegetarian dishes from south India, or the nearby Chennai Dosa if you fancy some meat. Down south, Ghandi’s in Kennington is as renowned for its fine spicing and regional menu as it is for being the scene of much political plotting from MPs who’ve crossed the bridge from Westminster, and Sree Krishna is just one of many rough & ready but excitingly authentic Indian eateries in Tooting.
Where would you recommend? Please leave suggestions in the comments or tweet @TasteofLondon and I’ll do my best to check them out. Hard life.
You’ll find Benares, Tamarind and Cinnamon Soho at Taste of London this year, where you’ll be able to taste their signature dishes. Find out about what's on offer and booking tickets here.
By Ben Norum | @BenNorum