The UK has a longstanding link with Indian food. In fact, it is considered by many to be the national dish, or at least the Birmingham invented Chicken Tikka Masala is.
This is possibly because Indian food is so tasty when compared to the more subtle flavours of traditional British cuisine, where in the past the more interesting kinds of spices weren’t available.
It could also be because Indian food has been a staple part of British life since before anyone can remember. The UK’s first Indian restaurant was opened in London way back in 1810, by the man who is credited to bringing the cuisine to Europe, Sake Dean Mahomed. Interestingly, but slightly off topic, he was also the man who introduced shampoo to Europe.
As with most cuisines, Indian food has changed rapidly in the last few years as people’s demand for food has varied. There are still people in the UK who associate Indian restaurants with flock wallpaper, Asian pipe music and dinner suited waiters attempting to find tables in the murky almost darkness.
It’s true, some of these traditional British curry houses still exist, but they are far from the majority and are unlikely to be the trend setters.
There is also a shift away from the term ‘curry houses’ and even ‘Indian restaurants’. This is because a lot of the food associated with curry and Indian cuisine has nothing to do with either. In fact, most restaurants which would come under the term ‘Indian’ in the UK are in fact Bangladeshi. Others are Pakistani, Nepalese and Sri Lankan.
However, there are still a lot of eateries that do offer genuine Indian cuisine.
Perhaps the biggest shift in modern Indian cuisine is towards street food. In terms of Indian cuisine in London this shift has been more towards a modern way of cooking, presenting and serving the food as opposed to food that is sold on the streets by vendors. No longer is an Indian meal a curry, a rice, a naan and an onion bhaji on the side.
Here are a few Indian Street food sellers to look out for in London.
This has been around for ten years as a street food stall in Camden market. It also has stalls at London Bridge and in Brixton. It built up such a loyal following that it opened up a 50 cover restaurant, also found in Camden Market.
The full name of the restaurant is Baba G’s Bhangra Burger and as the name suggests it specialises in Asian spiced burgers. Crazy Lamb Jalfrezi, Naga Delhi Double and the Cheeky Tikka Chicken burgers feature, as does the Paneer Saag Burger for the veggies.
It also has an interesting take on the sharing menu. As well as loaded fires it also features ‘Pachos’. Like nachos except the toppings are Asian as opposed to Mexican. As for the nachos themselves? They’re popadoms, of course.
This is a restaurant featured in one of London’s Boxparks, fantastic centres for street food and other specialities in the capital.
Koolcha, a play on the stuffed bread Kulcha is based at the Wembley Boxpark. It serves small plates, quickly, as it is often called into high demand with the Wembley crowds. It’s kind of like an Indian version of tapas.
It is a set up brought by two people who have a much more exclusive Indian restaurant in London’s Chelsea. Here, the dishes are similar, the tastes are just as good but the price is much more easy on the wallet.
There’s a rather well to do South Indian speciality restaurant in Baker Street that has grown a well deserved reputation as a pioneer in what is considered modern Asian cuisine.
However, calling it street food is a bit of a stretch, especially if one finds themselves seated in its opulent restaurant.
However, Oooty Station next door is a different story. The food is just as fantastic, the decor is also pretty lush too, however the prices and most significantly the service style is vastly different.
This is bar snacks, like chicken wings and crispy squid and Indian snack bowls filled with curries and Indian casseroles. All tasting pretty good when washed down with a Chai Martini.
It is thought by many that the ‘curry revolution’, the point where people realised that Indian restaurants didn’t have to all be the same, started with the legendary Cinnamon Club in London. This was one of the first restaurants which started to realise that Asian food had endless possibilities and could be served how anyone wanted it to be served.
The take at Cinnamon Club is modern but it remains an exclusive and expensive restaurant. However, one of the original founders has come up with a new project, one that is aimed a little bit more at the casual food end of the market. A restaurant that is cheaper and serves something a little closer to street food.
Darbaar takes influences from across the length and breadth of India and beyond. This means that there are a few out and out classics, such as lamb rogan josh and butter chicken, but there are also Madagascar prawns or baked leg of rabbit to try too.
Hankies has a couple of locations, one being a small Indian Cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue, the other, newer one is part of the Montcalm Hotel in Marble Arch and seems to have been opened as a direct consequence of the success of the first.
This is another outlet that has interpreted street food as a kind of alternative tapas, serving small, inexpensive plates to share amongst the table. It works extremely well, the feeling of a full meal can be achieved with around four or five plates but the bill at the end remains reasonable.
The most expensive dish is the rib-eye steak which only costs £9. The truffle naan would also be something from the menu that’s at the ‘extravagant’ end.
Other dishes include garlic prawn skewers and black lentil stew.
Pop Brixton is a temporary set up which has transformed land in Brixton that wasn’t being utilised into a space for independent businesses and start ups. This is where Kricket started life, as a pop up food vendor, albeit a food vendor that quickly garnered a fantastic reputation and a loyal following.
Nowadays it’s a little more permanent with its premises in Denman Street in trendy Soho, Atlantic Road, Brixton and Television Centre in White City.
These are small Indian plates made out of the very best British ingredients. There are also wraps, ideal for takeaway lunches and plenty of vegetarian options too.
There’s a great kids menu, satisfyingly without a British option of sausage and chips in sight and a pretty good line in bottled and draught craft beers.
These are pretty unique. They are based on Iranian Cafes that were opened in India by immigrants from the former country. At one time they were based all over Bombay and were known to be elegant places that welcomed all classes of people from any walk of life with any job or any religion.
Busy, bustling places where tables were shared, they are sadly dying out in India. Dishoom pays tribute to them with its five locations in London. Restaurants can also be found in Manchester and Edinburgh too.
The experience in these cafes has been brought up to modern times and serves small plates of thick, warming curry and fragrant grilled meats.
The takeaway is where the street food comes into its own, the spicy charred chicken stuffed breads are perfect to snack on whilst on the go.
Where else would the best Indian street food come from than from India’s biggest food festival? That food festival is the famous Grub Fest and the Lokhandwala restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia is by exactly the same team who created it.
The specialty here is small, tapas like plates but with a healthy twist. Take the shots that are recommended for the first course, for example. Vegan Vedic smoothies.
There’s lots of choice, many of the ingredients have been taken from centuries old Indian books on wellbeing but have been brought back with a bang into the twenty first century. Some have even been fused with Mexican cuisine to create the ultimate in unique dishes.
At the rear of the restaurant is a pretty good cocktail bar, The Hot House. It provides all the usual suspects along with plenty of Asian themed concoctions.
The all day dining concept at Chai Ki is what makes it unique. It’s breakfast offerings like a bacon roll flavoured with tamarind ketchup, or a bowl of cinnamon porridge aren’t found anywhere else and its bar plates on offer later in the day continue the theme.
There’s conventional curries available, of course, but why have something that can be found everywhere when you can be tucking into a speciality burger or a few sharing plates?