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Bland menu no more, London goes hot on spicy desi food

world Updated: Dec 13, 2013 00:31 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar

British food habits took on a tingling Indian flavour ever since Patna resident Sake Dean Mohamed opened the first Indian restaurant, ‘Hindoostanee Coffee House’, in central London in 1810, but the latest spice route to the belly has gone distinctly regional.

For long, Britain’s love affair with ‘Indian food’ meant dishes with a north Indian flavour, offered by restaurants with cooks from the Indian sub-continent who put together dishes such as ‘chicken tikka masala’ and ‘curry’ that were suited more to the British palate.

Over the years, the Indian food industry grew exponentially and is today estimated to be worth £3.5 billion.

But at a time when many restaurants struggle to hire cooks from the sub-continent due to new visa restrictions, several outlets offering authentic Indian regional fare have spuring up, much to the delight of British connoisseurs of Indian food as well as immigrants from India.

Until some time ago, people of Indian origin or new Indian immigrants would complain that the so-called ‘Indian’ food available in Britain is not the real thing – it is customised to the British taste, and is not spicy enough to satisfy the ‘desi’ palate.

The situation cannot be more different now, with several well-known Indian restaurant chains opening branches in various towns, and new immigrants opening outlets offering authentic fare from their respective culinary regions in India.

Branches of restaurant chains such as Chennai Dosa and Sarvana Bhavan offering south Indian fare at modest prices do brisk business in London and elsewhere, while Southall remains as the epitome of authentic north Indian fare.

Chennai Dosa, considered the fastest growing chain in Britain, opened its first restaurant in East London in 2003, and now has 11 branches in Britain, including seven across London. Sarvana Bhavan has six branches, including five in London.

Chennai Dosa claims that after opening the first branch in 2003, “within a year we became the largest dosa maker in Europe. We brought about a radical change in the way South Indian food was defined in Europe”.

Some entrepreneurs have opened region-specific restaurants that are doing brisk business.

Notable among these is the Shri Krishna Vada Pav, opened in Hounslow and Harrow by entrepreneurs from Mumbai, offering ‘vada pav’ for £1, and other Maharashtrian fare such as ‘pav bhaji’, ‘misal pav’ and ‘bhel puri’.

Many ‘Indian’ restaurants here are owned by earlier immigrants from Bangladesh, with fare often customised to the British palate.

For example, the popular ‘chicken tikka masala’ dish is a British invention, while some insist that the ‘balti’ cuisine also originated in Birmingham.

As the new outlets offering authentic regional Indian fare do brisk business, many family owned ‘Indian restaurants’ established decades ago have closed as children of owners prefer other professions, while others try to innovate to remain in business.

The David Cameron government has been encouraging unemployed British citizens of south Asian origin, as well as others, to enrol in courses to train as chefs to meet the shortage in the Indian food industry.