England’s National Dish: Chicken Tikka Masala

Some things you may associate with London are British accents, Big Ben, and those cute black taxi cabs. You think about the royal family and football matches and black tea…but how about Chicken Tikka Masala?

Traditional British food has less than remarkable reviews. My tastebuds don’t necessarily water at the thought of bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, and black pudding. Chicken Tikka Masala, veggie samosas, and naan bread, however, is a different story.

According to London’s most recent 2011 census, 262,247 people living in London were born in India, which is the highest of any other immigrant group. Beginning in the nineteenth century, South Asian immigration rates became substantial. Many Indians came to Great Britain as scholars, seamen, soldiers, and businessmen. Among one of the earliest and most famous 18th-century Bengali immigrants was Sake Dean Mahomed. He was a captain of the East India Company and founded London’s first Indian restaurant, called the Hindoostane Coffee House. We can thank Mr. Mohamed for introducing delicious Indian cuisine to the UK.

Much of the assumed ‘Indian’ food actually originates from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. According to The Independent newspaper, in 1939, there were six Indian restaurants in Britain, and by 2005, that number increased to 8,500. Remarkably, there are supposedly more Indian food chefs in London than in New Delhi.

And for good reason. The cuisine is incredibly popular, with many Davis students raving about their curry-filled experiences in London. Brick Lane is one street in London where Indian, or more precisely Bengali and Bangladeshi, culture resides. According to one London blogger, Brick Lane “has long been considered the home of the best curry” houses. Today, rows and rows of both trendy and traditional Indian restaurants compete to sell their spice-filled cuisine: cardamom, turmeric, coriander, cumin—you name it. It has evolved into a youthful and eclectic neighborhood known for its funky style, graffiti, and trendy cafes. Brick Lane is just southeast of the ‘hipster’ neighborhood of Shoreditch, which has been called the Los Angeles of London at times.

“There was a line like at Disneyland,” one student said.

One of the trendier Indian restaurants with its jazzy Bombay vibes and eclectic Art Deco decór is Dishoom. There are five locations in London, which are so highly rated you most definitely need a reservation. “There was a line like at Disneyland,” one student said about it. She added, “I waited in line but it was taking too long, so I left. I was so sad about it.”

It was “a good mix of London posh culture with flavorful Indian-inspired cuisine.”

Another student who studied Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE) for a quarter was more in the know — she dined at Dishoom regularly throughout the quarter and at several locations. She laughed, “I lived at Dishoom!” She added, “all the bartenders wear white button-downs with sleeves rolled up and suspenders…and all have beards — it looked like Los Angeles.” Of course, it’s not a traditional Indian food restaurant resembling the first curry houses on Brick Lane; it’s more glamorous. It was “a good mix of London posh culture with flavorful Indian-inspired cuisine.”

Photo courtesy of knightbridgemanagement.co.uk

For students planning to study or travel to London, “the star” of Dishoom’s menu is the black daal, which, according to the menu, is cooked for “over 24 hours for extra harmony.” Other favorites include the cheese naan, lamb samosas, and the chili cheese toast, which apparently is like an open face grilled cheese. And don’t forget to make a reservation!

Another student’s parents met her in London together, they “randomly chose a spot on side of the road” somewhere in east London. She said it was on the quieter side and probably family-owned, but the waiters were incredibly friendly. They all ordered curry dishes, and her parents, who had traveled throughout India, said the food was really similar, if not better.

The restaurants mentioned above vary in their style and experience. Whether its a small family-owned restaurant or one with a more contemporary feel, all draw in locals and tourists alike with their aromatic appeal. The proliferation of Indian restaurants sprouting up throughout London lend themselves to the idea that an exploration of the city’s Indian cuisine should be on every tourists’ or traveling student’s to-do list.