While he’s on the road or in the kitchen, Chef Andrew Gerson is always investigating the cultural and culinary landscapes of the cities around him. The Mash Files are snapshots of each city on our Mash Tour in Chef Andrew’s own words. Read about Chef Andrew’s experiences with traditional and innovative Indian food while in London, then check our Mash site for when he’ll be in your neighborhood.
Over the last twenty years, Indian food has become as ubiquitous in Britain as fish and chips, or a good pasty. On this year’s Mash tour stop in London, I set out to trace the roots of Indian cuisine and see how modern Indian food was being interpreted and integrated into the vast array of local eateries.
Whether you are visiting the rows of curry houses on Brick Lane or venturing far West into the heart of Southall for Punjabi fare, you will find a lot of similarity in London’s Indian offerings. Indian cuisine in London has not developed much since the first tandoori restaurants opened in Southall in the 1960′s. It almost feels like the food cooked by Indian immigrants there today is a throwback to that bygone era, an India of older times.
Our trek out to Southall reinforced this idea as we spoke to the owners of Chaudhry’s TKC, founded in 1964 as one of the first Indian restaurants in Southall. When they first arrived in Southall, the community was largely Hindu and Sikh from the Punjab/Pakistan region. Since then it has diversified to include many other religions (especially Islam) and nationalities (Polish, Turkish, Somali and more.) The neighborhood has morphed with the times and varying cultural integrations, but the menu has continued to rely on traditional Pubjabi dishes making heavy use of the tandoori cooking technique. The TKC family has grown with the neighborhood as well. Today, Chaudhry’s sons and cousins also operate Tandoori Express and Jalebi’s Junction, serving a variety of Chaats (snacks) and the famous jalebi, a deep-fried wheat maida flour batter formed into pretzel-like shapes and soaked in sugar syrup.
The community of Southall is largely centered around two Sri Guru Singh Sabhas, the Sikh temples of Southall. Established in the 1950s on the site of a former dairy farm, SGSSS is now the largest Gurdwara outside of India. Each day the communal kitchen, staffed entirely by volunteers, feeds about 1,000 guests who come to eat, socialize, and pray at the temple. The meals are free or donation-based for all visitors.
We were welcomed in to the kitchen to find about twenty middle-aged men and women working as one to prepare the daily offerings of house-made yoghurt, paneer, fresh griddled chapattis, dhal, vegetable curry, mitha dahi, and endless cups of masala tea. The food is typical of the Punjabi region, where many of the temple’s worshipers emigrated from. The serenity of the temple and its faithful were incredible to witness as I sat cross-legged on the floor and ate my meal in silence, only broken by the smiles and slightly quizzical glances of the other worshipers.
It wasn’t until I stepped foot in Benares to interview owner and Chef Atul Kochnar that I experienced a fresh, modern take on Indian cuisine in London. Chef Atul, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, began his culinary career in India before moving to London in the 90′s. His cuisine is based on spice and flavor profiles from all regions of India, but relies heavily on local British ingredients. I was blown away as course after course pushed the boundaries of what one traditionally considers Indian food.
Over a bottle of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, Chef Atul and I discussed the impact that Britain has had on his development as a chef and how it has inspired his food. What I found most interesting was that young Indian chefs are now journeying to London to work under and learn from Chef Atul. As much as I enjoy a good curry and some crisp, pillowy Naan bread to accompany it, I am always inspired by chefs who are reinventing their traditional foods and utilizing local ingredients in their innovative dishes. The food in any country is constantly evolving, and Chef Atul is on the cutting edge of expressing what Indian food can be around the world.