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What's Hot in London

The city known for its love of spicy fast-food curry is warming up to India's regional cuisines, from Keralan to Parsee.

Curry has long been to London what pizza is to New York City or cheese steak is to Philadelphia: the one thing you can order at almost any corner restaurant and count on getting a reliably decent meal. That's not surprising, since curry is a word coined by the British while they were governing India during the 1800s. In England curry has become a blanket term for almost any Anglo-Indian dish served in a spiced sauce, such as vindaloo or masala, with flavors as generic as the premixed spice blends all the shops seem to use.

Now London is starting to offer Indian food as diverse as India itself—which, with almost a billion people, 14 main languages and a climate that ranges from the icy Himalayas to monsoon-drenched tropics, is diverse indeed. When I returned to London after living in southern India in the mid-1980s, I could find south Indian food only in small cafés in suburbs that had large Asian populations, like Tooting, where I now live. But in the last few years, high-end Indian restaurants serving authentic regional cuisine have been opening up all over the city. Some have even taken the next step, creating inventive renditions of regional dishes that are so refined they have earned the restaurants Michelin stars.

For years it was difficult to bring in top-caliber chefs from India because of Britain's strict immigration policies, but the government relaxed the rules last year. That helped Cinnamon Club hire its chef, Vivek Singh, from an exclusive hotel in Jaipur and open to great fanfare in April. Iqbal Wahhab, the owner, spent three years and nearly $5 million to build the Cinnamon Club inside a grand and sober former library. Part of Wahhab's mission is personal vindication: The founder and former editor-in-chief of Tandoori magazine, he is determined to confound his critics, to "modernize" and elevate London's Indian food by using less ghee (clarified butter), subtler flavors and the elaborate presentation normally associated with European haute cuisine. Singh turns out dishes that any Michelin-starred chef would be proud of: kedgeree (Indian risotto) that's artfully topped with deep-fried lentil patties and desserts such as samosas made of carrot halwa served with cardamom yogurt sorbet. We'll have to wait and see if the Michelin inspectors agree.

The Cinnamon Club's competitors, Tamarind and Zaika, got their Michelin stars just this year and were the first Indian restaurants—anywhere—to earn such honors. (The Michelin guidebook has been criticized often for being too Francophile and not giving "ethnic" cuisines credit, so these stars were long overdue.) Tamarind looks no different from any of the sleek international hotel restaurants nearby—even its wait staff is predominantly non-Asian—but chef Atul Kochar's menu is as north Indian as north Indian gets, with elegantly multilayered flavors. His biryani, a classic slow-baked rice with richly spiced meat and vegetables, is one of the best you'll find anywhere.

Vineet Bhatia, chef of Zaika, is also north Indian, but anyone expecting the true flavors of the subcontinent will have to look elsewhere. Dishes such as sea bass drizzled with spicy pureed lentils and served with a mound of upma (Indian couscous), and samosas stuffed with chocolate instead of the usual savory fillings helped earn Bhatia his Michelin star just a year and a half after opening, but, like those at the Cinnamon Club, the food is almost European in its appearance and flavors. Zaika has left the curry house—and the Indian village—far behind.

Although London's top haute-cuisine Indian restaurants focus on flavors from northern India, less expensive establishments are turning out authentic dishes from other parts of the country. When Das Sreedharan opened the restaurant Rasa seven years ago in Stoke Newington, it was the first restaurant outside India devoted entirely to Keralan cuisine. Now he has four branches, each serving a different style of Keralan food.

The food of Kerala, a southwest-Indian region with inland waterways, palm trees and paddies, is rice- and coconut-based—nothing like the rich, meaty curries most British people eat. Instead of hot chiles, the cuisine relies on mild but complex spices and has more in common with Thai cooking than with chicken tikka masala: thorans, aromatically spiced dry stir-fries of vegetables such as cabbage or beetroot; the thin rice crêpes called dosai; and the vibrant turmeric yellow of moru kachiathu, a curry of yogurt, mango and plantain spiced with curry leaves, fresh ginger and mustard seeds.

Small and out of the way as it is, Rasa was quickly acclaimed as one of the best Indian restaurants in town. With a packed dining room every night and a couple of awards under his belt, Sreedharan was soon able to open branches in the high-rent center of London: Rasa Samudra, specializing in Keralan seafood, and Rasa Travancore, serving more meat-intensive dishes. (Most Keralans are Hindu, so the cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, but there is a large minority of Christians who have their own cooking style and supplement their diet with beef and pork.)

Following in the footsteps of Rasa, several restaurants serving food from other Indian regions have opened up in central London. Chef Cyrus Todiwala, who had already built up a stellar reputation at several London Indian restaurants (most notably at Café Spice Namaste on the edge of the financial district), this year opened up The Parsee, which serves just Parsee specialties. The Parsee community in Bombay is a wealthy ethnic minority originally from Persia who are renowned within India for their winning ways with dried fruit served with meat stews and unusual Persian-influenced sweet-and-sour flavors. Dhansak is probably the most well-known—and poorly imitated—Parsee dish: a spicy lamb curry with a lentil and vegetable puree served with pulao rice, which is flavored with star anise and browned onion.

Ginger, a Bangladeshi restaurant, is another recent addition. Ironically, most of London's so-called "Indian" restaurants are not run by Indians, but by Bangladeshis. Yet only now has a Bangladeshi restaurant that fully represents the cuisine's true flavors opened up. Albert Gomes, the chef, was recently recruited from a five-star hotel in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Fish and seafood dishes are featured heavily on the menu, and mustard oil is more commonly used than chiles to give dishes heat. Tiger prawns baked in a coconut shell with mustard paste are popular, partly because baking is a homestyle method of cooking rarely found in Indian restaurants. And Ginger's curries include unusual ingredients, like goat and green plantain, that certify the restaurant's authenticity. At the same time, the vivid aquamarine walls, silver banquettes and polished concrete tables make clear that Ginger does not intend to be mistaken for a corner curry joint.

Just as the chop suey shacks in America during the 1960s eventually led to Cantonese and Szechuan restaurants, London's formulaic curry houses have laid the groundwork for the authentic regional restaurants of today. In a recent speech, Britain's chief foreign affairs adviser, Robin Cook, declared that chicken tikka masala is "Britain's true national dish"—to hoots of derision. His critics may have laughed because Mr. Cook was using this dish as a symbol of what he sees as the country's tolerant multiculturalism, which they think is a sham. But perhaps they should be laughing because curries may soon look as outdated on take-out menus in London as chop suey does in America today.

Guy Dimond is the food and drink editor at Time Out magazine in London.

Published December 2001
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