By Jenny White
Originally published in Waitrose Weekend
With customers’ tastes evolving and a spirit of adventure growing among the UK’s diners, a new generation of restaurants is reaching beyond the traditional curry house format.
Barely a month seems to go by without the opening of a restaurant that breaks the British curry house mould. With a proliferation of new restaurants focusing on street food or authentic Indian home cooking, restaurateurs are responding to the needs of an increasingly well-travelled, open minded public keen to try new dishes or revisit food they have experienced in India.
A forerunner of the trend was London’s Roti Chai, which opened in 2011 as an all day café-style street kitchen.
“With so much coverage around food on TV, in print and online, and with people being so well travelled, diners are more knowledgeable and aware than they’ve ever been,” says founder Rohit Chugh.
“As a result we find there are so many guests keen to try new things and experiences and who understand the incredible diversity of cuisine from across the sub-continent.”
Other restaurants have picked up the street food theme by incorporating it into their main menus: in South Wales, for instance, Rasoi’s restaurants – one in Pontlliw and the other in Swansea’s waterfront – offer street classic aloo tikki alongside lesser known regional specialities such as Lucknow chicken or Hyderabadi lamb.
Meanwhile, London’s Dishoom mini-chain has five restaurants that lovingly recreate the Irani-run cafes of Mumbai. The approach is nostalgic but the aim is the same: to broaden the British experience of Indian food.
“In some ways, Britain still slightly thinks about India in terms of clichés – Bollywood, curry houses, cricket, maharajahs,” says co-owner Shamil Thakrar.
“When we started thinking about Dishoom, we really wanted to subvert all the clichés around Indian food and tell a different story – something that would make Indians feel cool and nostalgic, and that would surprise and delight people who thought they ‘knew’ Indian culture.”
The solution was to recreate the Irani cafes that Shamil and his cousin Kavi remembered so fondly from childhood trips to Mumbai.
“They made a massive contribution to Bombay life. They genuinely were the first places in the city anyone of any caste, class or religion was welcome to have a cup of chai or a bite to eat.”
In the 1960s there were around 400 across Mumbai but now only about 20 remain, so Dishoom became a way to revisit this treasured tradition while offering British diners something new.
While restaurants like Dishoom have taken Indian dining in the UK into new territories, traditional British curry houses have not stood still.
“You don’t have have to change your restaurant to change your food offering,” says Pasha Khandaker, president of the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association. “Curry houses are constantly adapting their menus as people’s food habits change.”
Khandaker says that of the approximately 12,000 curry houses in the UK, the majority are run by British Bangladeshis. However, to describe these as Bangladeshi restaurants would be missing the point.
“You cannot say the British curry house is Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani – it’s British,” says Khandaker. “It has a style of cooking that is very difficult to find anywhere else in the world.”
He adds that customer demand has not declined – and the success of newcomers such as Gunpowder in Spitalfields certainly supports his belief that the British appetite for curry is as ravenous as ever. There’s never been a better time to support the industry by going out for a wonderful spicy meal.
Meet the Chef: Nirmal Save
New Spitalfields arrival Gunpowder majors in Indian home-style cooking. Head chef Nirmal Save draws on childhood memories and years spent cooking in leading Indian restaurants to create his unique menus.
Fresh from a trip to India, Nirmal Save is bursting with new ideas for the Gunpowder menu.
“I returned to my family farm and explored new regional dishes across the country, so I’ve got lots of inspiration,” says the Mumbai-born chef who is taking London by storm with his vibrant, home-style Indian cooking.
He is now working with Gunpowder’s owner Harneet Baweja to refine the new additions to the restaurant’s menu. These include a “brilliant rabbit dish” Nirmal learnt from his mum, who is a key reference point for many of the restaurant’s dishes.
Housed in an old curry house, Gunpowder opened in November as a tiny, trendily utilitarian space named after the spice mix of the same name, a heady mix of pulses and spices including chilli, curry leaves and ‘hing’, Hindi for Asafoetida.
The name is a statement of intent: diners can expect truly explosive favours.
“The menu recreates the vibrant flavour and confident spicing that I love about home-cooked Indian food,” says Nirmal.
“I started cooking at the age of 12, inspired by my grandmother and mother’s passion for regional delicacies. They introduced me to a world of incredible flavours and I was constantly testing new recipes, trying to unearth their secrets.
“I grew up on my family farm which meant I was surrounded by fresh produce, catching game, digging up vegetables and collecting fruit from the Sapodilla trees. It was a true playground for cooking and I certainly made the most of it.”
Nirmal went on to earn his stripes in the kitchens of The Oberoi in his hometown of Mumbai before moving to London to work at at Indian Zest, Tamarind in Mayfair and Imil Street.
“My experiences in these professional kitchens honed my skills and I was fortunate to work with top chefs.”
His career took a new direction after he met Harneet and his wife, Devina in 2014. They shared his passion for the flavours of home and wanted to bring those flavours to London.
“We have all grown up surrounded by incredible food that we haven’t been able to find the likes of in London. To solve this, we opened Gunpowder.”
The team have stayed true to the favourite family recipes they grew up with, but they have modernized them with different cooking techniques.
“There’s so much more to Indian food than lashings of gravy (no bad thing in itself) but we wanted to showcase the depth of flavour in Indian spices and add our own take.”
Popular offerings include a venison and vermicelli doughnut; a chutney cheese sandwich; Nagaland house crispy pork ribs and Sigree-grilled broccoli.
While many return customers make it their mission to taste everything on the menu, they can rest assured that this task will never be completed, because Nirmal and his team are always working on new creations.
“We’re a really close-knit team with everyone involved in developing new dishes, especially tasting. It’s a great environment in which to work.”
Signature dish: Venison & Vermicelli Doughnut
“Gunpowder’s founders, Devina and Harneet Baweja, grew up in Calcutta where one of their favourite street-snacks was mutton chop and chutney. We took this as inspiration and fused it with my love of game from my days on the farm, resulting in a spicy Venison doughnut encased in a crunchy vermicelli golden shell, served with fennel and chilli chutney.
“It’s a fun take on a favourite Indian snack and it’s quickly established itself as a Gunpowder staple. We even find many of our first-time customers asking after it. It embodies what we strive to do at Gunpowder: experiment with dishes from our childhood using the best available produce and introduce them to London.”