60 South Asian Dishes Every Londoner Should Know
Part 1: Aloo Paratha to Haleem
In 2012, just before he left LA Weekly to jump ship to the Los Angeles Times, the restaurant critic Jonathan Gold bequeathed the city of Los Angeles a present disguised as a listicle. The present was called ‘60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know’ and by rights should have been a clickbait list of dishes designed to provoke controversy for about a week before the next critic came in. What Gold wrote instead was extraordinary – a 12,000-word tour de force of food and city writing that, yes, took in kimbap and bulgogi, but also restaurants specialising in deadly blowfish stews, Xinjiang restaurants that cater solely towards Koreans, food from the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, the traditional food of 1960s Seoul that has been preserved in aspic in another city and modern fast food atrocities like the Grand Prix pizza, something so large that “it threatens to dent the space-time continuum”.
Reading Gold’s culinary cartography left a huge impression on me five years after its publication, like I know it did for many people who read it contemporaneously. When talking to Matt Rodbard, the co-editor of Taste, recently, he mentioned how formative the list was during his research for the Koreatown book he co-authored with Deuki Hong. The ‘should know’ part of the title was crucial – Gold positions Koreatown as the absolute geographical centre of the city, and Korean food as its spiritual locus. There’s a moral imperative there: Angelenos should know these dishes, they should know their city and they should know who it is that makes its food culture unique. For me, 5,000 miles away, the influence was more complicated: I read it with a mounting despair and jealousy that London had nothing like this, that there were barely five dishes on the list I could find in New Malden.
It’s taken me a few years of writing about London to shake this inferiority complex off. The problem isn’t that we don’t have a thriving Korean (or Mexican) food culture; it is that we never seem to celebrate what we do actually have. London is, as we are often told, home to many cultures, a city where you can get any cuisine within a mile radius – but it does have a vernacular and it should be named. If Koreatown is, as Gold asserts “functionally a distant district of Seoul – in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine” then the entire city of London is the South Asian subcontinent, tilted on its axis, shaken up and compressed into the boundaries of the M25. Its compass points are north-west by east by south-west. Its ends: East Ham, Tooting, Hounslow, Harrow, Southall, Croydon, Ilford and Wembley. Its twinned cities: Lahore, Calcutta, Dhaka, Amritsar, Peshawar, Colombo, Bombay, Karachi, Chennai, Sylhet, Surat and Mombasa.
There are immediate problems with putting together a South Asian guide to London, the first being: ‘Where do you stop?’ Not just in number, which could have run to the thousands, but in the actual physical boundaries of South Asia. There is no agreed definition: of course, it contains India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, countries which have huge diaspora communities in London, but there is also Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives and even Iran. When cuisine doesn’t adhere to national boundaries, when it seeps across borders, categories can only be arbitrary. My own criteria are easily contestable, but I’ve made the decision to cap it at Nepal in the north, Sri Lanka in the south, Bangladesh in the east and Balochistan and the porous Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the west. Still, there are dishes here from Burmese and Iranian restaurants, showing that food never obeys the easy rules we’d like them to.
An even bigger quandary was how to deal with food of South Asian origin that has spread across the world due to economically-driven enterprise and the flow of indentured labour. Are Trini doubles a South Asian dish? Is Malaysian roti canai? Maybe, but daunted by the idea of trying to fit most of the world into 60 dishes I will save these dishes of mixed parentage for another time. However, I have made an exception for the food preserved and changed in East Africa, a migratory route that is in recent memory and has fundamentally altered the register of South Asian food in London, particularly in the Gujarati communities of north-west London and most of your favourite famous Indian restaurants.
When starting to compile this guide, it soon became clear to me that no one person can write it. There is no ‘South Asian’ experience in London, nor is it a united cuisine. Anything that attempts to be comprehensive must take into account the multiplicity of tastes that exist in the diaspora: the ride-or-die Pakistani love for lamb, vegetarian palates refined enough to judge a good idli on sight, a tolerance for spice and the absurd, and a ruinous taste for desserts so sweet you’ll happily suffer a migraine to finish a box. These dishes are not confined to star-chasing Mayfair hotels or Soho restaurants with prices to make your mum cry, but they are diffused across the city and we breathe them in everyday: in newsagents, in mini-malls, in shopping centres and chicken shops, on the street and in markets, in restaurants, sweet shops and canteens whose names ring out in their ends. The British taste for this food has moved on from the curry house less than you might think, but these names are known by those who need to know… and they are in no need of being found.
It feels important to me that this guide is co-written with some of my favourite British-Asian writers. You’ll find personal stories of migration, of assimilation and non-conformity, of family memories and also of exploring the city alone. The dishes chosen are rooted here and say something about London as it is now – some will be very familiar, others are exceptional dishes that should be better known, while a few are dishes unique to London and might even surprise those in the motherland. Vittles’s own present to you is that the first guide is free to read for everyone – the next two will be for paid-subscribers only, culminating in a downloadable map. Along with Sejal Sukhadwala’s monumental regional Indian guide for Eater, it may well be the biggest inquiry into South Asian food in London ever conducted; but more than that, it is a celebration of why we are here and what we have given the city.
Londoners: print it out, thumb through it, put it in your bedside desk like a Gideon bible and use it well. Everyone else: well, the tables have turned. I hope it makes you wildly jealous of what we have.
The next two guides are paid-subscription only. If you would like to read them, please sign up for £4/month or £30/year, which gives you access to the entire back catalogue.
Writer key: Cynthia Shanmugalingam (CS), Dina Begum (DB), Feroz Gajia (FG), Isaac Rangaswami (IR), Jonathan Nunn (JN), Kaleem Hyder (KH), Rida Bilgrami (RB), Sejal Sukhadwala (SS), Shekha Vyas (SV), Thuli Weerasena (TW) and Zarina Muhammad (ZM)
Note: To avoid starting a war over who technically owns haleem and masala dosa, the dishes have been compiled in alphabetical order rather than region, although I’m sure someone will object to certain spellings.
Aloo Paratha – Seven Kings Cafe, Ilford
Parathas are delicious. In fact, from Hounslow to Hornchurch, even if you went out looking for a bad paratha, you’d have an extremely hard time finding one. My favourite type are the ones filled with potato, otherwise known as aloo paratha. You might compare them to chip butties, if it wasn’t for the flaky unleavened bread, the coriander and garam masala-infused mash, the fact that the whole thing is fried lovingly in ghee and, of course, that they’re way better than white bread filled with chips.
The best aloo paratha I’ve ever had in London was at Seven Kings Cafe in Ilford, also known as Paratha Junction. Even on a rainy Sunday afternoon you’ll have trouble getting a seat here, since the place is permanently overflowing with an unlikely mixture of solo diners, young families and people from various backgrounds, all brought together by a compulsion to eat pizza-sized parathas at 2.30 in the afternoon.
There’s something of a caff-like atmosphere at Seven Kings: like Aunty’s Cafe in Southall, its North Indian dishes sit alongside fry-ups. But it would be a criminal waste of stomach space to eat a full English here when the parathas are so incredibly good. Like any good caff, the friendly proprietor is always up for a chat and knows his regulars by name. In fact, as I got up to leave, I overheard a customer ask: “Good to see you so busy. Is it always like this on Sundays?” “It’s like this every day, mate,” replied the owner with an exhausted smile. IR
390 Green Lane, Seven Kings, Ilford IG3 9JX
Bacon Naan - Dishoom, King’s Cross
“Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice,” Marco Polo admits at the end of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Similarly, every time Dishoom’s founder Shamil Thakrar talks about Bombay, he is really talking about London. Dishoom has never been a recreation of Bombay’s Irani cafés and no-one who has been to both would ever mistake them for each other – that was always a good marketing lie – rather it is a form of urban mythmaking, mapping the channel that linked Raj-era India and its former imperial capital. In Dishoom’s geography, a passenger arriving at Victoria Terminus might wander round the back to a restaurant in Granary Square, or a music lover might emerge from a heaving Bombay bar into Carnaby Street – images of the cities superimposed over each other until they blur into one like Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson at the end of Persona. And, somewhere in that image, is the bacon naan.
Dishoom did not invent the bacon naan; it was surely done by someone’s fed-up mum in Birmingham sometime in the 1960s, frustrated at a lack of things in the fridge, or some enterprising cook in Calcutta serving the whims of a low-ranking imperial officer. However, it was Dishoom that first thought of turning this hybrid food into a sellable commodity. It now seems so obvious – thick, crispy Ginger Pig bacon, chutneys and coriander, maybe an oozing egg, all in a naan wrap. It’s something every Indian restaurant wishes they’d thought of but didn’t. You can find it for breakfast in any of the branches, but the King’s Cross one, with its anti-colonial graffiti, is Thakrar’s masterpiece. It is still, for all the R&D budget in the world, the most interesting thing on the menu. JN
5 Stable Street, N1C 4AB
Barfi - Jaaneman Sweet Centre, Arnos Grove
The Japanese were very astute to rebrand their worst nerds as ‘shokunin’ and make them sound badass. In truth, what this often means is someone who is obsessed enough with rice that they’ll spend 12 hours a day for eight years learning how to make it before deciding they’re good enough to sell it. The Indian uncle has never had this rebrand, and yet they are just as annoying and obsessive.
Perhaps London’s shokunin are not three-starred Michelin chefs shipped over from Tokyo, but have been here the whole time based in sweet shops, like at Jaaneman on the North Circular, where Nalim Bapodra has spent the last 33 years mastering the art of mithai. Mithai is just the umbrella name for Indian sweets, but what Bapodra does best is dense fudge-like barfi made with just milk, milk powder and sugar syrup. Every batch is made by Bapodra, who is always there: the store is absolutely stacked early on in the week, but as the days go on, the most popular flavours – chocolate, pistachio and almond in particular – sell out, so try to get there early. If you go and look unsure, Bapodra will encourage you to sample, sometimes forcing whole pieces on you to the extent that by the time you’ve bought them you might no longer be in the mood for any more. JN
168 Bowes Road, Arnos Grove, N11 2JG
Bhel - Bibi, Mayfair
The visceral game of pinball played with the senses when you eat properly made chaat is intense, exciting and slightly intoxicating, a celebration of the five tastes but also the elemental forces not restricted to the tastebuds. Pungent, crispy, cold, hot, dry, wet and the semi-sog state between dry and wet: these are all central to the flavour of chaat. Bhel is a sub-genre of chaat often associated with the beach that normally comprises puffed rice, fried chickpea strings, potatoes, onion, chaat masala and crucially sweet, tart and spicy chutney(s).
Bhel has its stalwart elements, but that doesn't stop people playing with the dish. At Bibi in Mayfair, the intelligence of the chef Chet Sharma has led to two tweaks that make the dish completely their own. Using pear in many forms means you get textural diversity and sweetness from the compressed fruit instead of potato but also a new cold element in the form of pear granita means you've suddenly got a multi-ball jackpot. Every bite feels like a highscore as it passes through all the flavours and sensations of chaat simultaneously. FG
42 N Audley St, W1K 6ZP
(Chicken) Biryani - Kadiri’s, Willesden
Asma Khan doesn’t have to answer for many things, but she may have to shoulder some of the blame for the increasingly baroque way that biryani is being presented to us in London. It’s now simply not a biryani without a back story, a pastry crust, Paul Rudd for some reason, and a hushed unveiling of steamed rice that has all the mock ceremony of a gender reveal (congratulations, it’s mutton). This is literally miles away from the way most biryani is consumed in London: in aluminium foil trays in restaurants that initiate price wars with their neighbours over how little they can sell a chicken biryani for before people start questioning the economics of it (I have seen £1.99 biryani in Hounslow).
There is no best London biryani – if it exists it’s probably in your aunt’s kitchen. There is, maybe, a best value biryani: the one at Zam Zam in spitting distance of Heathrow Airport, no aromatics but fat and comforting with chicken stock. But canonically, the most famous is the one at Kadiri’s in Willesden Green, which happens to also be the most similar to my own aunt’s – not a surprise when this is a bi-coastal biryani, somewhere between the Konkan and Swahili coasts, each grain its own autonomous kingdom, rich in masala and generous with the absolutely vital crispy onions. JN
26 High Road, NW10 2QD
(Kacchi) Biriyani - Haji Nanna Biriyani, Whitechapel
If you’ve eaten Bangladeshi food in London you’ve most likely eaten food cooked by Sylhetis, as London is home to the largest group of Bangladeshis who originate from the Sylhet region outside of Bangladesh itself. While I adore Sylheti biriyani, made with long grained basmati rice, subtle in spicing and laced with the aroma of ghee and green chillies, Dhaka-style kacchi biriyani offers a more complex flavour profile which reminds me of Bangladeshi weddings where baburchis (chefs) cook outdoor feasts in gigantic pots over coal fires.
It’s rare that I eat biriyani outside a home setting and rave about it, but I have done so at Haji Nanna Biryani, a small café-style restaurant positioned on the less popular side of Whitechapel Road, opposite the haughty station side which snakes into Brick Lane. There’s nothing fancy about the place, with its grey, speckled formica tables, laminated menus and pine chairs, but don’t let that put you off – it is one of the few places which specialises in traditional kacchi and is my go-to place when I want a taste of Dhaka.
A steaming plate, perfumed with saffron, holds perfectly cooked small-grained kalijeera rice swaddling an egg, a large piece or two of lightly fried potato and a few generous hunks of lamb, cooked until tender in its own juices and steamed, as a good kacchi should be. This style of biriyani layers marinated meat at the bottom of the pot and is topped with parboiled rice before being sealed and slow-cooked. In each mouthful you’ll be surprised by subtle spices, beresta (golden fried onions) and an occasional aloo bokhara (sour plum). There’s a hint of sweetness and an elegant floral flourish from kewra water (pandan leaf extract), which creates a brilliant final dish. Forks are provided but, in my opinion, it is best eaten with your hand for ultimate satisfaction. DB
14 Whitechapel Road, E1 1EW
(Vegetarian) Biryani - Hyderabadi Spice, East Ham
Biryani purists turn up their noses at the idea of vegetable biryani, considering it no more than a glorified pulao. But Bombay’s Gujarati and Marwari communities have been happily eating vegetarian biryanis for decades. Going back even further, Mughlai emperor Akbar was vegetarian on specific days of the week, shunning meat more and more as he got older. His son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan also, to a lesser extent, continued this tradition. So surely Mughlai kitchens, which turned rice recipes into an art form during Akbar’s era, must have created vegetarian biryanis fit for all these kings?
You need no such excuse to enjoy meat-free biryanis at Hyderabadi Spice in East Ham, a specialist in workman-like, no-frills version of Hyderabadi biryani, more strongly flavoured than its Lucknowi rival. Slow-cooked dum-style in a pot sealed with dough, the rice comes piled high in steel and copper haandis and contains miniature cubes of paneer and carrots, plus peas, green beans, sweetcorn and chunks of fried potatoes. There are warming notes of cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom and bay leaves, with a generous layer of fried onions. But the best way to enjoy the vegetable biryani is… to also order an egg biryani. The move is to fish out the two hard-boiled eggs nestling at the bottom of the large heap of rice, chop them up and mix them in with the vegetable biryani. Both dishes are similarly flavoured, but the one with eggs comes with extra fried onions and no other vegetables.
The biryani here may be devoid of cashew nuts, mint, rosewater and other such expensive or fragrant ingredients but it tastes every bit as good as the best biryanis of smarter restaurants like Gymkhana and Dastaan. It doesn’t even contain saffron – the rice is simply tainted yellow with turmeric. Another reason for biryani purists to get mad. SS
309 High Street North, E12 6SL
Black Pork Curry - Colombo Kitchen, Worcester Park
Colombo Kitchen in Worcester Park is a short drive down the A24 from a well-known cluster of Sri Lankan restaurants in Tooting including Apollo Banana Leaf and Jaffna House. While the Tooting joints serve a mix of South Indian fare and Tamil food from the north of Sri Lanka, the menu at Colombo Kitchen is a greatest hits list of Sinhalese cooking. This naturally attracts clientele with a Sinhalese palate, but most people make the trip to Colombo Kitchen to have the hoppers, which have the draw of 1) being made live on the restaurant floor and 2) not costing a fiver a pop. But while they are excellent, it’s the black pork curry that keeps me coming back.
Black pork curry gets its signature colour from a gravy made with dark, roasted curry powder, black pepper and dried goraka fruit rinds, which add a distinct sour flavour that cuts through the fatty pork. Goraka was historically used to preserve and tenderise meat before the introduction of electric refrigerators. The dish is a regional favourite of the coastal town of Negombo and is likely to have first been made with wild boar that roams the Hill Country and woodlands of Sri Lanka. If not with rice, then black pork curry is commonly served with roast paan (a thick bread slice) or roti. I’m particularly fond of the black pork curry at Colombo Kitchen because they use thick cuts of pork that are good for grabbing with a piece of roti. It is not traditionally paired with hoppers but at Colombo Kitchen I like to add it to some pineapple salad, put both inside a hopper and roll it up into a wrap like a mini masala dosa. TW
25 Central Rd, Worcester Park, KT4 8EG
Chana Masala – Indian Veg, Angel
The cool thing about Indian Veg in Angel, aside from its inexpensive 27-item vegetarian buffet, are the walls, which are plastered with more posters than a 13-year-old’s bedroom. “CARNIVORISM causes warfare,” shouts one. “COLD WATER IS BAD FOR YOU,” yells another. My favourite is a fading Guardian supplement from the early 2010s with tiny portraits of every British prime minister from Robert Walpole to DVD Dave, which proclaims that these accomplished political figures all have one special thing in common: “They have eaten ‘VEGETABLES’”.
So Indian Veg, which is run by a genial Bangladeshi man in his seventies called Mohammed Safa, is already a very compelling sales pitch for vegetarianism. Add to that all the delicious food and you may feel as if you’ve chanced upon some kind of wildly unpretentious, plant-based paradise, where every marvellous brownish-orangeish-yellowish dollop of food you eat is equal parts cheap, tasty and satisfying.
You could help yourself to pretty much anything here and enjoy your meal. But I love Indian Veg’s chana masala (and its variants) the most, possibly because chickpea curry is one of the first things I learned to cook properly. Chana masala is a simple, sustaining dish with everything you need. Chana masala is rich, spicy, creamy, nourishing and the perfect thing to eat with bread. Chana masala is proof that you don’t actually need to eat animal flesh to feel full. You are reminded of all of that here. IR
Chapli Kebab - Taste of Pakistan, Hounslow
There are a few key elements to a great chapli kebab. At its heart you need beef with a good fat ratio. And then, if you’re lucky, enough animal fat to fry it. The patty should be dotted with coriander seeds and pomegranate seeds. Those elements should leave a clear imprint in your mind. Meat. Fat. Salt. Then the burst of coriander and pomegranate seeds. Raw flavours.
Location wise, you’d place the origins of the chapli kebab somewhere in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When I was a child in school it was known as the North West Frontier Province; now parts of it form Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In London you'd place it somewhere between Taste of Pakistan in Hounslow and Namak Mandi in Tooting. However, Taste of Pakistan sticks out due to their sheer consistency ─ the ratio is the closest I've found in London to the best in Pakistan. No naan is needed for the first bite; just break off a bit with your hands. There is a balance and harmony of fat and flavours here, one that sits heavy on the mind, never mind the heart and stomach. KH
369 Hanworth Rd, Hounslow TW4 5LF
Chilli Paneer - Jai Durga Mahal, Harrow
Chilli paneer, the ne plus ultra Desi Chinese dish, is ubiquitous in north west London. Because of this, I have spent a considerable amount of time eating more than my share for the purposes of this piece (on one day, I had around eight versions alone). I have learnt that not all chilli paneers are created equal: there are officially two types, one served in a tangy ‘gravy’, usually with a ketchupy base and plenty of red and green peppers and another – a dry version – which is heavier on the soy sauce. I have a preference for the latter.
Since there is no hard and fast recipe for chilli paneer, it seems that almost every restaurant in London has taken some creative license – whether it is the addition of tamarind, sugar or even garam masala. With that in mind, I reached the subjective but thoroughly tested verdict that Jai Durga Mahal in Harrow (a restaurant which seems to specialise in East African Gujarati, Desi Chinese, South Indian, North Indian and, obviously, pizza… all at the same time) has the most solid version of this dish in the capital.
The soy-glazed cubes of crispy paneer are the perfect size, coated in pieces of fried garlic, caramelised onion and slivers of green chilli, seeds included of course. The final product is something that is impossibly addictive, with smacks of smokiness, heat and pure garlic that hit you simultaneously like a thunderous power chord. In fact, JDM is so proud of its chilli paneer that it features multiple times on the menu; it can be ordered as a dosa filling, in noodles or, most chaotically of all, in the form of a whole pizza. SV
64 Station Road, North Harrow, HA2 7SJ
(Tangail) Chomchom - Alauddin Sweets, East Ham
For an initiation into the treasured world of Bangladeshi desserts, chomchom is a good place to start. These milk-based sweets hail from the Tangail region in central Bangladesh and reign supreme when you’re contemplating what treat to take to a dinner party. Chomchom are made from fresh cheese oblongs which are simmered for several hours in a light syrup that cooks into the soft cheese and changes the entire structure from spongy to unctuous and sticky. The best versions have a slight crystallised-crumbly-sandy exterior with a porous interior, like pockets of honeycomb filled with syrup. Each bite sings melodiously in your mouth and delivers the best hit of milky, sugary goodness.
Alauddin Sweets on East Ham’s High Street North does the best Tangail chomchom I’ve eaten in the UK (and I eat a lot of Bangladeshi sweets!). The chomchom here are reassuringly made in-house and based on nineteenth-century sweet-making practises which pay homage to the OG of Alauddin - the Lucknowi sweetmaker Mr Alauddin Halwai, who introduced his trade to Dhaka in the 1860s. Alauddin used to be located on Brick Lane, aka Banglatown until a couple of years ago, but shifted further east to join the growing Bangladeshi community in East Ham so it was only natural that I followed the store there for my regular chomchom fix. You must buy a box on the day they are made – the earlier in the day the better, so make sure to ask. DB
418 High Street North, East Ham, E12 6RH
Choris Pao - Casa de Goa, Hounslow
Before I was born, an act of forgery involving a sausage occurred in my family. My grandmother had made choris ─ Goa sausage ─ from scratch, a dish she was widely renowned for. She didn’t want to send it to my uncle (her son) across London by post, but luckily a solution was proffered: a visiting family friend who lived nearby would take it to him. When my uncle finally undid the layers of wrapping that hid its natural pungency, it was clear that something wasn’t right. As Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”: the sausage was a decoy, an impostor, swapped out for a commercially made one by a disgruntled aunty.
That anyone would go to these lengths for a sausage is only understandable to Goans, who know that there is nothing like good choris. A mainstay of Goan-Catholic cuisine, it is made from pork and pork fat, stained red with Kashmiri chilli, and presrved in eye-wateringly large amounts of toddy vinegar. Often, it is not really a sausage at all, but something closer to ’nduja, a loosely packed meat fudge that should be used to flavour other dishes with all the subtlety of lobbing a bomb into your kitchen.
In London, good choriz (like the one Meldon Ferrao sells in Hayes) is used in homes to flavour curries, potato hashes and, in my house at least, pasta, but the most traditional way is choriz pao: fried up into a crumble and put between two halves of buttery soft pao. You’ll find a textbook version on the snacks menu at Casa de Goa, a basement Goan restaurant on the site of a pub, where they might also sell you a homemade Goa sausage – a real one – to take away with you. JN
113 High St, Hounslow, TW3 1QT
Crispy Bhajia at Maru’s Bhajia House, Wembley
My Mum grew up in Wembley in the 70s. Back when she was a kid, school dinners were all stodgy and English: meat and two veg, lumpy custard. She didn’t even trust baked beans back then; it was all just so foreign and gross. Understandably, she used to skip school for lunch. Most of the time she’d meet her Mum and sister at the end of their road and they’d walk back home together and eat last night’s rotli and saak from the same plate. But there were other days when there weren’t any leftovers or when they just felt like they needed a lil treat. On those days they would meet in the middle and between the high school, the Osram factory (where my Mum’s Mum worked, checking the filaments on lightbulbs) and the office block in Alperton (where my Masi worked) was Maru’s Bhajia House and her crispy bhajia.
Maru’s bhajia are just fried potato slices. The potatoes are sliced into thin(nish) discs, chunkier than crisps but not as thick as chips. They’re coated in gram flour and coriander, then fried like any other bhajia. They get this crispy crunchy outside and the potato is warm and fluffy when you bite into it. But Maru’s Bhajia isn’t about the potato. My friend, it is about the chutney. I don’t even know what they put in there. It’s red and orange and watery, it tastes fresh and you can see that the little vegetables (whatever they are) are all chopped into tiny, tiny little crumbs. The bhajia is just a chutney delivery vehicle. I would like that chutney mainlined straight into my veins.
If you go to Maru’s Bhajia House, you can order other things like the veg cutlets or the dahi vada. I wouldn’t even judge you for that. But you listen to me carefully: only order those if you’ll have room after a double order of bhajia and a passion fruit juice. Maru’s has been around since the 70s, unchanged. It’s the one stable entity I can rely on, the only consistently good thing in this stupid city. Maru will outlive us all. And good! Long live Maru. ZM
230 Ealing Rd, Wembley, HA0 4QL
(Chana) Daal – Indian Masala, Bethnal Green
Every mouthful of daal brings back toddlerhood memories of your first bowl, flooding back to you in half-forgotten leguminous dreams; all those comforting beans, lentils and chickpeas echoing in the deep recesses of your mind, restoring a calm you didn’t know you’d lost. I’ve slipped into a few reveries like this at Indian Masala in Bethnal Green, in the same way old boys do right next door at the beautiful E. Pellicci, which claims to be London’s oldest family-run caff, over plates of pork, beans and fried bread.
Like Amar Gaon on Brick Lane and so many other Bangladeshi cafes nearby, Indian Masala is one of those restaurants with an array of a dozen different dishes laid out in metal containers behind the counter, ready to be reheated to your heart’s content: Bengali specialities like shingaras and muri ghonto, for example. But when you’ve got four pounds in your pocket and you discover a serving of rice and turmeric-tinted, buttery daal costs that exact price, I suppose you might be forgiven for sticking with what you know.
You might well be rewarded for this lack of adventurousness, whether you go for the regular chana daal or the one with spinach. After all, daal is always, always good. Once you’ve tried the two daals a few times, the saag might just swing it for you, since it’s a bit spicier, more wholesome and features a more generous coating of glistening fat. IR
330 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG
(Moong) Daal - Zer Middle East Kitchen, Dalston
It's been said many times that daal is the most universal food across South Asia. A staple in every home, it provides sustenance and comfort in a way that very little else can match. At its most basic moong (mung bean) daal will be some aromatics cooked down with some soaked lentils until the desired doneness and texture is achieved and then perhaps garnished with some chopped coriander and/or a tarka (spices bloomed in fat). Great daal leads to your first thought being filled with the savoury deliciousness and the deep satisfaction the daal brings is followed by the inexplicable need to eat more. What the simplicity of the base recipes belies is the complexity possible, the sheer number of variations available and just how opinionated everyone is about it. The simpler the daal, the more there is to complain about.
Despite dal being on almost every South Asian menu in the city, the number I'd happily want to eat again would fit on one hand. For an Iranian owned restaurant like Zer to do a pure moong daal, a dish not that famous in the region (Iran has daal adas which is quite different) is a surprise ─ less of a surprise when you see they list Afghanistan as the origin of the recipe. With Southern Afghanistan and Eastern Iran being part of Balochistan, the exchange of recipes in the region makes sense. This Baloch style moong daal reminds me instantly of the kind enjoyed at home but with a consistency thicker than my Gujarati upbringing led me to expect, and a more restrained use of garam masala. The stew-like texture of great daal reminds you that this is a dish of undisturbed time, captured in a pot, intensified and then doled out onto a plate. FG
13 Stoke Newington Rd, N16 8BH
Fish Bhorta - Cafe Grill, Brick Lane
In an alternate timeline, Bangladeshis might have come to London in 2021 rather than in the 1970s. Instead of inventing the curry house, they would have arrived in a city that gets off on authenticity and chilli heat, one that was tailor-made to their cuisine: ferocious heat, pungent curries and fish ferments. White guys bored of Thai food would be making trips to Sylhet and Dhaka, raving about shutki satni and opening restaurants in Shoreditch called Shatkora. And even in this timeline, Nigella would have still dropped a recipe for a fish finger bhorta.
A bhorta can come in many forms – it just needs to be a mash of something, like aubergine or potato – and veers in style between light and fresh on one end and so much mustard oil it constitutes a weapon on the other. On Brick Lane, the Sylheti canteen Amar Gaon does a brownish fish bhorta, volatile with mustard oil, whereas Cafe Grill opposite does a brighter version, white and green, that, in its balance of chilli heat, sourness and herbaceousness, is almost akin to a Thai salad. Thank god it hasn’t been gentrified (yet). JN
35 Brick Lane, E1 6PU
Fish Cutlet - Ceylon Express, Tooting
Fish cutlets are a legacy of Sri Lanka’s 450 years of European colonisation, one that included occupations from Lisbon, Amsterdam and London. While the Dutch left lamprais, and the British left gin and tonics, fish cutlets are a Sri Lankanised Portuguese bolinho de bacalhau, a breaded, deep-fried golden ball of delicious fish. Fish cutlets are gloriously independent now; I like to think they were modified slowly by creative Sri Lankan cooks over the centuries so that they now look like a boring croquette on the outside, but inside are stuffed with fish cooked in black pepper, turmeric, curry leaves, green chillies, potato and plenty of lime.
There are lots of great fish cutlets in London, they are a favourite ‘short eat’ or Sri Lankan snack. The tiny, humble takeaway Ceylon Express in Tooting might be overlooked compared to its more famous neighbours, but it makes some of the best Sri Lankan food in the city: delicious spicy vegetable rotis, mutton rolls, salty seafood kothu and great hard crunchy vadais, cooked fresh every day. Its delightful fish cutlets are no exception: light and fragrant and full of flavour, perfect to accompany an afternoon tea or an evening beer. CS
36 London Rd, SW17 9HP
Fried Chicken Makhani Burger - Bake St, Stoke Newington
As young Muslims make the slow journey into the middle class, the halal market in London has exploded. People no longer want to eat their parents’ food anymore; they want something aspirational that says something about their own lives. Most of the time this means halal burger knockoffs – Three Fellas, Four Lads and Five Guys, all with Shake Shack branding – halal peri-peri chicken, halal barbecue and, perhaps most surprisingly, halal brunch.
At Bake St in Stoke Newington, Feroz Gajia (disclaimer: a Vittles columnist, friend, and literal contributor to this guide) is doing miracles within the sphere of halal brunch. Within any given menu there is something of childhood nostalgia, a fealty to forgotten aspects of Americana other chefs have overlooked, Gajia’s Gujarati upbringing and London itself. All of these things are combined in the fried chicken makhani burger – not a fat thigh, but a breast hammered out into a crunchy slab the size of a human foot, doused in the smoked curry house butter chicken sauce of your dreams, with various chutneys providing heat and aroma. Oh and a few slices of slappy cheese. Conflict of interest be damned: it’s the best sandwich in London. JN
58 Evering Rd, Lower Clapton, N16 7SR
Haleem - Lahori Nihaari, Upton Park
Haleem is not comfort food in Pakistan; the humble daal chawal or khichdi more easily assume that mantle. But it is associated with nourishing grieving souls and soothing the spirit – during Ashura, a ten-day mourning period observed by Shia Muslims who form a sectarian minority in the country, it is prepared across hours of slow cooking and pounding lentils, wheat, barley and lamb in a circular motion till they form glutinous strands.
While most Pakistani restaurants have this dish on their weekend specials menu due its labour-intensive preparation and association with religious commemorations (as well as celebrations such as Eid ul Fitr), Aladin Kebabish in Hendon and Lahori Nihaari know the dish is popular and have it on daily. Both places get the consistency and texture right: it’s a thick gloopy mess where the protein elements are not pulverised but pounded by hand, which is exactly how it is supposed to be. The dish is served with garnishes of crispy onions, a squeeze of lemon, chaat masala and ginger matchsticks – these are not optional. A less Instagrammable dish there could not be but it is truly brown food at its finest. RB
50 Plashet Grove, E6 1AE
5 that didn’t make it
Dosa bingo at Dosa Express, Ferraro Rocher Naan at Naan Staap, Dabeli at RD Dabeli, Haleem at Aladin Kebabish (this technically should have made it but someone else took Aladin’s) , Chaat at Dhaba 49
Cynthia Shanmugalingam is a Sri Lankan cook and writer.
Dina Begum is a food writer and the author of Brick Lane Cookbook.
Feroz Gajia is a food writer and the chef-owner of Bake St in Rectory Road.
Isaac Rangaswami is a writer based in London. He runs the Instagram account @caffs_not_cafes
Jonathan Nunn is the editor of Vittles.
Kaleem Haider is a writer based in London.
Rida Bilgrami is a food and culture journalist based in London
Sejal Sukhadwala is a London food writer who is currently writing an Indian food dictionary. She has recently completed her first book, The Philosophy Of Curry, published by the British Library in March 2022.
Shekha Vyas is a journalist and food writer based in London
Thuli Weerasena is a British-Sri Lankan cook and occasional writer, currently working in food and drink communications. Thuli grew up in Birmingham and now lives in London, where he runs a Sri Lankan diaspora cooking project @polboy.ldn.
Zarina Muhammad is a writer based in London and the co-founder of The White Pube.