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.