London’s increasingly sophisticated diners have come a long way since thinking of Indian food simply as korma, chicken tikka masala and a Friday night vindaloo. Many are now aware of the regional variations in the different cuisines of the Subcontinent.
In addition to the regional differences in Indian food, there are significant variations within the same region. For example, ‘Gujarati food’ comprises Surti, Ahmedabadi, Kutchi, Kathiyawadi, Charotar Patel, Jain, Bohri Muslim (plus a few other) main cooking styles.
Part of the reason is India’s caste system: communities within each caste have their own interpretations of traditional dishes. Additionally, each sect of Hinduism (and other religions in India) has its own specific way of cooking, complicating the intricacies of Indian cuisine even further.
London's Indian restaurants and supperclubs are increasingly giving us a glimpse of these regional variations. Here’s our round-up of some of the best.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Mostly rustic but very rich wheat-based cuisine. Onions, garlic and ginger form the base of many dahls and vegetable dishes, along with tomatoes, ghee, cream, home-made white butter, and hot and aromatic spices. Breads and kebabs are cooked in tandoor clay ovens.
Punjabi food is normally the main regional style of cooking at home and in restaurants. When people say ‘Indian food’, they usually mean ‘Punjabi food’. As our selection here shows, Southall is the best area of London to eat Punjabi.
Named after a legendary market in Delhi that’s home to acclaimed restaurants, sweet shops and street food stalls, this is a no-frills Punjabi café set over two floors. In the first floor dining room, try fried, crunchy street food snacks, or parathas flavoured with various vegetables. Or opt for the classic cold weather staple of sarson ka saag aur makki di roti (mustard greens curry with maize flour flatbread) – a Punjabi dish that’s the stuff of legends (though it may be something of an acquired taste). On the ground floor, there’s a large, busy counter that sells freshly made Punjabi sweets that are not to be missed.
Chandni Chowk, 106 The Broadway, Southall UB1 1QF.
One of the capital’s best-known Punjabi restaurants, this award-winning, family-run venue in Middlesex has been established for over 40 years. Reflecting the owners’ background, there are Kenyan influences on its large menu. This is the place to try much-loved classics such as tandoori chicken, tarka dahl and palak paneer. Healthy options are clearly marked on the menu; The owner’s daughter Dipna Anand, whose cookbook is available to buy, runs a variety of north Indian cookery classes.
Brilliant Restaurant, 72-76 Western Road, Southall, UB2 5DZ.
Kenyan influences are also apparent at this popular, long-established Punjabi restaurant that’s one of the smartest in the area. Choose from bhallay papri chaat (street food snack of lentil dumplings in yoghurt and tamarind sauces on crispy wafers), butter chicken, dahl Amritsari, and lamb chops in richly spiced sauce.
Madhu’s, 39 South Road, Southall, UB1 1SW.
Known previously as ‘Sagoo and Thaker’ and, somewhat confusingly, also named ‘New Asian Tandoori’, this 30-plus year old cheap and cheerful eatery is highly popular for its fuss-free traditional Punjabi fare. The best-known dishes here include chana bhatura (chickpea curry with puffed fried breads), karela (bitter gourd – a weekend special) and butter chicken.
Roxy's Restaurant, 114-118 The Green, Southall, UB2 4BQ.
Raunka Punjab Diyan
Decked out in kitsch Punjabi village murals and knick-knacks, this down-to-earth eatery has a typically large menu of hearty Punjabi dishes. You’ll find Amritsari fish, kadhi pakoda (yoghurt curry with chickpea flour dumplings) and spicy chicken on the bone here.
Raunka Pubjab Diyan, 464-466 Lady Margaret Road, Southall UB1 2NW.
This trendy Islington canteen, decorated with colourful Bollywood posters, is a contemporary take on ‘dhaba’ – India’s cheap-as-chips roadside eateries for truck drivers that serve food so delicious that even upper class Indians and young dating couples queue up for it. There’s a short menu of slow-cooked dishes that includes goat on the bone, fish tikka and lamb samosa.
Delhi Grill, 21 Chapel Market, N1 9EZ.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Primarily the cuisine of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, with variations found in other regions such as Calcutta and Hyderabad. Awadhi and Mughlai food comprise refined, delicately flavoured dishes created in the royal kitchens, influenced by Indian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern flavours. Intricate, very skilfully made kebabs are a speciality of the region, along with biryanis and kormas. There’s plentiful use of cream, nuts, saffron and aromatic spices. This is special occasion cooking.
Established for over 30 years, this smart venue showcases chef Azadur Rahman’s fine cooking; a happy mix of royal dishes from the Mughlai courts and seasonal British ingredients. There are spiced potato and pea-flecked samosas, saffron-marinated seabass tikka, and dum pukht biryani with Somerset lamb on the menu here.
Red Fort, 77 Dean Street, Soho W1D 3SH.
Famous for being the first Michelin star Indian in the world, this upscale venue serves a great selection of tandoori dishes and superior kebabs. Try chicken tikka with ginger, and slow-cooked Hyderabadi lamb shank.
Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, Mayfair, W1J 5PR.
This groundbreaking and much-imitated high-end Indian specialises in Mughlai dishes grilled in tandoor (clay oven), sigri (charcoal grill) and tawa (flat griddle pan). On a regularly changing menu, you might find duck tikka with tandoori plum chutney, slow-cooked leg of lamb with black cumin, spinach and fig tikki, lotus root kebab, and rice dishes cooked with the highly prized aged basmati.
Amaya, Motcomb Street, SW1X 8JT.
Key flavours and cooking styles: subtly spiced curries thickened with yoghurt instead of tomatoes and onions; widespread use of fennel seeds, dried ginger and asafoetida; meat including mutton and goat; elaborate rice dishes; signature ‘dum’ cooking style (in a sealed pot), sun-dried vegetables; the use of crushed sun-dried lentil and spice nuggets to flavour dishes; and wazwan: intricate multi-course banquets.
Kashmiri couple Chef Razdan and his wife Shweta own this restaurant specialising in traditional dishes from the Kashmir Valley. Start by ceremoniously washing your hands at the table from an ornate vessel known as tashtri; then opt for the Kashmiri items (clearly marked on the large north Indian menu). There are lightly spiced lamb ribs cooked in milk, lotus root kebabs with black cumin and walnut chutney, chicken or lamb rogan josh, classic dum aloo (whole baby potatoes fried and simmered in spiced gravy) and more.
Kashmir Restaurant, 18-20 Lacy Road, Putney SW15 1NL.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Mostly vegetarian food based on grains, beans and lentils. Thalis; plus a large range of steamed, baked and fried snacks. Coriander-cumin powder as the main flavouring in many dishes; plus cumin seeds, mustard seeds, asafoetida, jaggery, tamarind, yoghurt, fresh coriander, coconut, nuts and sultanas. Gujarati dishes are often a balance of savoury, spicy, sweet and tangy flavours.
London’s Gujarati restaurants are mostly clustered around Wembley, Harrow, Kingsbury, Queensbury and Neasden.
Mother and son Lalita Patel and Urvesh Parvais started as a market stall venture (they can still be found in Borough and Broadway Markets), cooking their family’s vegetarian recipes from Surat dating back to the 1900s. The weekly changing menu at this cosy restaurant may include handvo (spiced savoury lentil cake), Bengal gram and bottle gourd curry, and fresh fenugreek flatbreads. The menu is succinct, and everything is freshly cooked.
Gujarati Rasoi, 10C Bradbury Street, Dalston N16 8JN.
This buzzy vegetarian restaurant is decorated with brightly coloured murals and ornaments depicting Gujarati village life, with many of the staff in traditional costumes. Try snacks like dhokla (steamed savoury lentil cakes – a massively popular Gujarati classic) and lilva kachori (pastry balls stuffed with Indian broad beans); or opt for one of the great-value thalis, generously and continually topped up as you eat.
Meera’s Village, 36 Queensbury Station Parade, Edgware, HA8 5NN.
This simple, no-frills veggie café cooks everything from scratch, and serves great-value meals with warm hospitality. Start with dal bhajia (urid lentil fritters) or methi bhajia (fresh fenugreek fritters), and follow with one of a duo of items from the ‘specialities’ menu. Alternatively, choose an excellent-value thali.
Asher’s Africana, 224 Ealing Road, Wembley, HA0 4QL.
There are bright lights, garish pictures and an unhurried feel to this vegetarian restaurant, which specialises in food from the city of Surat, the gourmet capital of Gujarat. The menu is huge, but stick to Surti specialities that are clearly identified. Try patra (stuffed colocasia leaves sliced to give a swiss roll effect), kand (purple elephant yam fritters), and dahl dhokri (chickpea flour ‘pasta’ in lentil gravy). Visit on a Saturday or Sunday to take advantage of the weekend buffet.
Ram’s, 201-2013 Kenton Road, Harrow HA3 0HD.
Owned by the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, this vegetarian venue is set amid an Indian food shop, a sweet counter and a large car park. There’s a substantial pan-Indian a la carte menu – but the best time to visit is weekday lunchtime, for the great-value traditional Gujarati buffet. Dishes are cooked without onions and garlic, in accordance with the temple’s dietary requirements. Take home Gujarati mithai (sweetmeats) and farsan (fried or steamed savoury snacks) from the sweet counter.
Shayona, 54-62 Meadow Garth, NW10 8HD.
This unassuming vegetarian café serves a pan-Indian menu – but it’s worth visiting for dishes that are lacking elsewhere, including dabeli (potato burgers from the Kutch region of Gujarat, with all kinds of spicy toppings), and ragda patties (stuffed potato patties in a dried white pea gravy flavoured with tamarind).
Vijay’s Chawalla, 268-270 Green Street, E7 8LF.
Bombay and the surrounding areas
Bombay – yes, Bombay, and not the more politically correct Mumbai, which many in Bombay scoff at – is a cosmopolitan city with a distinct culinary identity. Here you’ll find a mix of Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Marwari, Parsi and coastal cooking styles; plus a vibrant variety of snacks and street foods. Influences from South East Asia, Middle East, Europe and America are found in the everyday cooking of affluent households.
This massively popular mini-chain has firmly put Bombay’s Irani cafés on the map. These fast food cafés were opened by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in the 1900s. Since their 1960s heyday, when their popularity was at its peak, their numbers have been dwindling – so this venture is a unique slice of nostalgia given a trendy London makeover. Choose Irani café staples such as Parsi scrambled eggs, Bombay omelette, minced chicken and chicken liver with fried eggs and potato straws, and chicken berry biryani.
Dishoom, 5 Stable Street, Granary Square, King’s Cross N1C. Other branches are in Covent Garden, Shoreditch, Carnaby and Kensington.
Owned by renowned restaurateur Karam Sethi, this elegant Michelin star Indian specialises in western Indian coastal cooking – especially seafood dishes. There are vegetarian and non-vegetarian Koliwada tasting menus here, with a contemporary take on the traditional dishes of Bombay’s Koli fishermen community. These include green chilli and fresh coriander-marinated bream, and shellfish pilau. Influences from the cooking of other coastal regions from Maharashtra down to South India are also present on the menu.
Trishna, 15-17 Blandford Street, Marylebone W1U 3DG.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Iran-meets-Gujarat in dishes based on rice, lentils, sweet-and-sour or coconut-based curries, potatoes, tangy kachumbar salads, and an imaginative use of eggs.
Café Spice Namaste
Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala and his wife and business partner Pervin’s long-established restaurant is the only one in London to serve traditional Parsi fare. Here you’ll find prawn patia (cooked with aubergine, pumpkin, and red masala with malted cane vinegar, tamarind and jaggery), Parsi chicken curry steeped in a nutty spice mix with rice and potato, and traditional lamb dhansak with caramelised onion rice and meat kebab, cooked just as it should be. Look out for special events such as the ‘Khaadras Club’ dinners.
Café Spice Namaste, 16 Prescot Street, E1 8AZ.
Key flavours and cooking styles: a wide-ranging use of wheat and grains, green leafy vegetables, and beans and lentils; the liberal use of sesame seeds, fresh coconut and peanuts; herbs and spices like fresh coriander and kokum (dried fruit of the mangosteen family), and very distinctive spice mixes.
Shree Krishna Vada Pav
The only Maharashtrian restaurant mini-chain in the capital, this great-value vegetarian eatery is worth a visit especially for two Maharashtrian classics. The first is vada pav – spicy potato burger, here served with three kinds of chutneys. Secondly, misal – sprouted bean and chickpea curry cooked with a speciality spice mix, topped with crunchy Bombay mix-like topping, eaten with bread rolls. Another Maharashrian speciality here is ‘kothimbir vadi’: savoury chickpea flour cakes made from a large amount of fresh coriander.
Shree Krishna Vada Pav, 121 High Street, Hounslow TW3 1QL. There’s also a branch in Harrow.
Raved about by restaurant critics when it first opened, this smart Indian is not a Maharashtrian restaurant – but its chef Manoj Vasaikar is from Maharashtra. There are a few dishes on the menu from that region, including vegetable bhanola dipped in chickpea flour, chicken bhuzane saar (chicken breast with fresh green herbs and coconut milk, cooked in the style of the Pathare Prabhu community), ghatti lamb (cooked with freshly roasted spices and herbs, a speciality of Sahyadri mountain region), and potatoes cooked in a signature Maharashtrian black spice mix.
Indian Zing, 236 King Street, W6 ORF.
Key flavours and cooking styles:Portuguese influences (Goa was once a Portuguese colony). Seafood, pork, a large variety of yeasted breads, fresh coconut, dried red chillies, coriander seeds, palm vinegar, jackfruit, mangoes and cashew nuts.
This small family-run venue is one of the capital’s oldest Goan restaurants. You’ll find classics such as koyla machli (fresh fish of the day cooked in Goan spices over charcoal), kohlapuri murgh (peppered, diced chicken in a tandoor yoghurt marinade), and lamb kodi cooked with coconut and dried mango.
Ma Goa, 242-244 Upper Richmond Street, SW15 6TG.
This hidden gem boasts an intriguing mix of contemporary looks and traditional cooking. On the short menu – a good indication of everything being freshly cooked from scratch – you’ll find aubergine piri-piri in the famous Goan recheado spice paste, Goan fish curry, and coconut vinegar-marinated roast beef chilli fry.
Olde Goa, 1336 London Road, Norbury SW16 4DG.
Key flavours and cooking styles: This region encompasses the Arabian Sea coastline, including the Konkan region, Mangalore, Malabar and Kanyakumari. Fish and fresh coconut are the culinary signatures.
This smart Michelin star Indian specialises in the seafood-centric cuisine of the south-west coast. Chef Sriram Aylur’s beautifully presented dishes include seafood moilee, Malabar lamb biryani, Manglorean chicken, and raw jackfruit pilau with lentil dumplings.
Quilon, 41 Buckingham Gate, SW1E 6AF.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Mostly vegetarian cuisine of Karnataka on south-west coast. Dishes are based on lentils, beans and grains; vegetables like pumpkins, ridge gourd and other squashes as well as colocasia leaves; fruits such as jackfruit and green bananas; fresh coconut and coconut oil; red chillies; pickles and chutneys; generally milder and more subtle spicing.
This popular mini-chain specialises in vegetarian food from Udupi, a small town in the coastal region of the Western Ghats mountain range, close to Bangalore. There are lots of South Indian classics here like dosa and idli, but try the Udupi thali for a more distinct regional taste.
Sagar, 157 King Street, Hammersmith W6 9JT. Other branches are in Covent Garden and Harrow.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Different Hindu, Muslim and Christian culinary influences; rice, lentil, vegetable, fruit and seafood dishes, rich with coconut, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, tamarind, asafoetida, curry leaves and mustard seeds; a variety of stir-fried and sauced vegetables; a selection of pickles and chutneys; ‘tiffin’ breakfast snacks like dosas and idlis; the serving of traditional meals on banana leaves.
London’s Keralan and Tamil restaurants are largely located in Tooting, East Ham and Wembley.
One of the first Keralan restaurants to open in London, Das Sreedharan’s cosy classic was a game changer: it put regional Indian, particularly south Indian vegetarian, food on the map. Critics raved about it for years; and it spawned a second offering in Soho. This original Stoke Newington branch is the best-loved. All the classics are present and correct, such as beetroot pachadi, mango and green banana curry, black-eye bean curry, and tamarind rice. Don’t miss the crunchy pre-meal snacks.
Rasa N16, 55 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 OAR.
Named after the capital of Kerala, this popular restaurant serves Keralan specials like puttu (savoury cylindrical rice and coconut cakes) to be eaten with kadala (black chickpea curry in coconut-based gravy); plus a range of great-value ‘curry meals’ (like thali). Don’t confuse it with its nearby sister restaurant, Ananthapuri.
Thiru Ananthapuram, 241A High Street North, East Ham 612 6SJ.
It might not be much to look at, but this modest Keralan serves regional specialities amid standard ‘curry house’ staples. Try one of the ‘nadan’ curries flavoured with shallots, tomatoes, curry leaves and green chillies; or cassava and fish curry, and blue crab fry.
Udaya, 105 Katherine Road, East Ham, E6 1ES.
Serving both Keralan and Tamil dishes, this simple venue specialises in a good selection of appams (bowl-shaped rice and coconut milk pancakes). Other specialities include Malabar fish curry, beef fry, and egg roast. There’s also a superb breakfast menu focused on appams, dosas and other savoury snacks.
Aappa Kadai, 315 High Street North, East Ham, E12 6SL.
Key flavours and cooking styles: rice, lentils and vegetables; flavourings centred on coconut, curry leaves, fresh ginger, tamarind, mustard seeds and other spices; pickles and chutneys, ‘tiffin’ breakfast snacks like dosas and idlis; and the serving of traditional meals on banana leaves.
Owned by Karam Sethi (see Trishna above), this no-bookings Soho favourite specialises in snacks from Tamil Nadu (and Sri Lanka). Appams or hoppers (bowl-shaped rice and coconut milk pancakes) have been available in the capital for decades – but Sethi was the first to put them on the hipster culinary map. Try other interesting dishes here, such as bone marrow varuval (a spicy Chettinad-style ‘fry’). Be prepared to join the 'virtual' queue by putting your name down and returning later, or visit early on a weekday.
Hoppers, 49 Frith Street, Soho W1D 4SG (there's also a branch on St Christopher's Place).
Specialising in dosa (rice and urid lentil pancakes), this plain and simple café serves a mind-boggling selection, accompanied by coconut chutney and sambhar (spicy lentil and vegetable broth). Other brunch-time classics include idli (steamed spongy rice cakes) and medhu vada (savoury lentil doughnuts).
Sarashwathy Bavans, 549 High Road, Wembley, HA0 2DJ.
There’s a vast menu of south Indian classics at this international vegetarian chain. Treat yourself to uttappam (rice pancake with ‘pizza-style’ toppings), upma (savoury semolina ‘risotto’) and rasa vada (lentil doughnuts in spicy lentil broth).
Saravanaa Bhavan, 254 Upper Tooting Road, SW17 0DN. Other branches are in Ilford, East Ham, Southall, Harrow and Wembley.
Ignore the Chinese sections of the menu at this south Indian vegetarian – and try items you may be less familiar with, such as cauliflower dosa, potato bonda (spiced golf ball-shaped fritters) or pongal (mildly spiced rice with split yellow moong beans).
Vasanta Bhavan, 206 High Street North, East Ham, E6 2JA.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Fish, vegetables and lentils served with rice; white poppy seeds, mustard seeds, panch phoron (five spice mix) as main flavourings; a balance of tastes (including bitter) and textures (such as fried) in traditional multi-course meals; and a world-class sweet-making tradition that’s on a par with French patisserie.
Calcutta has a distinct culinary identity, with influences from north India, China and Britain; plus a lively street food scene.
Young Bengali chef Shrimoyee Chakraborty opened this restaurant in Fitzrovia a couple of years ago with family at her side. The aim was to bring her favourite childhood snacks and food stalls from New Market in Calcutta to the streets of London, and in doing so has had much success. Expect puchka (pani puri-like crisp semolina pastry shells filled with spiced potatoes, tamarind and mint water), seabream steamed in banana leaf with mustard and coconut, and pitha – rice flour pancakes with coconut and jaggery.
Calcutta Street, 29 Tottenham Street, W1T 1RU.
Tiger Kitchen supperclub
Cookery tutor and food writer Shahnaz Ahsan runs Bengali cookery classes and hosts supperclubs. Check the website for the next Bengali Street Feast supperclub. On the menu are lightly spiced vegetable niramish and sweet coconut pastry puffs.
The Everybody Love Love Jhalmuri Express supperclub
This popular Calcutta street food specialist hosts supperclubs and runs workshops, and can be found at food events and festivals including KERB. The speciality is Bengali vegetarian street food snacks and drinks.
Key flavours and cooking styles: Until 1947, Sindh was located in the undivided north-west India; it is now part of Pakistan. Hindu Sindhis migrated to different parts of India (and the world). Hindu Sindhi and Muslim Sindhi cuisines are broadly similar, based on meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products – but Muslim is more meaty, and Hindu more vegetarian. There are notable Central Asian and Middle Eastern influences; and turmeric, red chilli powder, asafoetida and cumin are some of the main flavourings.
Named after a mountain range, this is the London branch of a Sindhi family-owned chain from India. There’s a large menu of pan-Indian dishes, but try the ‘Sindh Jo Swad’ (Taste Of Sindh) section of the menu. Here you’ll find the famous Sindhi curry, koki (Sindhi roti), and aani basar (chickpea flour tikkis topped with onion and tomato masala). Elsewhere there are classics such as dahl pakwan (mildly spiced lentils with crisp, fried, cracker-like round flatbread). It’s best to visit at Sunday lunchtime, when some of these traditional items are served.
Kailash Parbat, 529 High Road, Wembley, HA0 2DH.
Darjeeling Express’ Asma Khan’s highly acclaimed cooking is difficult to categorise: it’s a mixture of Calcutta Mughlai and Hyderabadi styles, reflecting her background. Starting as a supperclub for just 12 lucky diners, Darjeeling Express now has a permanent home off Carnaby Street in order to share the lovingly-made recipes that go back generations. Favourites include prawn malaikari (spiced tiger prawns swimming in coconut milk) and regional dishes such as tangy and spicy Hyderabadi aubergines. Mondays are meat free.
Darjeeling Express, Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby, W1B 5PW.