The Indian YMCA is hardly a secret, yet you'd be surprised how few Londoners have been. If you’re Indian and looking for a taste of home-away-from-home — or just after a taste of India-away-from-London — I have it on good authority this is some of the most authentic Indian food you will get for under a tenner. That authority being literally everyone I speak to over lunch at the Indian YMCA, most of whom were Indian.
The hostel sits just off Fitzroy Square, three minutes from Warren Street Station. With up to 150 guests at a time — some staying for six years, some six days — it’s a place where Indian students of all ages come to stay when, essentially, they don't know anyone in the UK.
Founded in 1920, the hostel has become a hub for the young Indian community of London, describing itself as "a little bit of India in Britain". Their restaurant is open to the public at specific breakfast, lunch and dinner intervals, seven days a week. I say specific because you will literally get kicked out by a tall (and actually very nice) man named Joaquim once the kitchen closes. To avoid disappointment, and indigestion, arrive on time.
I arrive promptly on a cold Saturday when the canteen is open from 12.30pm to 1.30pm for lunch. Weekday lunches (noon-2pm) and breakfasts (7.30-9.15am) are, I'm told, when the real action happens, and you may end up queuing for quite a while to get to the spiced goods. Or the sweet ones; a number of people tell me to come back during the week just so I can try the mango lassi, which isn’t on offer today.
The school dining hall layout of the restaurant makes it hard to eat in solitude; speaking to your fellow diners isn't compulsory, but it is evidently the norm. When I mention this to a resident they tell me that everyone, at one point in this building, arrived a stranger, so they're all very used to chatting to people they don't know. It's a comfortable, family feel, even for people that aren't residents — of which there are quite a few in the restaurant.
Saturday's lunch menu is simple: vegetable madras (there is always a veggie option), chicken balti, pilau rice, plain rice, cabbage and dal. It's all self-service and you can have as much as you want, as often as you want in the period that the kitchen is open for. All for just £8.50.
Main chef, Raha, has worked at Indian YMCA for 13 years. He's from Tamil Nadu in South India, an area which, fittingly, is famous for its love of serving food to others.
Raha tells me that there are 29 states in India, each of which has a slightly different cuisine. Different curries are served on different days. Raha's favourite is the chicken korma. Ramesh, assistant secretary to the hostel, who's from Hyderabad, prefers a biryani. Another highlight, many students inform me, is Thursday when they serve South Indian dishes like Sambar (a spicy lentil soup).
Coffee and Chaas (or buttermilk as some of my fellow diners call it) are complimentary with meals as well. I've never drunk Chaas before but it's essentially a mixture of yoghurt, water and herbs. It's punchy.
The first table I eat with aren't residents, just regulars. Retirees Monika and Francis started coming here about a year ago after attending one of the hostel's black tie events. They made so many friends, and liked the food so much, that they now come here once a week for lunch.
Ramesh, who helps manage the hostel, shows me picture after picture of such black tie events that Monika and Francis were introduced to Indian YMCA by. They host lots of cultural events too; all are welcome to celebrate Diwali, Holi, National Independence Day. They've even just had their Christmas Dinner.
This year they had Baron Karan Bilimoria, the British Indian entrepreneur who founded Cobra Beer, speak at their Christmas celebration. His speech, Ramesh tells me, "focussed on having a business mind set in everything you do." Bit heavy for a Christmas dinner, if you ask me.
My curry's so good, I go up for seconds.When I return, a big table of student residents invite me over: Rishi, 22, Anupa, 25, Sagar, 21, Krishna, 26, Annie, 20, Ankita, 19 and Pramud 28. Pramud is the Chairman of the Student Body at YMCA and has lived here for three years. He's studying for his Masters at London Business School.
The best thing about Indian YMCA, Pramud says, is the community: "we all eat together, and spend a lot of time together… it's like family." But he laments how cyclic it all is, "Every year the people change. People have to leave after studying because of visa restrictions," he says.
He's got used the hello and goodbye of it all though.
Sadly, Krishna, 26, is one such student leaving for good on Tuesday, due to visa restrictions. He's going back to Mumbai and is "devastated." Especially as he only met his best friend three months ago, after being here for a whole year. I realise that I'm probably sitting in on what's quite an emotional goodbye meal, but everyone’s welcoming and chatty nonetheless.
What will Krishna miss the most? "The disruption. At first I hated it, but I'm going to miss having people around me literally all the time." And his favourite meal at YMCA? "The biryani, I'll miss the biryani. They serve my favourite biryani dish on alternate Sundays."
London's first curry house was opened down the road from Indian YMCA in 1809, 50 years before the city's first fish-and-chip shop. Bizarrely, this is a question in the government's test that qualifies someone for British citizenship. I, a third-generation immigrant with citizenship, didn't know this before entering the YMCA but one of the Indian students who I briefly chatted to over lunch did. The ridiculousness of this saddens me.
It's not just British history at YMCA though. In his office Ramesh proudly tells me all about their monthly coach trips to various parts of Britain. British institutions such as Lulworth Cove (shout out Geography GCSE), Leicester (he doesn't know who Jamie Vardy is) and of course Barry Island (which, for those that didn't know, isn't even really an island) have all been visited by the hostel's residents this year.
Although YMCAs are historically Christian institutions, Ramesh explains that Indian YMCA is a totally "interfaith organisation that celebrates everyone, all communities". Young residents I talk to happily detail how religion or language isn't important here, they're like family and it's their shared experience that's brought them together.
And it's true, during my time in the restaurant the phrase "home away from home" is banded about a lot. Mostly from students who miss their mother's cooking. Ravi, a mechanical engineering student, who's lived at YMCA for three years, tells me that he considered moving out at one point, but living away from on-tap authentic Indian food, and trying to make it himself, genuinely saw his grades drop from a high first to a mid 2:1 (still pretty impressive by most people's standards but hey ho).
One of the last diners I speak to as the restaurant closes is Ritvik, 23. He's a Masters student originally from New Dehli. He isn't a resident here, but comes all the way from north London for Indian YMCA's curry. "I heard about this place through word of mouth".
What keeps him, and assumedly other customers, coming back? "When I'm missing home, I miss the food the most. They serve good Indian dishes here. I'm from New Dehli, and have found it hard to find authentic Indian food in London at as good a price as this."