The first Indian restaurant opened its doors in London more than 200 years ago but the venture flopped and its owner was declared bankrupt. But Sake Dean Mohamet’s sweat in the kitchen did not go in vain because he created history and opened the doors to a multi-million dollar Indian food business. SHAMLAL PURI takes a look at the Indian culinary delights available today in the UK. He writes never will an Indian coming from India miss the food back at home.


                                         By SHAMLAL PURI in London

Fancy uttapam, idli and sambhar from South India; toovar daal, rice, theplas, farsan from Gujarat; Goan fish curry from Goa, sarson ka saag and makki ki roti from the Punjab; Bengali chum chum from Kolkata or even Parsi dishes such as Dhansak and Pathia? Well, you don’t have to buy an expensive flight to India. Take your pick here in the UK – you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to eating Indian food.

     Ironically, the first Indian restaurant that opened in the UK more than 200 years ago failed to pull in business but it created history.

     According to records, the man who sweated in the kitchen over two centuries ago cooking Indian dishes was from the Indian state of Bihar.

     From the humble beginning in London, in the form of The Hindostanee Coffee House on George Street, in London’s Portman Square, Sake Dean Mohamet made history, probably giving birth to a multi-million dollar Indian food industry, which has grown, employing more than 100,000 people. Today there is hardly any village of street in the United Kingdom that does not have an Indian restaurant.

    The story goes that Sake Dean Mohamet, who was born in 1759 in Patna, joined the East Indian Company and rose to the rank of subedar, a historical rank in the Indian Army, just below British commissioned officers and above non-commissioned officers. He and his best friend, Captain Godfrey Baker, came to Britain in 1784 and started a new life in Ireland.

     Dean studied English and married Jane Daly, “a pretty Irish girl of respectable parentage”. He had several children and published a book with the title: “The Travels of Dean Mahomet, a Native of Patna.”

     Dean moved to Portman Square in London 1809 where he joined the vapour bath owned by Sir Basil Cochrane. Here Mahomet added “champi” (head massage) to the list of services offered, and later opened The Hindostanee Coffee House. His restaurant was aimed at Anglo-Indians for the “enjoyment of Hookha, (pipe) with ‘real chilm tobacco’, and offered Indian dishes in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England”, in a setting decorated with Indian and Oriental scenes.

     The food served at his restaurant was good, but the time was wrong. Three years later Dean was declared bankrupt. After several trysts in his fortunes, he was appointed “Shampooing Surgeon” to King George IV. He died in 1851.

     Organisers of Britain’s National Curry Week believe the first restaurant was opened in 1809, while other historical sources claim that the restaurant was opened in 1810.

     According to the Curry Tree Charitable Fund, one of the organisers of the National Curry Week, since Dean’s first Indian restaurant, the industry has grown to more than 10,000 today, generating considerable revenue to the British exchequer and employing over 100,000 people.

     “Over that 200 year period the industry has served 2.5 billion people – a figure to be exceeded in just 20 years to come – and over £30 billion has been spent on food alone, a figure that will be beaten in the coming 15 years.

     During these 200 years people have consumed nearly 5 billion poppadums (a thin crispy Indian wafer sometimes described as a cracker or flatbread) and 400 million portions of Chicken Tikka Masala, the organisers said.

     Nearly 23 million people (over a third of the population) in Britain eat out on a regular basis and most of these enjoy a restaurant curry on one or more occasion while millions more opt for Indian takeaways, cook Indian dishes at home or buy ready made from the supermarket.

     After Sake Dean’s experiment, the Indian restaurant scene was almost non-existent. In the yester years, there were very few Indian restaurants in the UK. The only posh Indian restaurant of note was Veeraswamy – one of the oldest surviving Indian restaurants in the U.K, and possibly the world. It is an institution. 

     It was established in 1926 at the same site by the great grandson of an English General, and an Indian princess. The restaurant has been the rendezvous of rich, famous, and fashionable lovers of Indian food. Customers included Edward – Prince of Wales, King Gustav of Sweden, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan, and Marlon Brando.

    In the Strand, Central London, there is a restaurant called India Club. It claims to be the oldest in the UK. It serves authentic Indian food but the eatery is reminiscent of a school canteen. In the yester years it was frequented mainly by staff from the Indian High Commission but its reputation spread among the white office workers who now frequent that place. They loathe it for its ambience and tacky furniture but like the mouth-watering food served there.

    For the common man, in the 1960s and 70s, saw the growth of Indian eatries. It was very different: if you were home sick, you either headed for India to enjoy Indian culinary delights or to Southall, in west London, where a limited choice of food was available.

    Not today. Indian restaurants have sprung up in every nook and corner of the country. Today experts say there are more Indian restaurants in the UK than Mumbai and Delhi put together. In London alone, there are more than 1,500 listed Indian restaurants, not to mention the ones not officially listed. A conservative estimate puts the total number of Indian restaurants in the UK to a whopping 14,000. Curry is clearly the king in the UK. It has overtaken traditional English foods such as roast meat, Yorkshire puddings and boiled veggies by miles. Today there is a growing demand for Indian food and interestingly enough, white Britons have embraced Indian culinary delights so well that restaurants and take-away joints are springing up like mushroom bhaji.

     If you can stand the heat in the kitchen, acquired culinary skills handed down to you from Indian forefathers and have money to invest, go in for restaurant business. Profits are high if your menu clicks.

     Years ago, in Wembley, west London, an enterprising businessman from Kenya set up a fast food restaurant called Maru Bhajia. Based on a simple recipe of thinly cut round potates fried in gram flour, the family picked up a lot of business. His food was the talk of the town. Queues used to build up outside the restaurant and waiting time could even be an hour. Yet, customers holding chits with queue numbers were prepared to wait it out.

     Then came the ‘Sokoni’ chain of restaurants, specializing in vegetarian fare. It has built up a reputation and a business empire derived from the sale of Indian dishes in several parts of London. Its reputation has crossed the borders of Britain with the opening of a branch in Dubai. Sokoni, meaning market in the East African language of Kiswahili, has innovatively fused traditional Chinese dishes with Indian spices thus cashing in with a loyal clientale.

     Aside from the fast food eateries and café like restaurants, the UK has restaurants of repute.

     Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy, Amaya and Masala Zone restaurants in London are some of the leading restaurants in the UK serving Indian food. These are owned by Namita Panjabi and her investment-banker husband Ranjit Mathrani, through their family company, Masala World.

     Their success can be measured by the fact that the Group is serving real Indian food of quality to more than half a million customers a year, perhaps more than any other restaurant group outside India. It is also unique in spanning both the top end and the mid market levels.

     Masala World won the high profile Restaurateur of the Year Awards such as the Tatler Restaurant Award, the first time this has been awarded to a Group serving non-European food.  Today there are seven branches of Masala Zone.

     Amaya, their top-end restaurant has achieved the rare distinction of winning the two most prestigious restaurant awards in the UK in the same year – The Tio Pepe ITV 2005 Awards for the Best Restaurant of the Year as well as the Best New Restaurant of the Year. This achievement is more remarkable for the fact that this is the first time either award, let alone both, has been awarded to a restaurant serving non – European food.

     The Punjabis have had a life long passion for real Indian food, and have travelled throughout India to find it. They say the best Indian food is found in peoples’ homes, Maharajas’ palaces, and humble wayside stalls.

     Namita and Ranjit created Chutney Mary, located in Chelsea, London in 1990, which won the Award of the Best Indian Restaurant in the UK shortly afterwards. Chutney Mary was transformed in May 2002 to ensure it remained Britain’s finest restaurant serving Indian food.

   They bought Veeraswamy in 1997 and refashioned it. In 2001 they opened Masala Zone, a fun, budget and casual Indian restaurant located in Soho, London serving real Indian food at unreal prices – under £14 per head – in a sleek Indian folk art setting. It rapidly became one of the most popular restaurants serving Indian food in Britain. This was followed a second Masala Zone in Islington, north London. The third opened in Earls Court, London  in April 2005.

     Amaya, their top-end venture – spearheaded by Camellia Punjabi – is located in fashionable Belgravia, London SW1. It is the India Grill. The restaurant cuisine features different Indian grilling methods in full view of diners in a specially designed open show kitchen – a dramatic food theatre. It has already won exceptional praise from restaurant critics since its opening in October 2004, for food, ambience and style. This has culminated in it achieving the almost unique distinction of winning the two most prestigious restaurant awards in the UK in the same year – The Tio Pepe ITV 2005 Awards for the Best Restaurant of the Year as well as the Best New Restaurant of the Year.

     There are other Indian restaurants of repute Zaika in London’s plush Kensington High Street. Zaika translates quite literally as sophisticated flavours and this is the ethos behind the innovative menu. With an emphasis on refined yet creative Indian cuisine, the menu incorporates both traditional classic favourites and original new dishes that apply eastern flavours with a western twist.

     Acclaimed favourites include Indian Home Smoked Salmon, Lamb Rogan Josh and Chocolate Silk, a dish that has been greatly imitated by other establishments across the Capital.

     The sumptuous interior lends itself to the rich vibrancy of India during the colonial era incorporating a palette of rich colours; ruby, green gold, crimson and purple.

     Since opening its doors Zaika has received a string of industry accolades including the first Indian restaurant obtaining a Michelin star and the Best Indian Restaurant in the London Restaurant Awards.

     Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, Quilon are other household names.

     Quilon is a success story of its own. It offers a traditional home style South Indian cuisine in the heart of London’s St James Park. Its chefs offer a unique style of cooking which has put Quilon firmly on the map of Indian culinary delights in Britain.

    Their cuisine has resulted in a unique blend of ethnic and progressive dishes on the Quilon menu – Black Cod Vattichathu, Asparagus and Beans and Crab Meat curry, Mangalorean Chicken Curry, Fish in banana leaf, Avial, Masala Dosa.

     In Southall, the hub of the Indian community, there is no shortage of restaurants in the Broadway. Names such as Madhu’s Brilliant have attracted clientale from outside the town – Chef Guloo Anand’s East African-tinged Indian cooking has helped to make Brilliant a Southall legend. As busy as ever, this quirky restaurant has all the dishes you’d expect, plus a few. Kick off with a house speciality, the fab dahi bhallas (fried lentil dumplings) served with sweet tamarind chutney, then maybe head for the cumin-flavoured jeera chicken, or else go for the methi chicken with fragrant fenugreek. 

     Another part of London that is booming with restaurants is Brick Lane, in the east end of the city.  Just saying Brick Lane conjures up visions of countless Indian restaurants all vying for customers. The area has been the first port of call for immigrants from Chittagong port of Bengal working in the ports. Their regular stopover paved the way for food/curry outlets to be opened up catering for an all male workforce as family migration and settlement took place some decades later. Humble beginnings such as this gave birth to Brick Lane as the famous curry capital of the UK. Curry is eaten in almost all part of the Indian sub-continent and nearby regions, namely India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It has varying degrees of style, taste and aroma, depending on which local ingredients are used. Bengalis of Sylheti origin constitute only ten percent of all South Asians in Britain; however around 90 per cent of all Indian restaurants in the UK are Sylheti/Bengali owned.Many are well-established and frequented by Bangladeshi communities. One is spoilt for choice with such names as Meraz, Bengal Village, the Brick Lane Clipper among hordes of others.

     I remember with some mirth as a reporter once covering a demonstration in London’s east end by members of the notorious racist National Front who were chanting anti-Asian slogans, taunting passing Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, telling them to pack their bags and go back to their countries. At lunch time, they were hungry and needed feeding – they went into an Indian restaurant, put their their placards against the wall and leisurely tucked into chicken tikka masala and naan bread. They seemed to have lost the plot of their protest. Indian culinary delights had calmed down their jangled nerves!

    Leicester in the central England also, the home of Asians settled there, has many Indian restaurants offering a culinary delight of its own. Belgrave Road boasts some of the best Asian restaurants in the country. Bobby’s is something of an institution in Leicester. It is the longest established vegetarian Indian restaurant offering a mainly Gujarati fare.

    Competing for business just across the road from Bobby’s is Jalsa, an ultra modern vegetarian eatery specialising in Gujarati cuisine. Then there is Sharmilee, Lal, The Grand Durbar, all offering a good variety. Mirch Masala is a unique Indian establishment with a paan shop, a must in Leicester, The Tiffin conjures quite a lot of local business.

    The award-winning Curry fever restaurant offers the best in Punjabi and North Indian cuisine.  Sakoni has also opened its branch in Leicester.

     In Edinburgh, Britannia Spice offers a variety of Indian dishes alongside food from Nepal and Bangladesh.

     The Verandah Tandoori Restaurant in Edinburgh, has been awarded every major honour that a restaurant can receive, such as “Best Indian Restaurant” by Scottish Good Food Guide, “Restaurant of The Year” by M8, “Best In Britain” by National Restaurant Directory, “Best In Scotland” by Good Curry Guide, Les Routiers “Casserole Award” twelve years in a row, Listed in Britain’s Top Indian Restaurants By The Good Curry Guide and has continually received accolades from restaurant critics and other guide books and visited by personalities such as Clint Eastwood, Sir Cliff Richard and many others.

    So, the United Kingdom is now home to thousands of Indian eating places. The only thing that is missing are the Dabbawallas of Mumbai. Who knows, one day an enterprising businessman, London and major UK cities could open the market for the invasion of hordes of tiffinwallas wading through the streets of Britain to deliver lunch to office workers…. Mumbai style.

—Shamlal Puri