A Guide To Regional Indian Dishes (And Where To Eat Them)
I’m perched on my bed, staring at a blinking cursor and a blank word document. A passion project with a finite word count stares back at me…whittling down my favourite regional Indian dishes is impossibly daunting when blindsided by overwhelming options. Pav bhaji, chilli idli, chicken 65, dhokla, prawn malai, medu vada, samosa chaat, bhel puri, kosha mangsho, shami kebab… The list goes on, but I must not.
So I have done what any semi-reasonable, self-deprecating, enthusiasm-curbing human would and resorted to the WFF (warm fuzzy feeling) factor. You know, that feeling of a fully charged phone or an empty Central line tube or even closure after your 10th drunken text? Yup, that.
I have taken this broad-brush approach to narrow down the dishes that give me an immeasurable dose of that WFF. Thus, here we are with my tiny little guide to some of my (and the Motherland’s) most-loved dishes and where to hunt them down in London town.
Kati rolls, more commonly referred to as egg rolls, are a sentiment – to me and all generations of Kolkata’s locals. It’s the reset button you succumb to when the going gets tough; the fixer-upper you didn’t know you needed. This iconic street-food wrap comprises a flaky outer layer of paratha with a petticoat of beaten egg that’s stuffed with grilled, skewered meat or veg and sprinkled with translucent onions, chopped chillies, and spice. Admittedly, none of the rolls that I have tried in London do justice to those sold on the bustling streets of Kolkata, however, the Kati Roll Company, a small informal eatery tucked away on Poland Street comes close and it’s their chicken tikka unda roll you really want in your life.
When asked what a committed long term relationship means to me, unintelligible words can be found frothing at my mouth. But then I think of Mumbaikars and I think of vada pav and I contemplate the former’s undeterred loyalty to the latter, and I feel like I suddenly have my answer. Vada pav is Mumbai’s take on fidelity. It is sustenance in the form of a spicy, batter-fried potato ball wedged into a butty slathered generously with an assortment of chutneys and served with blistered, fried chillies. This dish, and its explosion of flavour, is universally loved by every stratum of society in Mumbai. In London, my favourite spot for this taste of nostalgia is undoubtedly Shree Krishna Vada Pav in Hounslow. This unassuming spot (with branches across London) serves up various Maharashtrian specialities but their vada pav is the pièce de résistance. A single bite transports me back to the charming chaos of Mumbai.
A North Indian speciality, this dish is comprised of luxuriously rich chickpea curry paired with fluffy fried bread to mop it up with. Doesn’t sound like much, but it only takes a morsel of this grease-laden-artery-clogging-goodness to be converted. Trust me when I say, if this dish were an artist, you’d want front row seats to her sold-out arena tour. To sample an authentic version of this sensational classic (adored by Punjabis but all Indians really), look no further than Delhiwala – a little vegetarian fast food /takeaway chain in West London. Best had with a speckle of onions and accompaniments like mint yoghurt chutney, it is truly the perfect symphony. I salivate as I write.
We all have that one friend that is easy-going and fuss-free. Easy with plans, dates, schedules, and re-schedules. Dosa is your easy-going friend. A famous South-Indian staple, this paper-thin pancake/crêpe made of a fermented lentil and rice batter can easily be served as breakfast, lunch or dinner and is fuss-free enough to be eaten plain or stuffed with fillings. The only thing she asks is to be served with accompaniments like sambar and coconut chutney. While I have tried many twists on this dish – both sweet and savoury – a particularly daring rendition that worked a treat (traditionalists look away now) was Bombay Bustle’s duck dosa. Just go. Try it. Thank me later.
India’s take on dumplings. While there are various claims, research suggests that momos are traditionally Tibetan. However, the influence of this adopted delicacy has been so profound that these steamed little parcels of meat and veg are firmly enmeshed in most Indians’ DNA. Momos can be found widely at hawkers and restaurants across Northern, Eastern and North-Eastern India and I was thrilled to unearth a rather fabulous spot in London that pays homage to this dish. Fatt Pundit is a Soho spot that has ingeniously included plump meat and veg momos on its menu. These dumplings ooze flavour, spice and homesickness and are generally paired with hot dipping sauce.
Tandoor and Tikka
Restaurants and drinking dens across the Indian subcontinent dish out sharing plates of tandoori chicken, paneer tikka, chicken malai tikka and other tandoor-inspired plates alongside bevvies. Having sampled all that, olives, cured meat and a measly packet of crisps just won’t cut it for me anymore. I like substantial grub with my tipple and thankfully London is peppered with decent places for grilled meat and veg platters. I begrudgingly admit, though, it is the fine dining scene in London that make pockets and eyes weep that serve up some of the best tandoori and tikka dishes. The one spot that has its grilled meats and char down pat is Brigadiers, a smart restaurant in the City that prides itself in its barbecue dishes. Hit it up for a meat sweat with a riot of flavour.
To tolerate me, you must tolerate my obsession with biryani. I don’t get anyone that is ambivalent towards biryani, I simply don’t. Biryani is your high-maintenance friend. This awe-inspiring, sometimes intimidating dish demands attention and orchestrated precision. And rightly so. Believed to have been handed down by the Persians, the evolution of this richly layered and skilfully spiced, one-pot meat and rice dish (with its hotly debated renditions) unites and divides us in the Motherland. Each region has its local twist on the dish and everyone has their favourite type. As my quest to excavate good biryani spots in London continues, the one impressive biryani I had was at the much-hyped Gymkhana in Mayfair. Gymkhana does a curious muntjac biryani with a creamy raita made pretty with a pinch of pomegranate, what’s not to like?
This one will raise some eyebrows, I know, but hear me out. Sure, fried chicken is not something one inherently associates with Indian cuisine, however, this fiery, sometimes ominously red, always crispy fried chicken dish is loved across India and can be found in clubhouses and restaurants, served as an appetizer. Sadly, I don’t see this dish making an appearance on enough menus across London but, having sampled various versions of the chicken lollipop, I can conclude that one of the best can be found at Flavours of India in Hounslow which, as the name suggests, evokes immense nostalgia. Crispy on the outside, soft and succulent on the inside, just like your carefully crafted post-pandemic persona.