Ameer Kotecha

The renaissance of Indian cuisine

The renaissance of Indian cuisine
BiBi restaurant, London
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For anyone with any interest in the story of Mumbai, or the modern history of Indian food in the UK, Britannia & Co. is a worthy lunch destination when on the subcontinent. An institution in the city, it is one of a clutch of surviving Irani cafes that once filled Bombay. Their fame has peaked in recent years, in no small part because they were the inspiration behind one of London’s biggest restaurant successes of the last decade –Dishoom.

These Irani cafes were places where sweaty taxiwallahs mingled with suited and booted business execs, while eating eggs akuri or lamb keema, under wooden fans whirling overhead. The proprietor of Britannia & Co, Mr Kohinoor, tells me the restaurant was before him run by his grandfather and then his father until the age of 95. Now the Bombay regulars are joined by foodie pilgrims from afar, seeking out his establishment. I ask him what he thinks of Dishoom? He nods vaguely as if I’ve referenced some half-forgotten obscurity. I wonder what he would think if he saw the queues snaking around the block outside any of their London eateries on a Friday night.

At Britannia & Co., the walls are adorned with the Indian flag and a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, but also the Iranian flag and a landscape of the great ruined city of Persepolis. And next to the picture of Gandhi is another portrait – that of HM The Queen. The strange mix of Indian, Persian and British influence finds its way too into Britannia & Co.’s food. And it is the same formula that has been adopted so cleverly, and successfully, by Dishoom and many of the other new Indian restaurants that have flourished in London in recent years.

In that recent reinvention of the UK’s Indian restaurant scene, one group looms large: the British-Indian diaspora. They are the successors to the Bangladeshi migrant workers who arrived in East London in the 1970s, making Brick Lane the epicentre of London’s curry scene. But these first and second generation immigrants have brought with them a new sort of cooking. They are as likely to have come here via Africa, as directly from India. Hence Ravinder Bhogal (born in Kenya, to Indian parents) and the ‘no borders’ cooking of her Marylebone restaurant Jikoni typified in dishes like Kuku Paka with Sukuma Wiki. British influences also abound – take Jikoni’s Ovaltine kulfi, or Dishoom’s famous bacon naan rolls. At my own Anglo-Indian-African pop-up restaurant in Pimlico meanwhile, the house favourite was the Doon Mess – a twist on Eton Mess re-named after India’s most famous boarding school.

The stars of this new movement are middle-class, well-educated: of a background typically destined to become lawyers, doctors and accountants rather than chefs or restaurateurs. JKS Restaurants, which has been behind some of London’s hottest new openings over the last decade, are a family trio consisting of siblings Karam (a chef), Sunaina (a sommelier) and Jyotin (the finance guy who covers the business side). When Karam’s classmates from Haberdashers’ were doing banking internships, he was doing stints abroad training as a chef. That training and the use of classical technique is apparent on the plate at the JKS restaurants.

There is a notable, confident, use too of old colonial themes, at the JKS restaurants and beyond. From the names – Mayfair’s Gymkhana is a reference to the elite Raj-era Anglo-Indian sports clubs; to the interior furnishings –Jamavar models itself on the old Viceroy's house in Delhi and Bombay Bustle’s seating booths are modelled on colonial-era Indian railway carriages. But the authentic Indian flavours of the food have never been compromised or toned down: as Karam says to me, 'We’ve never looked to reinvent or change those flavours to suit European palates, but rather to faithfully translate them so a new audience can enjoy them as much as we always have done.'

What is most striking though of the new breed of Indian restaurants proliferating across the capital is the commitment to careful provenance. BiBi in Mayfair, has a whole page on its menu mapping out the sourcing of its spices and flavourings: wild black mustard seeds from Odisha, to pomegranates from Kandahar (which is a cheering reminder of one of Afghanistan’s less problematic exports). The meticulous attention to sourcing is as evident with the British produce which the restaurant takes evident pride in celebrating, from Orkney Scallop Nimbu Pani to Hereford Beef Pepper Fry and Cornish Native Lobster Tikka. Even the grill’s coal is labelled as 'Holm Oak charcoal from the South Downs'.

BiBi’s chef, Chet Sharma, (who, like Karam of the JKS trio, is not your typical chef – he has a physics PhD from Oxford) regards it as fundamental to his approach: as he has said of the new restaurant, 'take our seafood: I’ll be able to tell you, not only the name of the boat, but the name of the fisherman who caught each and every piece'.

This trend of new, innovative Indian dining is not entirely limited to London: there are now Dishooms in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. But outside of the capital, to use the language of the Michelin guide, seeking out examples of this new Indian cooking does often require a little ‘detour’. Aktar Islam has opened the excellent Opheem in Birmingham –I t is the only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant outside of London.

Where does this all sit with grabbing a curry down your local Indian? I’m not embarrassed to admit enjoying the typical curry house experience, if as much out of sentimental attachment as for the quality of the food. Sometimes a chicken tikka masala and three pints is exactly what you need. But the traditional curry houses of old are now supplemented by a range of Indian restaurants to suit even the most special occasion. And that is a salivating prospect.

Three innovative Indian restaurants in London to try:


BiBi, London

Having just been awarded best new opening of the year in the National Restaurant Awards, one doesn’t come to BiBi short of expectation. But the cooking lives up to the hype. There are playful, slightly outrageous concepts: I try to imagine my late grandmother’s face at the idea of ‘champagne lassi’. The Wookey-hole Cheese Papad (read: fancy poppadums) come with a stupidly delicious dip of layered cultured cream, green chutney and mango pickle. I hint heavily to the waitress of my undying love (for the dip, mind) in the hope she’ll send me home with a lifetime supply. The mains are dominated by sigree – charcoal grilled meat and fish. The Aged Swaledale Lamb Chop Barraand Sharmaji’s Lahori Chicken are positively regal and cause me to look around dementedly, nodding and grinning at surrounding tables of diners. You can’t put a price on that.


Burrata, Waltham Place Beetroots from our biodynamic farm, Coconut & Cashews (Jikoni)

Should a prawn toast scotch egg be a thing? You wouldn’t think so. But 'Proudly inauthentic' is the title of Ravinder Bhogal’s recipe book and this is one of the signature products of her 'No Borders Kitchen'. Served with Banana ketchup and pickled cucumber, it is the best possible start to a meal. Most of the menu is seasonal and so there’s no guarantee of being able to try another classic – the dosa with Chettinad duck and coconut chutney – but you can be satisfied with the stalwart signature dessert of Banana Cake with Miso Butterscotch, Peanut Brittle and Ovaltine Kulfi. Positioned bang next door to Michelin-starredTrishna, Jikonihas been giving its long-established neighbour something to think about since it opened in 2016. Long may the glorious rivalry continue I say.


Full Rack of Tandoori Lamb Chops with Tandoori Onions (Brigadiers)

When Brigadiers opened in 2018 as the latest project from the Sethi family’s JKS Restaurants empire, it felt like things had come full circle. Jyotin Sethi is the one who deals with all the boring financial stuff and you can feel his influence in this expansive Indian barbecue pub-restaurant, smack in the middle of the City, which is designed to attract the banking set of which he used to be a part. The chicken wings with a blackened spicy crust and swimming in an unctuous butter sauce, typify the sumptuous menu. And they are the sort of thing the testosterone-heavy Goldman Sachs crowd will order five portions of while sinking beers at the pool table.