Secret Indian Food Tour: Wonderful dishes and the warmest of welcomes
It came as no surprise that the Indian Food Tour began a short stumble in the evening cold from Brick Lane, the British capital’s – if not the world’s – most well-known area for Indian food (barring, y’know, India). Raj, our wonderful, welcoming guide, greeted us warmly and within five minutes had broken down our frosty London stranger-danger exteriors, and we set off as a unit.
We stopped first outside a restaurant so humble in appearance that at first we thought our guide was pausing to rest his legs. Surely this tiny, fluorescent-lit café couldn’t be the first stop on our authentic food tour? It was. The café grill opens up into a deep, cool, tiled restaurant. We chugged sensational mango lassis (yoghurt-like blended drinks) and sample a hot crispy-fried piazu (like a pakora) with bracing raw onion and lemon to balance. We were off to a strong start. As we left, the beaming proprietors wanted to answer questions about their dishes. They willed us to return.
Our tour continued and we passed the mosque as we walked into Banglatown, which stood as a warm omen for more to come. This time it’s not a restaurant but a supermarket. After being guided around, I was concussed by dozens of alien fruits and vegetables, whole sugarcanes, onions the size of bowling balls, kaleidoscopes of spices, pastes and catering equipment. These groceries were steeped in family knowledge, generational knowledge and tradition.
Grinning and toting new boxes of chai, we stumbled across the road into a local balti house. As we waited for the first dish, Raj produced a spice container (not his mother’s, but similar), and we played a guessing-game as he ground up each one and proffered them for our noses. By this point, we were all good friends, and many memories and stories wafted out with the aromas. We were served spiced chickpeas wrapped in fried bread, beside a tart tamarind chutney, and it was truly glorious: rich, decadent, zingy. I was envious of other, fuller plates. Raj’s choice offering of Saag Lamb, Tarka Daal and naans followed shortly after. The former dish was seducing, its hypnotic fennel aroma the star of the evening. The chickpea daal was unashamedly garlicky, and light as a feather. We ploughed into the spread but slammed on the brakes when Raj reminded us we had other meals in store. It was solid advice, but to this day I’m still haunted by the two morsels of lamb we left behind.
At this point I realised how thrilled I was to have our dishes selected by Raj. Every Brick Lane restaurant claims to be number one on TripAdvisor, every dish is the best, every window bears a photograph of Ainsley Harriot shaking hands with the staff, yet you won’t miss out. In an age of FOMO and the power of “What if?”, that’s a weight off one’s shoulders.
Our next stop after a show-and-tell of brightly coloured Indian sweets (which have the common trait of being steeped in syrup at any moment they’re not being eaten) was a kebab house. London foodies will know this is a London institution, set up in the 70s and still going strong. In contrast to our previous stop, it could be mistaken for a canteen: plain lighting, cheap cutlery, bring your own booze. Yet far from tackiness, the restaurant thrives on bustle and activity. The three floors can all fill at a weekend. Voices echo, we were chatting with the table next door, and suddenly Happy Birthday was sung throughout the hall. It’s alive.
We were spoiled as we were shown around the kitchen: each chef showed his craft, glowed with pride at our smiles and wows. The food was, of course, wonderful and affordable, but at the end of the night I wasn’t thinking about flavours, I was thinking about community. We were taken into an intimidatingly complex world, not being “regulars” or “locals”, not speaking the language. We were guided into special spaces, and most importantly, shown that we were welcome. I don’t think we’d realised the barriers we’d each had until we felt them coming down. You may well come along for the curry, but you’ll leave as part of a new, slightly more connected London.
Photos: Matthew Pull
Secret Food Tours offer four different London experiences and tickets start at £18. For more information or to book visit their website here.