From the big, spicy and meat-filled to the fragrant, health-conscious and packaged to go, curry, and its many counterparts, is everywhere you look in the contemporary food world. ‘When I came to this area, there were only four restaurants from Tooting to Tooting Bec, now it is four in a parade!’ Chuckles Das Krishna, owner of Indian restaurant Mango Palace in Tooting, as he recalls the progression of curry culture from when he became a part of London’s 25 years ago.
Das says that people’s palates have progressed; once craving enormous portions laden with ghee and pints of Cobra, Londoners are now seeking lighter and more vegetarian cuisine, perhaps a reason for the rise in interest in South Indian and Sri-Lankan food, the type of food that Mango Palace specialises in. ‘The big difference between South and North Indian food is that South is more vegetarian, is more fragrant and contains more fish; we have lots of lemongrass and it is mostly coconut-based.’
And Das and his kitchen, from Kerala in South India, make delicious food. From the obviously freshly made mild-and-spicy chutneys and sauces served with brittle poppadoms, to the unassuming-but-stunning coconut Cochin prawn curry, the Palace certainly makes an impression. Though our culinary celebration on a small table for two felt almost out of place in the empty restaurant; it is a large lavender place that beckons for the hum of guests and for the familiarity of curry-stained tablecloths.
However, it was before midday on a Tuesday. But, having said that, the famous Tayyab’s in White Chapel was anything but bare. It is a mammoth place – its appendages stretching out across the length of the hidden Fieldgate Street. Welcoming customers with its pristinely manicured plants and electric-blue neon-lit sign, Tayyab’s has a presence that is very slightly intimidating.
A family-run business, Aleem Tayyab greets us and we are invited into the fiery open kitchen to observe how they work. It seems there is an intense structure to the kitchen’s inner-workings, and there must have to be. There is order, but among it, chaos – with naans flying from the coal-burning tandoor and thick smoke billowing from a boiling hot kerahi. The demanding Aleem we see in the kitchen later becomes an endearing and enthusiastic curry conversationalist, revealing Tayyab’s story to be a very interesting one indeed.
‘Originally it was just a café…my dad used to buy two loaves of bread and serve toast and tea. He used to make a bowl of curry just for himself at lunchtime and his friends used to come in they used to say, “you know Tayyab this is a nice curry”…so the word spread!’ Forty years later and Tayyab’s is run by Mohammed Tayyab’s three sons: Saleem, Aleem and Wasim, and the restaurant has earnt an incredible reputation for serving some of the finest Punjabi cuisine in London.
Building that reputation did not come easily, but it is something that Aleem is sweetly humble about, ‘We are so lucky…but we don’t want to be a restaurant that used to be good and now it’s rubbish, we don’t want to hear that. We are scared of losing it.’
After tasting Tayyab’s perfect peshwari naan, I think that Aleem’s fear is a needless emotion. And the legendary restaurant’s tremendously reasonable prices, family-centric ethos and strict BYOB policy just confirms this.
Sabir Karim’s Salaam Namaste in Bloomsbury is a different experience altogether. A member of British Airway’s cabin crew, this restaurateur gleans inspiration for his multi-national menu from his travels around the globe. Inspired by his native Bangladesh, his wife’s native Pakistan, and his travelled Delhi, Goa and Mumbai, the dishes are collaborative creations, and are cooked with the customer in mind, ‘our guests are well-travelled – they know food and they know they taste, so we replicate the same taste as much as possible and that is important.’
The presentation is immaculate and the dishes daring – a gently fried whole soft-shell crab towers over our other starters – and one marvels at how you cannot order incorrectly with the Asian Curry Award-winning chef; from the vegetarian sweet mango and green banana curry to the Goan-style sea bass, a Salaam Namaste signature dish.
Though slightly stiffer than Mango Palace or Tayyab’s, Salaam Namaste very much follows its own rules, allowing it the freedom to truly be itself, ‘I try different food from abroad and bring back the recipes and infuse them into our style of cooking…we always experiment and I think we stand out for the uniqueness of our food.’