Fancy an Indian? History of migration from the subcontinent to the UK has meant most Brits think ‘curry’ and ‘Indian’ are synonymous. In actual fact, most local curry houses in Britain are run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who for decades have been serving up an Anglicised take on Indian food which is not authentic nor anywhere near as tasty as it could be. However, recent years have seen a significant change for the better. Cuisines from specific cultures and countries are beginning to be marketed as such, and cooked in the traditional way as handed down through the generations.
In London, there are thriving Pakistani communities across the city and there are several restaurants and cafés that proudly serve Pakistani food in all its spicy, heady glory. Drier and richer than its Indian counterparts, Pakistani food hits you with a rush of pungent spices and strong sizzling barbecue smells.
Here are two of my favourite Pakistani food spots:
Tayyabs is a chaotic, family-owned Punjabi restaurant in Whitechapel that has been serving up affordable food that packs a punch for over 40 years. Shielded from the tourists of Brick Lane, this is for those ‘in the know’ (although the huge queues snaking around the restaurant and out the door suggest the word is well and truly out).
Favourites of my boyfriend and brothers’ are the famous lamb chops. Marinated in cumin, chilli and ginger and grilled at high intensity on the barbecue, they arrive piled high, sizzling and spitting at your table in a cloud of smoke and spice. It is quite normal for guests to pack away four lamb chops each before they even begin their main course…or perhaps this is just my greedy dining companions (!!). Not being a lamb eater (yes I don’t like lamb, there I’ve said it) I enjoy the samosas, delicately spiced vegetables and green chilli in a pocket of crisp, flaky pastry, and the pakoras, shredded mixed vegetables with chilli and cumin seeds, battered in gram (chickpea) flour and fried to perfection.
The main courses are richer and drier than the ubiquitous dishes you find at your local curry house, Again my men folk enjoy the beef based ‘dry meat’ which is an unapologetically hot, mouthwatering blend of garlic, chilli, and turmeric. I enjoy the Karahi chicken, cooked in a deep pot for hours to develop a wonderful aroma and tender meat. The vegetarian dishes of saag aloo, chana masala and a range of dhals are all delicious, richly spiced and body warming.
Whatever you choose from the menu must be rounded off with breads freshly cooked in the tandoor clay oven; garlic naans and tandoori parathas are soft, warm and buttery; perfect for mopping up the residual spices from your curry.
And what else is great about Tayyabs? Well it’s so reasonably priced you’ll struggle to spend more than £20 a head and it’s BYOB. But – as with all great things in life there is the odd downside. The service is curt and perfunctory (sometimes to the point of rudeness); they’ll give you your bill as you’re taking your last bites and hanging around to finish your drinks is most certainly frowned upon. Booking is essential and you should still expect to wait for a table (but thankfully not for hours like the people queuing up.)
To really make the best of your Tayyabs experience, come armed with a couple of cold Cobras, a huge appetite and remember you’re there for the food and the food alone. With this in mind, you’re in for a spectacular dining experience at what can only be described as a London institution, firmly entrenched in the capital’s subcontinental food scene.
Brixton Village has exploded onto the London food scene in the last few years, As you wander the maze of Thai, Japanese, and Mexican food, Burgers, pizzas and Beijing dumplings, you will also find Elephant; a Pakistani café serving up street-food delicacies in minimalist surroundings.
Food produced at Elephant is done so on a domestic stove and a small fryer. The menu is small but well equipped with classics such as samosas, pakoras and thalis. My favourite dish is the vegetable samosa chaat, two perfectly cooked samosas served underneath a delicious chickpea curry, cooling cucumber raita and a salad of chopped tomato and onions. It is marked as a starter on the menu but I find it’s perfect as a lunch or light supper. The thalis are a delicious mix of robustly spiced, fragrant chicken, keema or vegetable curries, served with rice, dhal and nans. Sadly a tandoor oven is a no-go in these surroundings so the naans aren’t the best you’ll ever have, but they are still tasty and do their job well.
Much like Tayyabs the prices are cheap and it’s BYOB – so you can have a brilliant meal for under £10 easily. If you are in the mood for something sweet, or you need warming up on a cold day, their masala chai is the perfect balance of spice and lovely to sip on as you wait for your glorious lunch to arrive.