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Brick Lane

South Asian Food

Like other types of what we think of as ethnic cooking, the food of south Asia has gone from being an exotic and unfamiliar taste to being one of the staples of the British menu. Initially treated with great caution because of its reputation for explosively hot spicing, so-called Indian food is now one of our favourite options when eating out, ordering in or taking away – so much so that a government minister was able to suggest in recent years that chicken tikka masala had achieved the status of a British national dish.

Chutney's Resturant
Chutney's Restaurant
©Cognitive Applications/Maria Gibbs
When the first generation of migrants came to the UK from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s, not many of them went into catering. Chinese cooking inveigled its way into British affections far earlier than Indian did, partly because the Chinese community had been here longer, but mainly because there is a much more visible tradition of eating out in Chinese culture than there is in the cultures of southern Asia. The old urban myth that you can tell a good Chinese restaurant by the numbers of Chinese people eating there never quite applied to south Asian people and Indian restaurants.

When Indian restaurants did begin appearing, they followed a set formula. They famously had textured flock wallpaper and piped sitar music, and the lengthy menus looked more like wholesale catalogues (not dissimilar to Chinese menus in that sense) than any the British were familiar with.

The kitchens were run on what is known as the one-pot system, in which a large pot of the basic masala sauce is kept simmering. When the kitchen receives an order, different ingredients are then added to a quantity of this sauce to turn it into one of the menu options – korma (coconut and cream), dhansak (lentil puree), rogan josh (tomatoes and peppers), dopiaza (extra onions), jalfrezi (peppers and chillies), madras (extra chillies) or vindaloo (extra chillies and potato). This is then ladled over whatever main ingredient you choose, whether chicken, lamb, prawns, or what was unnervingly often referred to simply as "meat" (and which usually turned out to be minced beef).

Starters were onion bhajis and shami kebabs, and the adventurous could sometimes be persuaded to have a go at lassi, the traditional cooling yoghurt drink. Otherwise, lager was the preferred accompaniment, for its thirst-quenching blandness.

South Asian Food
South Asian Food
© Puja Verma
There are, of course, many Indian restaurants up and down the country where it is still possible to eat in this uncomplicated style, but what has happened in recent years has been a growing trend towards specialisation. We are learning that there is no such thing as curry, or even "Indian cooking", but that different parts of the vast subcontinent have their own distinctive styles and regional specialities.

More dishes are being cooked to order, using freshly roasted and ground spices, and new ingredients are appearing on menus. There is salmon and crab on offer now, as well as duck and quail, the saffron-scented cooking of Kashmir, the seafood of the Kerala coast, the vibrant, sweet-savoury vegetarian cooking of areas such as Gujarat, together with a whole range of unusual spices such as pungent asafoetida (known as hing in Indian cooking) to get used to.

Brick Lane has played a full and enthusiastic part in this Asian cooking renaissance. There are still traditional tandoori restaurants to choose from, but these have been joined more recently by a range of regional variants.

For a comprehensive listing, see www.bricklanerestaurants.com