So, there comes a point on holiday, generally in-and-around Europe, when it’s time for some proper food, by which I mean something spicy to get the juices going. This is both a demand of literal taste, as well as the practical issues of digestion and egestion. Clogged up with all that Euro-fare, as good as the produce may be, tends to be unsustainable after a few days for those of us attuned to a diet of searing curries and gingery-garlicky goodness. For us this means finding a good Indian. There is of course the secondary issue, or advantage, that this search usually entails learning about the local patterns of migration and tastes, offering a familiar point of access into the native terrain.
Particular stand-outs as a kid with my family included an incredibly empty and strange experience in Barcelona, an old curry house in the backwaters of Cornwall, somewhere between Bideford and Bude, and a great South Indian place out in LA. We also went to a surprisingly good one in Marbella a few years back. More recently on my own accord, along with my partner, we went to a more street-ready place in Lavapies, Madrid, run by Bangladeshis, as well as an incredible Goan restaurant-cafe in Lisbon peopled by old English expats discoursing on the ills of colonialism. In Tbilisi, too, we found a fairly good restaurant run by Pakistanis expanding their business from their base in Dubai. There’s a lot to learn.
I’ve recently come back from Czech Republic visiting my partner’s parents, who live on the outskirts of Prague. We decided to take a trip to a picturesque town towards the German border called Litoměřice. It was a fairly leisurely day, initially circling the old town, raised on a hill, before parking and making our way into the centre. We climbed up passing a statue of an early Czech Romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha, who appeared to live there, entering the central square with its Gothic architecture, and the occasional Baroque interloper. It was Easter so most public buildings and attractions appeared closed. We ambled around, passing an old factory and chatting about the Sudetendeutsch history of the area. We also passed quite a few markings related to the Philippines – specifically to Jose Rizal, an early Filipino nationalist – and managed to piece together that a local writer and teacher, Blumentritt, was a close confidant and supporter of Rizal for reasons that seemed far too obtuse to fully comprehend. We passed through a park and had a coffee, all the while thinking about food options.
Being predominantly vegetarian, and vegan at home, travelling can be difficult at the best of times, made all the more difficult by the fairly average and meat-heavy fare that the Czechs have to offer. We’d seen before coming that an Indian-Nepali restaurant, creatively called Indicka nepalska tandoor restaurace, was ranked number one in the area on Trip Advisor, and half-jokingly thought it might do the trick. We of course ended up there, which immediately felt like the right decision as the aroma pleasingly hit us upon entry. It seemed like a decent middle-brow place with slightly strange decor, if not too gaudy at least. There was much debate about whether to get individual thalis, but we decided on a few dishes to share, also learning that they had their own tandoor, to my incredulity.
First to come were the onion bhajis, which are usually something of a turgid disappointment. These were anything but, having been fried-to-order to form small golden gobbets of pleasure. Next came the mains: a huge garlic naan for myself and chafing dishes of saag, chana masala, makhni daal, and aloo gobi, with rice to end. The food was very good, with a fair spice level and minimal amounts of cream, the black daal notwithstanding. The chana had a strong tomato-cream base, which is a little unusual, but worked very well as the spices came through sufficiently. The aloo gobi was good as ever, the saag had been cooked long enough while still retaining its colour, and the daal was decadent and luxuriously soaked with butter and cream as it should be. We were very impressed and left content, leftovers in tow.
Of course the history of the curry-house is long, reflecting a colonial history between Britain and the subcontinent, with various valent off-shoots found on the continent, usually tracking patterns of migration. The state of Indian food has been woven into the fabric of post-colonial Britain: from the post-mughlai style of colonial administrators, through to faux-recreations in middle class Victorian society, industrially-produced curries in cans, the Sylheti lascars who set up the archetypal curry-house and finally the proliferation of post-war communities setting up the bhel puri houses, Punjabi-Pakistani tandoors, Indian pubs and the Tamil dosa places. As a child of that history, culinary practice is probably the most consistent and exacting engagement that I have with that hybrid entanglement (My dad has some theory about us colonising the English via the stomach - more on that as I get it). So while ‘going for an Indian’ is something of a home comfort, it can also be about developing an open disposition, one that looks outwards, across the multiple Indias, subcontinents, and desi-formations that populate cosmopolitan living.
But this outwardness is also an anchorage point. Jonathan Nunn’s Vittles has been very good on this, mapping urban terrain through its food infrastructures, gleaning insight into the tightly-knit relationship between food, migration and neighbourhood life. The compilation ‘60 South Asian Dishes Every Londoner Should Know’ is testament to a situatedness that sees locality and an outward-looking cosmopolitanism as commensurate positions. Partly inspired by this and partly on our volition to reconnect and travel after the loosening of lockdown restrictions, myself and a friend, Raj, have been travelling to various parts of London, initially to spend time working on a collaborative sound project, but eventually just to go to Indian restaurants. He took me out to his ends in Newham around East Ham and Upton Park, introducing me to the concentrated throngs of chaat houses, dosa spots, biryani specialists and so forth. I took him South for a dérive through Croydon, ending at an Indian pub, as well as a walk from Elephant down through Camberwell to Brixton for Caribbean vegan food, a cousin of subcontinental cuisine. We even went out deepest West once, to a Gujarati thali place in Wembley, complete with shrikhand and rotli for our troubles.
These are peripatetic tales that elicit a constant imagining, deep in your gut. We’ll keep eating, mapping out the city and losing ourselves in (sub)cultural pursuits, extracting pleasure and meaning from the jouissance of munching, taking up space and mooching about — flâneur redux. Anyway, enough nattering and get that grub in you.
I love it.