There are 500 000 Indian immigrants living in London. This include people from Bengali, Pakistani and Indian origins. Indian is thus the largest ethnic minority group to be found in the Queen’s city, whereof a mind-blowing 39% of the entire West London comprises of Indian descent. Delving even deeper, in London alone there is 9000 Indian restaurants and over two million Britons eat at Indian restaurants once a week. There can be no doubt about it, Indian Cuisine in England can’t be classified as an exotic experience anymore, and has become ingrained with British culture like fish and chips. Lo and behold, wasn’t it in fact Indian spices that informed the much-loved Worcestershire sauce? Curry is the new generation to bangers ‘n mash, and it’s high time to explore the English Spice Route. After all, isn’t the best way to learn about a country, through its food?
Paddington station, Paddington. West London, London England. Walking down the long lanes and winding streets of Paddington made famous by its illustrious fictional resident, Paddington Bear, an overwhelming air of ‘Britishness’ fill the lungs. Tall whitewashed apartment buildings dripping in Victorian frills line both sides of the street, imprisoning and encapsulating anyone therein. A few decades ago this might have been the set of Mary Poppins or Pygmalion as part of the rich or aristocratic scenes. Today, however the clean white walls have turned grey and become a beacon indicating a rising middle class bourgeoisie rather than old money. The streets are clean, don’t think the middle-class would tolerate any dirt, it’s just that the shoulder-height black cast iron balustrades sneaking around each building rather represent a serious angst trying to keep people out, than a remainder of old Victorian architecture. Strolling the streets it’s actually not the unwashed walls, potted chimneys or cast iron fences that seem out of place, it’s the holes in the wall in between the balustrades that catch the eye. A smell, a scent, a lingering fume seem to surround the buildings more so than the out of date architecture, and only by closer inspection will you realise these fumes don’t linger around, but actually linger from the buildings. Holes in the wall, little restaurants, little Persian, Lebanese and most of all Indian restaurants annexe the bottom floor of almost all of these buildings, and it’s not uncommon for at least three or four to be on the same street within 500 metres of each other. That smell, that aroma drilling its way to your appetite is of course spice, the instigation behind this expedition.
“Spice? No, no. You will find none of that here. Next customer please!” the woman in orange Sari and blue Reebok takkies yells from behind the till at the “Food and Wine” shop on Hyde Park Street in Paddington. There are no other customers waiting in line, but she doesn’t want to spend time with someone who seemingly just wants to talk about ‘the aroma of Indian spices’. Three grocery shops down the street, an alarming realisation comes to light as no-one sells spice aside from salt and pepper. There is no curry powder or even turmeric, with the closest thing to be found resembling spice, is Maggi’s barbeque flavoured 2-Minute-Noodles. West London is supposed to be the Gujarati Capital of England, and the variation of “Authentic Indian Cuisine” restaurants is a firm establishment that the shock of the lack of spice cannot be fuelled by prejudice.
Testing the theory a last time, “Khan’s Traders” a small little grocery shop on Norfolk Place is tested. Entering the bedroom-sized shop, a small man sits in the corner on a white plastic garden chair staring into the streets where red double-decker busses pass by. He nods politely upon entry and continues staring into the ebb and flow of traffic. “Do you have any spices for curry?” I ask politely as I only see the welcoming sight of another aisle of barbeque-flavoured noodles. “Spice? No madam you won’t find that here, maybe try Marks and Spencer’s?” the old man suggests with a heavy accent as he drags his feet over the linoleum floors away from the garden chair. Right next to Khan’s is one of the many ‘Authentic Indian Cuisine’ restaurants. It’s 2pm the afternoon and there are a handful of customers eating their meals on generic white porcelain plates on plastic covered tables. The hostess, a 30-something lady eagerly leads me to an open table and starts reciting the menu off by heart, “Lamb Rogan Josh, Biryani, Chicken Curry and Chicken Tikka Masala”. She recommends the curry as it’s “not too spicy, but tastes of India”. Probing about the sparing menu, she draws up a chair next to me. “You know the English really like curry, I mean it’s the most eaten food in all of Britain. But they still want to know exactly what it is that they eat,” she explains that starting out a few years ago they had an extensive menu that was quickly revised. “Real Indians make their own curries. This pays the bill, this is largely for show,” she shakes her head as though disappointed but lifts her head quickly, “but don’t you write that in the papers now and go slander my family, I mean I still have to pay the bills!” With that she warns about using her name and taking photos.
Leaving the restaurant, the old man from Khan’s traders is still sitting on the garden chair inside the little grocery store, and waves fervently to enter as I pass. “You wanted curry spice neh?” he asks excitedly as he shuffles towards the doorway. “I make the best curry. When do you leave? I will mix the spice for you and teach you how to cook it.” He introduces himself as the famous Khan (“just Khan”) and explains that he doesn’t officially sell the spices in his store as no-one buys it, but for any interesting parties he is willing to make a plan. Khan has been in London for 35 years and opening this grocery store was the first thing he did when he arrived. On the subject for the reason for his move he merely laughs, making his small eyes sink even deeper into his wrinkles, “It was time, and I’m happy now, but I don’t want to forget.” Setting a date for 10pm the same night, (he closes at 12) it seems as though the spice route will finally begin.
10pm sharp it’s back to Khan’s on Norfolk Place. At night the little shop seems even smaller as the LED lights illuminate every crevice of the shop, and there don’t seem that many crevices for starters. “Hello, I’ve been waiting for you,” he greets excitedly as he shuffles back to the counter retrieving a large brown bag. Upon opening he reveals packets of garlic, chilli, ginger, haldi turmeric and madras powder. He also takes out two tins of tomato paste which he carefully inspects and puts down on the counter with disgust. “You should actually use real tomatoes, but it takes hours and very careful monitoring of the spice to get it right, so it’s best to use tins,” he explains. After citing the recipe carefully once, using the packets and his hands to illustrate, another man enters the store, pulling a large suitcase with him. He is immediately intrigued with our conversation. “You want to make curry?” the old, bald man asks with cockney accent. After nodding he replies fervently, “But you know they make it at restaurants right? In big pots too! So where’s your business card luv?” Khan merely waves the man away who then moves to the vegetable section mumbling about curry and business cards, taking his suitcase with him. After Khan repeats the recipe another three times, we exchange numbers, and he places the brown bag filled with spice in my hands. “This is your gift, please let me know how it went, and when you come visit again I will cook for you myself,” Khan squeezes my shoulder and shuffles to the old man with the suitcase, disappearing back into the small fluorescent shop.
In 2001 British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook famously said, “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts to external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served with gravy.”
Now doesn’t that seem to be exactly the problem? The British most definitely seem to have absorbed Indian cuisine, but that’s just it, total absorption of the parts they liked without any seeming need to learn any further than the amount of pilaf rice that will fit on silver-plated forks. Khan was eager, desperate to share some of his knowledge of spices to an interested outsider, so eager that he would rather give spice away for free than sell it.
Though Indian people are the largest ethnic minority group to be found in England with the largest number residing in London, it seems as though Victoria still remains supreme, recolonizing within her own borders leaving a people denying their identity in exchange for conformity. But what would I know about that? I was just looking for some spice in dull suburbia…