Questions About Indian Restaurants


I'm planning a trip to central London for my husband's birthday. Can you recommend a decent restaurant that doesn't cost the earth?

My partner and I usually order a Chicken Tikka Masala and a Lamb Madras. I've heard they are both restaurant inventions and we fancy trying something a little more authentic. Any suggestions?

I am not allowed to eat nuts / gluten / milk products. Which dishes should I avoid?

The sag aloo I get from a couple of favourite curry houses has a slightly smokey, bitter background taste that I really like. I've tried to create it at home and failed. Can you help?

I've read that restaurants use an onion gravy which, I imagine, is similar to your Curry Base. I can't believe that a restaurant would use an enormous blender for the sauce. How do they get it so smooth?

Why do so many curries from restaurants have all that oil in the sauce?


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I'm planning a trip to central London for my husband's birthday. Can you recommend a decent restaurant that doesn't cost the earth?

There are hundreds of Indian restaurants in central London and they range from simple cafés to Michelin starred restaurants. From the sound of your question I guess you're looking for something in between.

I'm not a regular visitor to London these days so I can't make recommendations on recent personal experience but I don't believe the following restaurants will let you down.

If you are going to be in the West End or shopping in Oxford Street then go west a bit more and end up at the Durbar in Bayswater. I have met the chef/proprietor, Shamim Syed, on a number of occasions and sampled his food (although not at his restaurant regrettably). Shamim is passionate about his food and I'm sure you'll get a warm welcome and an excellent meal. He has a loyal bunch of regulars which is always a good sign.

If you are in the Covent Garden area then try the Punjab. It is one of London's oldest Indian restaurants and opened way back in 1947. As the name implies, the food is wholesome Punjabi fare centred around the tandoor. I haven't been there for a few years but it's unlikely a restaurant that's been in the same family for over 60 years will have gone downhill.

      Shamim Syed
Shamim Syed of the Durbar restaurant

I have an off-the-wall suggestion if you fancy a spicy lunch in glamorous surroundings. I know it's got a Michelin star and I know it's one of the most expensive Indian restaurants in London but Tamarind in Mayfair actually has quite a reasonable lunch menu. The seasonal set lunch is £18.50 per person for 2 courses or £26.95 for the tasting menu. I have eaten lunch at Tamarind and the food is stunning. They also do a pre-theatre, early dinner for £24.00 a head. Just don't go a-la-carte or you may not be able to afford the train fare home!

links:
Punjab, Covent Garden
Durbar, Bayswater
Tamarind, Mayfair



My partner and I usually order a Chicken Tikka Masala and a Lamb Madras. I've heard they are both restaurant inventions and we fancy trying something a little more authentic. Any suggestions?

Ah! I like a challenge.

Yes, you're right. Both the Madras and the Tikka Masala are curries invented by British Asian restaurateurs. I guess you're after regional dishes with similar characteristics to your restaurant favourites.

Let's take the Chicken Tikka Masala person first. Your most obvious alternative is Murgh Makhani (butter chicken). After all, it is supposed to be the original from which Chicken Tikka Masala was adapted. Murgh Makhani is pieces of chicken tikka in a cream and butter sauce. Unfortunately, the recipe can vary quite considerably from restaurant to restaurant and, be warned, it can even be Chicken Tikka Masala in disguise on some menus. Another creamy dish that I've found in a number of restaurants is called Shahi Mogul Chicken. This is a fragrant dish of chicken pieces cooked in a sauce of ginger, ground almonds and cream. It's well worth trying if you can find it. Mogul can be spelled any number of ways but it refers to the rich dishes of the Mogul emperors (shahi means royal).

I have two current favourites which should suit the Lamb Madras fan. Jeera Gosht is lamb flavoured with cumin seed. It can sometimes come with a thick cumin flavoured sauce or it can be a stir fry with cumin and peppers. Both are aromatic and delicious. Or you could try Achari Gosht (sometimes called Lamb Achar). The word achar means "pickle" and the traditional way of cooking Achari Gosht is to use the spices which are commonly used in South Asian pickles (namely fennel, kalonji, mustard seed and fenugreek seed) to flavour the dish. Another version, favoured by many restaurants, is to use chopped pickled mangos or limes and flavour the sauce that way. Both are good although I particularly like the sweet and sour effect of the latter.

I hope you like the sound of my recommendations and I hope you enjoy them if you try them.



I am not allowed to eat nuts / gluten / milk products. Which dishes should I avoid?

I regularly get asked one or other variation of this question. It is also very difficult to give a universal answer. I can offer some guidelines but the only safe answer is to ask the restaurant manager. The manager should know whether any product to which you are allergic is contained in the meals served at that particular restaurant. Remember too that the situation will vary from restaurant to restaurant. Recipes are not set in stone for all restaurants to follow. Each chef will have his own variations on the theme.

My guidelines are as follows :

  • nuts
    Avoid all the creamy curries e.g. korma, tikka masala, pasanda. They all contain ground almonds or cashew nuts. Biryanis contain almond flakes. Peshawari nan contains chopped nuts. You should be safe with the brown sauced curries but even some of those may contain ground nuts so it is essential to ask. Tandoori dishes should be fine.

  • gluten/wheat products
    Obviously avoid all of the breads. Avoid samosas as the pastry is made from wheat flour. Most restaurants use ground nuts for extra thickening so you should be safe with most dishes on the menu. Onion bhajees and pakoras should be OK as they are usually made with gram (lentil) flour as are poppadoms.

  • milk products
    Obviously avoid the creamy curries e.g. korma, tikka masala, pasanda and anything containing yoghurt e.g the mint sauce that comes with poppadoms. Most tandoori dishes are marinated in yoghurt although you might be safe with shashlik which can be marinated in oil (ask anyway). Avoid paneer which is a type of cheese. The use of butter, in the clarified form of ghee, is common especially in the breads. Ghee, though, is comparatively expensive so many restaurants will use ghee only for their special curries and use vegetable oil the rest of the time. You will need to check whether ghee has been used in the dish you want to order.


The sag aloo I get from a couple of favourite curry houses has a slightly smokey, bitter background taste that I really like. I've tried to create it at home and failed. Can you help?

I think you will find that the smokey bitter taste is well-fried garlic. Garlic goes bitter if browned so that might just be it. Garlic slices maybe?

Tim de Ferrars, who asked the question, replied : "thanks for your suggestion ..... it worked!"

I've read that restaurants use an onion gravy which, I imagine, is similar to your Curry Base. I can't believe that a restaurant would use an enormous blender for the sauce. How do they get it so smooth?

stick blender
industrial stick blender
      Yes you're right. All restaurants use stock sauces. And, yes, they DO use a blender but not the familiar kitchen type.

A restaurant chef would use a huge hand-held "stick" blender with a rotating blade on the end. You can buy smaller versions for home use but they are about a foot long and pretty weedy. The industrial version is about 3 feet long and quite heavy.

In a restaurant they boil down the onions with garlic, ginger and spices and purée it all right there in the pan with the stick blender. Then they fry and reduce down the rather sloppy sauce in oil as the basis for each dish.



Why do so many curries from restaurants have all that oil in the sauce?

If you read the answer to the question above you will have a clue as to the answer. The curry chef will make a large batch of stock sauce. The sauce is then puréed and is quite wet. When the chef makes your curry he will fry some of the sauce in oil and reduce it down. Then he will add the spices and other ingredients. If he didn't use plenty of oil the sauce would boil rather than fry and have a harsh, raw taste. That's what is wrong with so many supermarket curries. They just don't seem to fry the onions until they get that rich sweet taste.