Unruh is a senior sociology and radio double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
London, England — a post-imperial English city with a penchant for democracy, British resilience and being one of the most culturally diverse cities in the entire world. What comes along with that cultural diversity is one powerful, scrumptious and completely unique experience. That experience is of food. Which, for me, has been one of the greatest parts of the trip so far.
Food and its authenticity are all debatable. Where it is considered best, where it is considered real and many other questions encompass the way the human race understands and consumes their favorite foods. But for London itself, England and the rest of the British Isles, they have had a reputation for putting forth bland food (fish and chips) and great beer (Fuller’s, Guinness, Newcastle, etc.).
What has effectively changed the landscape of this city in the first place have been the refugees of post-imperial people. People from India, Africa, the Caribbean and other major parts of the world have all come to London for work, and a significant portion of that work can be seen where these people open restaurants serving food from their own cultures. This has changed England so much, especially from the influx of people coming from India, fish and chips has been replaced by the “curry spice” as the national food.
Much to the delight of myself, and those I am studying abroad with, we have been able to explore the culinary exports of farther cultures right in our own backyard. One such adventure, in only my second weekend arriving in the United Kingdom’s capital city, a group of six of us decided to travel to London’s famous Brick Lane. It holds the most curry houses in one area of the city.
One of my new friends, Tania, had been to Brick Lane recently and informed us that there would be a certain amount of negotiation. Tania politely told the rest of the group to “shut up, and let me do all of the talking.”
Upon turning onto Brick Lane, we were immediately bombarded with complete sensory overload. Mobs of people were walking up and down the street, and Bangladeshi and Indian signs emblazoned in all colors of neon highlighted each curry house. Each curry house boasting awards: “Best Balti house in London,” “The Guardian (London Newspaper) top 20 list,” etc. To top the visual experience, each store blasting a strange mixture of pop or Indian music. Here is where it starts to become stressful.
Immediately outside the door of every single curry house is an extremely aggressive salesman. It was then that I understood exactly why Tania made us shut up.
It reminded me of movie scenes in exotic markets with people haggling over prices for camels, animals or other goods. For us, however, it was haggling over wine, beer and curry dish prices. Each spokesman boasted the best curry, and landing a large group of six American students with English pounds to spend would be the catch of the night.
After two spokesmen denied us, Tania bartered with a man at the Preem & Prithi restaurant, giving him ultimatums, “We want two to three bottles of free wine and a fixed group price for everyone,” which was replied to with “I will give two bottles free and a 10-pound fixed limit. Order anything you want, and all of you will pay 10 pounds.” Tania gave us the secret signal, the head nod, and we went in.
With wine in glasses and menus in hand, we took to ordering our food. With our 10-pound limit, we were able to order an appetizer, nan or rice and an entrée. For the appetizer, I ordered shami kebab. They were four little White Castle patty-sized beef sliders that were encrusted in tangy yet spicy Indian spices.
Next, all of us ordered our own entrée. There were almost 100 choices on the menu, so many of us went with things that either sounded most exotic or familiar compared to our tastes. I decided to order the famous chicken tikka masala. Others ordered hot chicken curry, tandoori dishes (curry dunked meat served in Indian version of yogurt), chicken tikka (chicken bathed in a certain curry and served as little bits of chicken on a skillet) or pasanda (meat curry in a creamy sauce).
Finally, we order our rice and nan. The rice is very self-explanatory, but the nan is basically a fluffed-up tortilla that can be filled with sugar, cream or any other goodies.
After a quick 20 minutes, post-appetizers and a collective buzz of those sitting at the table later, three waiters came forth bearing gifts of deliciously intriguing-smelling Indian food. But each item is much different than one would expect. The colors of the food are not of our usual food palate. Burnt orange sauce bastes the chicken tikka masala, one of the other chicken dishes is purple; another is fire chili red. It is hard to imagine looking at this as an American and wanting to eat it.
After working up courage, my first trip to a balti curry house on Brick Lane has been completely worth it. The chicken tikka Masala is a creamy but spicy blend. You can taste the chicken, but with a light, spicy and interesting tang. The chicken curry is spicier but also extremely tasty. It isn’t like buffalo sauce, where the hot factor of the wings doesn’t allow you to taste anything. The heat brings out more flavors in the curry making it an even more enjoyable experience. Needless to say, we left as extremely happy individuals.
I am happy to say that I understood the fanfare and hype associated with Indian food in the London culture through my first Indian cultural experience. It was a great experience that included not only the food, but also being yelled at in the street, becoming part of another culture for a few hours and enjoying some great company with great people.
Whether you think that curry is better here or there: Whether barbecue or burgers are better at one place or another, that’s the beauty of it — you can go anywhere and try any of it!