The first thing to know about London’s Eastern Indian restaurants is that… there are not many. The second, that ‘Eastern Indian’ should not be confused with ‘East Indian’, which is a Catholic community little known outside Mumbai. Eastern India, for the purposes of this map, is Western Bengal, specifically Kolkata (formerly Calcutta); the other regional cuisines of West Bengal, and indeed other states in Eastern India, are not currently found in London. More confusingly, although there are several restaurants with ‘Bengal’ in their name, they are not Bengali.
London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House which opened near what’s now Portman Square in 1810, was owned by a Bengali Muslim named Sake Dean Mahomed from Patna in Eastern India — but it didn’t serve Bengali food.
So, then, London’s first West Bengali restaurant in living memory was Calcutta Notebook, set up by the late Udit Sarkhel in 2004. It was a marvellous place with an imaginative menu that served barely known dishes from around Eastern India, but it was so ahead of its time that it was short-lived.
Bengali food is influenced by British, Chinese, Portuguese, Mughlai, Persian, and other traditions. The Port of Kolkata is the oldest in India, so it became an entry point for not just the British, but also Hakka immigrants from China. They introduced Hakka Chinese food that was then adapted for Bengali tastes using local ingredients, leading to the creation of a unique Indian-Chinese cuisine that’s now massively popular throughout India — further tweaked with local flavour from one region to another. These ‘tangra’ dishes (named after a region in east Kolkata that boasts India’s first Chinatown) are found on most of London’s Bengali menus.
The city is also renowned for its street food, which includes kati rolls: parathas cooked with beaten eggs on one side, stuffed with spiced meat, chicken, vegetables or paneer, then rolled up tightly and served in a newspaper or greaseproof paper. They’re also found on most Bengali menus here, particularly in kati roll cafés and stalls entirely dedicated to selling them.
Bengali sweets are enormously famous, their intricacy almost on a par with French patisserie. It was the Portuguese who first introduced milk-based sweet making traditions that are so unique to the region — the starting point of which is curdling of milk that was previously taboo in a cow-worshipping country. So do leave room for mishti — and don’t miss the rare treat of rosogolla, payesh, mishti doi, and bhapa doi made fresh by Bengali chefs.Read More