The plethora of London’s Pakistani restaurants may not necessarily be characterised as hotbeds of culinary innovation but they have nourished and sustained a working class migrant community for generations. Pakistanis are the second-largest ethnic minority population in the U.K. and a large number reside in London. The 1950s and 1960s saw large-scale migration from parts of Pakistani to the U.K. primarily driven by demand for low-skilled labour in manufacturing industries in Britain during the post-war period.
A majority of the migrants were men from Punjab and Pakistan-administered Kashmir who had left behind families in Pakistan. They brought with them memories of dishes they had grown up eating but rarely cooked. Some enterprising workers established the early Pakistani restaurants looking for additional opportunities to support themselves and send remittances back home, often living in quarters above the restaurants. These establishments initially catered to single, working class Pakistani men who hankered for an affordable hot meal of roti and daal. A lot has changed since then. The second- and third-generation British Pakistanis have access to better education and economic opportunities and more recent waves of migration from Pakistan tend to characterised by higher skilled professionals. As a result, the current Pakistani diaspora in London is incredibly diverse across ethnic and class lines and this is reflected in who owns and runs Pakistani restaurants as well as who dines there. A quiet disruption of the male-dominated curry house model has also been taking place in recent years with women entrepreneurs and chefs setting up Pakistani restaurants to showcase home-style cooking and more regional flavours — thereby shifting the established contours of Pakistani food in Britain.
While Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, in a nod to his Pakistani roots, has alluded to his favourite Pakistani haunts for lamb chops and masala fish, Pakistani restaurants by and large have not received the attention and exploration they richly deserve. They are often eclipsed by the preponderance of Indian restaurants in the city — a country better known to Londoners in cultural terms. Pakistan is hardly a tourist hotspot and few Londoners have visited the country unless they have Pakistani roots. As a result, there is no reference point for the cuisine and limited understanding of its regional diversity. Yet London’s Pakistani restaurants, by no means a monolith, continue to thrive as purveyors of unpretentious, quality, and affordable cuisine and as spaces that cultivate community and embody generosity.Read More