One of my favourite things about London is how much curry I eat. Curry was not something that featured much in my life pre-Singapore, and I didn’t think life could get much better than living above a shop house in the heart of Singapore’s thriving Little India neighbourhood.
And then I moved to London.
My favourite curry house in Singa was without question Gayatri on Racecourse Road, which was, lest you expect anything more from me, also the road I lived on. I stopped by recently, on my way back from New Zealand, and ordered my meal off an iPad. It was confusing, but the food was still top dog.
In London, my go-to is Maharani on Clapham High Street. It is close, delicious, and Pierce Brosnan once dined there.
But that is Indian. We are on the letter B. What gives?
I’m not sure, at this point, what distinguishes Indian cuisine, from Bangladeshi. So last night I headed up to Banglatown, aka Brick Lane, to find out.
Armed with a list of possibilities compiled from extensive Internet research (I read one article on TimeOut) I met my friend Heather by the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. In my two and a half years in London, I’d never been for a curry on Brick Lane. In fact, I’d only been to Shoreditch a handful of times, and not once did I give the curry houses for which the road is so notorious more than a passing glance.
Brick Lane, or Regular Lane, as it should really be called – where are the bricks? – seems to be comprised of a litter of Indian restaurants passing for Bangladeshi curry houses. We walked up and down the street, dodging curry touts, and making a “polite scale” – rating the restaurants according to how annoyed they made us feel. Brick Lane is world famous, not just for its food but also for the competing food vendors who try to lure visitors into their shops with offers they claim can’t be beat.
Technically, touting has been illegal in the borough of Tower Hamlets since 2008, but most of these places seem not to have gotten the memo. There was only one restaurant, Cafe Bangla, that didn’t try their darndest to get us inside – in fact, we asked them what they had on offer that night (20% off all food). We should have gone there. The Mills & Boon-esque murals on the walls inside alone probably would have made my night.
We asked a selection of the touters the important question of the night: what is the difference between Indian and Bangladeshi food? The answers varied from “nothing” to something about less coconut milk, and more spices. Not answers which satisfied me, frankly. We met Naz, from the Brick Lane Clipper, who at least put some effort in; he started by telling us that most of the restaurants on Brick Lane serve 90% Indian food, because Indian food is much nicer, and then went out of his way to try to convince me that his family was from Bangladesh, after I told him I was more interested in Bangladeshi cuisine. He was blatantly not from Bangladesh at all, but he seemed up for a good chat.
So we settled on the Clipper – because I hadn’t eaten anything other than a continental breakfast at 8 am at Le Balcon – and because Naz assured me that the cook would sort me out with whatever I wanted. At £12 a head for a starter, a main, rice, naan, and a bottle of wine, we were sold. Wouldn’t you be?
As soon as the wine had been poured and we opened up the menus, I knew we’d made the wrong choice. There was nothing on the menu I’d never seen before. I eat Indian food a lot. Jalfrezi, shish kebab, biryani, dopiaza. It was all the same. I was, at first glance, very disappointed. We were the only ones in the restaurant, but not for long.
I explained to the waiter (there was only one) that I wanted to try the “most Bangladeshi” dishes on the menu; he recommended either the korma, the bhuna or the dhansalak. Humph. We ended up with some samosas and some bhaji to start – served with a weird orange sauce that I thought might be Kraft french dressing but which was in fact mighty tasty – some chicken tikka masala, and chicken bhuna, because I like chicken bhuna, and although this was not the new and exciting experience I had in mind, it was, admittedly, good food, for cheap. The bottle of wine, also, helped.
Lessons learned? 1 ) Not all food is going to be new and exciting. Sometimes, food is just good. 2) Next time, I won’t let myself be sweet talked; I’ll go with my gut – however empty it might be at the time.
I’ll need to revisit this one later – stay tuned for Bangladesh, round 2!