Indian recipes began turning up in British cookbooks during the Raj, but the cuisine didn't reach the public at large until the fifties, when some 500 restaurants were opened by immigrants from Punjab displaced following India's independence. The Punjabi and northern Indian dishes they prepared—tandooris, dal, naan, and other regional specialties—are still what most of the world considers "Indian food." In later years, Bangladeshis moved in on the scene (today, 9 out of 10 Indian restaurants here are Bangladeshi-owned), though chefs carried on in the familiar Punjabi style.
Such cooking wasn't always genuinely Indian. As with Tex-Mex food in the United States, Anglo-Indian cuisine took liberties with the original. Chicken tikka masala—the spicy tomato-and-cream stew that was in 2001 named a national dish by Britain's then-foreign secretary—was based on a recipe from Delhi but conceived in Glasgow. The balti, another popular "Indian" entrée, was created in Birmingham. The term curry is itself a British creation: possibly derived from the Tamil kari, a piquant relish used to flavor rice; perhaps from korai, a type of cooking pot; or simply from the curry leaf.
Authentic or not, the Anglo-Punjabi hybrid became the default menu for Indian restaurants high and low. "The cooks stuck with a narrow set of rules," says the Cinnamon Club's Iqbal Wahhab. "They might posh up the décor, but the bowls of brown stuff just became posher bowls of brown stuff." Few kitchens bothered with dishes from, say, southern India or Bengal. "It's a shame, because India has at least thirty-five distinct cuisines," says Namita Panjabi of Chutney Mary. "There's really no such thing as 'Indian food.' It's like saying 'European food' when you mean Greek or Swedish."
But more and more restaurants are incorporating exotic regional flavors—Rajasthani-style venison at the Cinnamon Club, Goan green curry at the Parsee. Today London has the best and broadest selection of south Asian food anywhere, including India. I've eaten at street stalls and high-end dining rooms across the subcontinent and have never encountered such a range of inspired, assured cooking as in London. "In many ways this is the epicenter of Indian food," Panjabi says. "There's a variety of styles here now that you'd never find in Delhi or Bombay."
Capitalizing on that trend is Chowki, an unassuming storefront near Piccadilly that's among the best of the newcomers. The spare, industrial interior—plain hood lamps hung from aluminum ceiling pipes, communal rows of wooden tables and leather cube-stools—hardly prepares you for the intensity of the food. Each month Chowki showcases three regions of India, taking diners on a grand tour of the subcontinent. Highlights on a recent visit were minced-lamb dumplings from the North-West Frontier, in a savory gravy; Karnataka-style prawns tossed with delicate mung beans, coconut, mustard seeds, and caramelized onions; and, from vegetarian Gujarat, a crunchy onion bhaji mash with roasted peanuts and coconut-mint chutney. But you'll also find familiar dishes done supremely well, including the best dal I've ever tasted, made from split gram lentils. And, just as you'd get on Bombay's Chowpatty Beach, some deliciously sweet coconut water, served in the shell to be drunk with a straw.
Does your curry house do that?
PETER JON LINDBERG is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.