IMPERIALISM AND DELICIOUSNESS: The fraught past of a British-Indian classic

by Cameron Saunders

I went on the hunt for the best chicken tikka masala in London. Wandering the labyrinth of Seven Dials for some time, I at last found my target in Neil Street: the Punjab Restaurant, which bills itself as ‘the oldest North Indian restaurant in the UK.’ Run by the Maan family for four generations, the Punjab first opened in Aldgate in 1946 but has resided at its current location in Covent Garden since 1951. From façade to rear, the place is coloured a deep indigo blue, save for the white tablecloths, white menus, and black and white photographs all over the walls.

The Punjab’s founding date places the restaurant squarely in an era when sub-continent cuisine was staking a claim for itself in the British culinary landscape. The East India Company was chartered on New Year’s Eve, 1600. By the 1940s, it had already been over three centuries since colonial officials, adventurers, capitalists, and some of their wives had returned to the metropole after spending time overseas in the service of the empire, often brimming with an appetite for the exotic flavors of the East.