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.
The UK’s first bona fide Indian restaurant, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, opened in Mayfair in 1810 (closed three years later). The public’s appetite for Indian food waned for some decades after the 1857 Mutiny, when a violent uprising on the sub-continent rattled the British, but by the 20th century the cuisine’s popularity was again growing. It was after the Second World War—with the increase in migration, the dissolution of empire, the laxing of immigration laws, and a post war rebuilding effort which saw Sylheti Bangladeshi former seamen take over bombed out chippies and begin serving curry and rice—that Indian food became an indispensable component of the British diet. In the face of market demand, Indian restaurants multiplied. Today you can travel the depths of remote England and come across towns that have little else but a newsstand, a church, two pubs, and a curry house.
The Punjab, though run by Punjabi Sikhs and not the Syhletis (who still run up to 75% of Indian restaurants in the county), was part of this growth trajectory.
Founded in 1946. One loves restaurants with history, restaurants that reflect the community, restaurants that can even tell the story of a nation.
“What’s your most popular dish?”, I asked the waiter.
I was expecting him to say chicken tikka masala, for its fame had preceded it. Instead, he waved his finger very generally over the list of chicken curries on the menu. The waiter was rather surly if I’m honest, though, to be fair, it was late in service on a Monday evening and I was clearly drunk. I glanced down the list and there, third from the bottom, was chicken tikka masala. Its descriptive caption followed: ‘No standard recipe exists for this classic dish, however our 1973 formula continues to withstand the test of time, Chicken Tikka served in tandoori masala & tomato based sauce (£12.95).’
“What should I order it with?”
“Uhh, rice or naan.”
“What do you prefer?”
“I’m sorry, but could I please have it with rice?” I always got naan at Indian restaurants and had gone into this meal wanting a change, wanting rice.
“Should I get some chutney or something with it?”
Now I played the waiting game. I considered my order. I had been fixated on chicken tikka masala since 2001, when Foreign Minister Robin Cook, in a fit of wild political posturing, had declared it ‘Britain’s national dish.’ Its name refers to its preparation: cubed meat (tikka) flavored by a combination of spices (masala). The dish is mongrel, exemplary of that cliché that Indian ingredients, flavours and cooking techniques get re-constituted to suit bland, British palates. Its foundation myth goes back to the early 1970s, when some revolted Briton in an Indian restaurant sent back his chicken tikka, claiming it was too dry, demanding something more moist. The chef countered by adding a can of Campbell’s Tomato soup, cream, and an array of spices, creating a sauce that would offset any contentions. Was the native customer being bad or was the foreign chef being good?
The waiter brought me an enormous Cobra beer and, while he was pouring it out, I sprung on the opportunity to ask him more about the dish.
“Are the chicken cubes marinated in yogurt?”
“Of course they are.” He then placed the glass down on the table and walked away.
This was important. History will rear its ugly head in the face of myth. Chicken tikka masala requires that the meat be cooked in a tandoor oven, a tumulus-like clay structure that is built into the ground and which is not at all a product of the subcontinent. The tandoor was brought by the Mughals, conquerors from Central Asia who came into India in the 16th century, two hundred years before the British arrived. Babur, the first Mughal emperor, missed the food of his homeland. He was from modern Uzbekistan, a Muslim, and a descendent of Tamerlane the Great. This made him an offshoot of that great line of conquerors called Khan who had, centuries before, emerged from the steppes of Mongolia. The tandoor oven, given to ad hoc construction, was the invention of nomadic wanderers. As with many conquerors, these overlords of Eurasia were highly susceptible to adopting local culture. Islam, for instance, was a major adoption. But there were other culinary techniques too.
Marinating meats in yogurt and spices—yogurt tenderizes meat—had been practiced by the Persians, a highly sophisticated sedentary civilization. After the Mongols conquered the Persians, they took up the marinating practice themselves. When Babur invaded India and established the Mughal dynasty in 1526, his retinue brought with it these cooking techniques, a long-simmering brew of Central Asian influences. Chicken tikka masala owes as much to these cataclysmic forces in history as it does to that enterprising, unnamed chef working in Britain in the early 1970s.
Satisfied that my chicken would be tenderized but still waiting for my food to arrive, I looked around the restaurant, at the blue walls covered in black and white photographs. The pictures captured dignified and beautiful looking people.
“They must be Bollywood movie stars!” I said out loud to myself as I raised a glass to the enormous headshot of the clean-cut gentleman with flared collars and a carnation in his lapel. He looked upon my table like some benevolent god. I glanced at the name at the bottom of the picture—Udham Singh Azad—and thought, hell, I’ll look him up on Wikipedia while I wait for my food.
Udham Singh was not a movie star at all. In fact, in 1940, he assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the British former lieutenant governor of Punjab. He was a terrorist.
According to Wikipedia, he was born in Punjab in 1899. His father was a farmer and, because his parents died when he was young, he was raised in an orphanage. He had become a revolutionary after witnessing the Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, an especially horrifying event in the history of the British Raj.
On April 13, 1919, following the arrest of a couple of local leaders under the Rowlatt Act (prosecuting ‘Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes’ in India), a crowd of over 20,000 assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh, a historic garden in Amritsar, Punjab, to peacefully protest the government’s actions. The garden was enclosed by walls on three sides with only one exit route out. British troops looked down upon this scene. The commanding officer, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, ordered the exit to be blocked off and then instructed his troops to fire. At least 379 protestors were killed, though estimates range as high as a thousand. Dyer is today remembered as ‘the Butcher of Amritsar.’ Udham Singh had been there providing water to the protestors.
It was a radicalizing experience for him, and he would spend his life involved in revolutionary politics. While smuggling weapons for the pro-independence Ghadar Party in 1927, he was arrested and imprisoned for five years. After he got out, he found his way to Germany and then to England. On March 13, 1940, Michael O’Dwyer, who had been lieutenant governor at the time of the massacre, was shot dead while giving a speech at Caxton Hall in Westminster, at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society. Udham Singh had concealed a pistol in a book he was carrying, which had a compartment cut into its pages in the shape of the gun. After a public trial, he was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London on July 31st of that year.
Udham Singh Azad was a terrorist, at least to the British. He was a freedom fighter to the Indians. “Modern Britain is a complicated place”, I thought as my food arrived. I was still surprised that Azad’s visage was so prominently featured in the Punjab’s main dining room. At that very moment Amrit Maan—the fourth generation leading the restaurant’s ownership—walked by. He was a lawyer by training—articulate and erudite—and was glad to speak.
“Hey man,” I asked him, “What’s the deal with this guy? Isn’t it weird he’s up here on the wall after he killed a British official?”
“Well, sure. But he was best friends with my great grandfather, the founder of this restaurant.”
“They were both peddlers in East London in the thirties. Every Sunday, all the Punjabi peddlers would get together and have some home cooking. Apparently, Udham was always dressed impeccably, the only clean shaven one of the lot.”
“Did your great-grandad know of his assassination plan?”
“No. No one really knew. He’d heard there was some plan. Udham would talk about it. He also mentioned owning a firearm. After the shooting, my great-grandfather and his friends tried to raise money to help Udham. They were all sacked as a result.”
“Haven’t any of your customers gotten angry because you have that guy’s picture on your wall? In the eyes of the law, he’s a terrorist.”
“In the late 1970s some people came in who were actual cousins of Michael O’Dwyer, the man whom Udham had killed. They brought it up. But I think they just left after they saw it. That’s England though. That’s the history of this country. It has to include all of these different sides.”
He then extolled the quality of the ingredients they use in the kitchen—Italian passata instead of Campbell’s soup for the chicken tikka masala—he extolled their fidelity to recipe, smiled, and then walked off.
My dish arrived soon after. The chicken was so tender that I only needed a fork to cut the pieces down to size. It was the best plate of chicken tikka masala I have ever had.