A Personal History of Indian Cuisine.

Tandoori restaurant, Deptford

Tandoori restaurant, Deptford. © David Secombe 2001.

David Secombe:

It is 1975, I am 13 and, like most white British people of my generation, my experience of Indian food is limited to a small, local curry house. Remote, distant Cheam in the remote, distant 1970s offered few opportunities for culinary experiment and a trip to an Indian offered the prospect of an exotic night out. Visits to The Partition of India – or whatever it was called – were made in the company of my two elder siblings; I was taken there with some ceremony by my sister and no ceremony at all by my brother. (I was never taken there by my parents, who were not attracted by its charms.)

The suburban Indian restaurant is one of the cultural phenomena of post-war British life, signifying social change, and a broadening of the scope of what is considered our national cuisine. But the 1970s offers very few excuses for Proustian reverie; even as a teenager I was aware that my local Indian didn’t cut it, as the food was barely adequate and served by staff who seemed either torpid or desperate. I also knew that part of its appeal was its very inability to deliver the experience you were looking for; it confirmed my adolescent conviction that the suburbs were a pale shadow of the real, yet-to-be-discovered world. (Incidentally, the restaurant in question appeared to be popular with adulterers. This was my brother’s theory, and we would giggle at furtive couples in corner booths, whispering as best they could over the sitar tape whilst poking at bits of Bombay Duck. Adulterous or not, these couples were also seeking a dining experience that was clearly not forthcoming.)

By the early 1980s I had arrived in the flesh pots of south London; just a few miles away from provincial Cheam, yet Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting were home to tempting, ‘authentic’ Indian restaurants which delighted in their specific regionality – Nepalese, Goan, Bengali. Fabled establishments like The Concert for Bangladesh, Midnight’s Children, and Sherpa Tenzing offered dishes worlds away from the generic beige goo I knew from my sheltered youth. But you could still get caught out: during a meal at an unfamiliar establishment in Battersea, circa 1985, an ordinary-looking lamb passanda arrived at my table and, before anyone could say anything, the waiter produced a can of UHT whipped cream and sprayed foam all over it. It was a brilliant comic gesture, but it was supposed to be my dinner. Despite such misadventures, my local dining preference remained the curry house; I bypassed Nouvelle Cuisine and other foodie trends and stayed true to my suburban roots.

The ubiquity of Indian restaurants has generated an urban mythology particular to them. A sudden closure was darkly ascribed to the discovery of a skinned dog in the kitchen. Tales were told of a legendary establishment which offered a Chicken Bastard, a dish so hot that it was not intended to be eaten. ‘Witnesses’ spoke of an unwise party who took the challenge, goading the waiters who brought him his order, forcing it down with Carlsberg as kitchen staff emerged to watch, and of the ambulance that was summoned to take him to A&E. Such stories were clear evidence of cultural antagonism, but my own favourite tall tale is actually quite sweet, and is very possibly true. I knew a pair of Egyptian brothers who were my schoolmates at a boarding school on the outer fringes of London. It was said that at the end of term, they went into Leatherhead, ordered three dinners from the Siege of Delhi, packed them in their luggage (did they order poppadoms?), got a cab to Heathrow, flew to Cairo, and consumed the congealing banquet with their father as a festive, homecoming dinner: the ultimate Indian takeaway.

After decades of enjoying Indian food in almost every postcode within the M25, my love affair with it ended in a way my brother might have predicted. I became romantically involved with someone who remained very slightly married, and our lunchtime venue was a classy Indian in St James’s. The Cawnpore Massacre is one of London’s best restaurants, but its convenience for my beloved made it a kind of hell for me. As the months dragged on, I became all too familiar with the delicacies on offer, and the wonders of its kitchen paled against the looming inevitability of my defeat. To paraphrase Robert Shaw in Jaws, ‘I’ll never order Rhogan Josh again’.

© David Secombe 2013.

Up My Street. Photo: Dylan Collard (3/5)

The Archway Cafe. © Dylan Collard.

David Secombe writes:

The genius of photography is the commemoration of the ephemeral; this is the reason why some of us are beady on the subject of digital photography, as it represents the commemoration of the ephemeral by means of the even-more-ephemeral. No such qualms arise from this week’s images by Dylan Collard, which were made using defiantly old-school methods. For his photos documenting the Holloway Road, Dylan lugged his massive Gandolfi ‘field’ camera (a device the size of a large hatbox, bolted to a hefty tripod) up and down that windswept, Stalinist boulevard to record scenes as quotidian as one could imagine.

In today’s photo, the proprietor (it can be no-one else) of the Archway Cafe poses for the camera in a way that we believe – we know – to be characteristic. Of course, he is having us on; he is playing the part of a surly cafe owner for our benefit, he knows that he is being memorialised for posterity – and Dylan’s limpid image preserves the shrewd glance of this short-order chef as if in amber.

Yet, if current trends continue, this commonplace scene is likely to disappear within a few years. The formica and the plastic condiment bottles already look like period pieces in this context, where they are employed as functional items rather than archly retro decor.  This is not a cafe for budding screenwriters with their MacBook Pros, or middle-class mums with Range Rover-sized prams and Orla Kiely infants, but it can only be a matter of time. The hipster-friendly make-over of the Holloway Road is upon us with the inevitability of a melting ice shelf. And perhaps that is why our man in the Archway Cafe is so watchful, he might be keeping an eye out for the wrecking hordes: the girls with oversized glasses, cut-off shorts and day-glo leggings, the thin young men with buttoned-up plaid shirts, skinny jeans and implausibly bushy boybeards … an army of destruction as potent as any in history.

… for The London Column. 

Up My Street is Dylan Collard‘s project documenting shops between Kentish Town and Archway. His exhibition The Twelfth Man is currently showing at Exposure Gallery, 22-23 Little Portland Street, London W1. Dylan is represented by the Vue agency. 

Park Life. Photo & text: David Secombe. (4/5)

Cafe, Clapham Common. © David Secombe 1998.

From classiccafes.co.uk:

The years after WW2 heralded a new spirit of optimism and national confidence in Britain. Consumer culture became king and as a symbol of this progress and prosperity a new Contemporary style dominated architecture and design through the 50s and into the 60s. This was a fresh style moving on from the minimalist rigours of the Modernist movement. It represented a new vibrancy with materials like Formica, leatherette chrome and plastic coming to the fore. The ‘streamlining’ cult was especially evident in kitchen interiors and the functional spaces of cafes.

The positivity of an age created new tastes and trends, with the cafe’s Italian styling a ubiquitous cheery symbol of national regeneration and outward lookingness. But today you have to look harder than ever to find decent, intact cafes with classic Formica tables, lino floors, proper seats and small cabinets of biscuits and crusty rolls. Cafe family owners are nearing retirement age and the children don’t want to take over the business. Also many leases are coming to an end for the central London cafes and the resale value of cafe buildings in the property boom is too vast to ignore. Too many have been replaced and refitted with ghastly plastic moulded interiors devoid of atmosphere.

David Secombe:

The cafe on Windmill Drive, on the southern side of Clapham Common, was a nice example of the sort of cheerful yet lightly-modernist eaterie so fondly described by Classic Cafes: such establishments are a throwback to a simpler time and are now as rare and threatened as the Edwardian dining rooms the cafes often replaced. This particular cafe attracted a splendid diversity of characters and had its own particular eco-system, by virtue of its location in the middle of the Common. I find myself using the past tense when describing it, as it is many years since I last visited – and a year is a long time in London. The gentleman in the photo above, who posed so gracefully for my camera, had been a Sunday morning regular for many years – but I don’t know whether I’d find him or the Formica in situ today, and I don’t want to go there to find out. I fear to return for what I might find.

Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (4/5)

Old Wine Shades, Martin Lane. Photo © Paul Barkshire, 1981.

Old Wine Shades is part of the El Vino group, the venerable drinking chain that branches across the City of London. The one on Fleet Street was a legendary haunt of the local hacks in the days when ‘the Street of Shame’ was thronged with them, and El Vino’s continues to trade on its reputation as a City institution. However, an anonymous reviewer (‘A Customer’) on www.allinlondon.co.uk recently (August 2010) described Old Wine Shades thus:

A dreadful place. I work close by and El Vino’s is noted for rude staff and overpriced food and (especially) drink. On one of my few unavoidable visits (guest of others), my dining partner found a lady’s bracelet at the bottom of his coffee cup. A significantly chunky piece of jewellery. Not even an apology offered, much less anything off the bill. Basically, they trade on their historical connections and for that it’s worth a visit, but only on the way to somewhere better.

I have no idea if this is a fair assessment overall, but it poses several questions: what kind of bracelet was it? Did it have precious stones? What was it doing at the bottom of a coffee cup? Had its owner thrown it there as a protest? (surely you’d notice if your bracelet slipped from your wrist and into your cappuccino). Perhaps it was a prop left over from the filming of a romantic comedy, and the scene is easy to picture:  a lunch date goes wrong in an historic London location, Kristin Scott-Thomas chucks her bracelet – a gift from Hugh Grant – in his coffee, leaving him embarrassed as she stalks off. We’d then have a quick bit of comic business with the waiter, a star cameo from Ricky Gervais. Hugh would probably pay another visit to Old Wine Shades at the end of the film, this time blissfully entwined with Kate Winslet or Kate Beckinsale, etc., who then finds the bracelet at the bottom of her coffee cup. I am sure I’ve seen this film. D.S.