You know that feeling when you take a small bite of food and feel more like you’ve ended up with a massive mouthful of the place it came from? Those snacks seasoned less with salt and pepper than with dollops of history, culture and craftsmanship? That’s the fare I eat up with most relish, the feeling I’m in the hottest pursuit of. And, when it comes to Indian food, those morsels are mercifully never far from my reach.
I don’t need to travel far afield – forget a plane fare, I can get a taste of most places within the circular embrace of the M25. Let me make it plain – plain fare is not the stuff pedalled by any of my favourite finds. My feet might not physically leave the ground, but I find the concept of finding clattering cans of Calcutta-style jhalmuri being whizzed up on the mean streets of Streatham pretty elating.
The man behind the can, toting his trolley to Tooting and beyond its Broadway? Angus Denoon, who proudly proclaims that ‘everybody love love Jhalmuri Express’. And, as he shakes, rattles and rolls cone after cone of the crunchy snack, doling it out to delighted diners from Dhaka and Dalston alike, that sentiment couldn’t be closer to the truth. Eat, enjoy, and discover Calcutta and Croydon are can be cousins not-so far removed.
These places can remove you right away from reality, rather handy when you’re pig sick of Piccadilly Circus’ clowns and can scuttle sideways off Shaftesbury Avenue for a restorative chai or a couple of pani puri. The bustle of the street might match Mumbai, but it’s these mouthfuls that most make you feel you’ve made the move. Mosey to the unlikely setting of Watford market, meanwhile, and enter Mum’s Kitchen for the gorgeous grub of Gujarat.
Forget relying on a Kit Kat to take you on your break, I prefer to pop to Bangladesh at the diminutive Dhaka Biryani House, or take lunch with Bengali workers at their Association’s canteen in North London. I might be in the mood for delicious Mauritius, and look no further than an East London chicken shop that does a nice little sideline in dhall puri and gateaux piment. You might spot me coming up Walthamstow market toting fluffy fresh naan from a bakery kiosk where they sell at 4 for £1.
Places of worship regularly pinpoint new food places to worship. Follow the men from their Friday mosque and the sourcing of spanking fresh sweets and savouries is sure to follow pretty swiftly. The mithai counter at the Neasden temple boasts almost as many sweetmeats as there are Hindu deities. Irrespective of your own religious persuasion, this holy khana is almost always wholly good fare.
And, for me, ferreting out a new and elusive food find is close to a religious experience in itself. I can stare glassy eyed though the plate glass window of a Bangladeshi fishmonger for hours on end, watching bhekti being butchered with a skilful swing of a bonti blade. I love that I’m pondering this in Ponders End. A few paces, and I’m clean across the continent in Kerala, kokum jostling with coconut oil for shelf space. A slightly longer trip to Stoke Newington sources me a sadya at Abi Ruchi.
My favourite find has to be the Tamil grocer that neighbours Chennai Spice, my regular dosa-stop. Homemade sesame laddus, red rice halwa, and sticks of Sri Lankan-style fruit cake tempt at the till; sacks of spiced coffee sit on the shelves; the aroma of roasted curry powder hangs heavy in the air. Paruppu and sambhar are tied into thin polythene bags, sold with logs of puttu or tangled string hoppers. A hot cabinet gets me hot under the collar, stuffed with savoury short eats.
So take to the streets, explore each and every avenue and alleyway for a tantalising subcontinental treat. Keep eyes peeled, nose twitching and belly rumbling. There’s Indian food treasure everywhere – and, what’s more, feasting on these edible jewels will do far less damage to your teeth than gnawing on their full-carat counterparts… Although those irresistible sweetmarts do pose their own threat to dental health. But happily, I’d happily give up my very eye teeth in pursuit of the most happenin’ hapshi halwa.