Indian food isn’t just one of the most popular cuisines in the UK. Some might argue it’s the most iconic.
The food is so ingrained in British culture that in 2001 then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook dubbed chicken tikka masala the national dish. Cook hailed the curry, which, according to the most popular story was invented in Scotland in the 1970s by chef Ali Ahmed Aslam to appease a complaining customer, as a symbol of the enriching potential of multiculturalism.
For British Indians, much has changed in the 50 years since the creation of the Anglo-influenced dish that came to define the nation’s cooking.
Now people of Indian descent are preparing for one of their biggest holidays, Diwali. The five-day event, celebrated worldwide by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains from November 10 to 14 this year, is also known as the festival of lights, because of the small oil lamps called diyas that are traditionally lit. Different groups trace the ancient festival to different origins. For Hindus in North India it commemorates the homecoming of Lord Rama after defeating Ravana, while in the South it marks Hindu god Krishna's defeat of the demon Narakasura. But for all, the festival symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. During this time people pray, light fireworks and feast with friends and families, giving gifts and indulging in mithai.
Almost 1.9 million Indian people live in England and Wales, and about a third reside in London, according to the most recent census. They form the largest and wealthiest ethnic minority in the UK, particularly when it comes to home ownership. The holiday has gained in public consciousness after Rishi Sunak, the UK’s first Hindu leader, became prime minister on Diwali last year, and earlier as chancellor of the exchequer celebrated the festival at 11 Downing Street.
Although celebrations traditionally happen at home, London restaurants are seeing increased demand for Diwali meals.
At Dishoom, an expanding, London-based chain that evokes the cafe scenes of what was Bombay, and now Mumbai, they’ve been hosting annual Diwali events since 2011. But this year the owners have seen increased interest: Tickets for Dishoom Diwali 2023 sold out within 24 hours, despite doubling capacity to 800 guests.
“My feeling is that younger South Asians are more interested than ever ... in exploring and understanding their own heritage,” said Shamil Thakrar, co-founder of Dishoom. “There’s an interesting explosion of stuff in a way that there wasn’t five or 10 years ago,” in areas including local music and culture.
At Farzi London, a bistro-style fine dining restaurant in St James’s, Operations Director Savio Fernandes has also seen an increase in demand. “This year, we’ve observed a higher level of interest and excitement from our customers, possibly due to the pent-up enthusiasm for celebrations after the past years’ challenges,” he said, referring to both Covid-19 and inflation.
The holiday is becoming so popular even people of non-Indian descent are joining the celebration. “British hosts are inviting their Indian customers and staff for Diwali get-togethers,” said Camellia Panjabi, a Group Director of MW Eat, whose London restaurant empire includes Amaya, Masala Zone and Chutney Mary. Bookings show “a healthy trend,” she says, citing rising reservations for big tables and private dining rooms.
To capitalize on this year’s enthusiasm, restaurants in London are celebrating in myriad ways, from special desserts to elaborate tasting menus. Here in no particular order are some places to partake.
At Kanishka, chef Atul Kochhar is marking Diwali by serving a special six-course tasting menu from November 6 to 12. “The past few years have been challenging with Covid,” said Kochhar, “but this year we are celebrating Diwali with a special limited-edition menu at Kanishka in Mayfair which showcases some of our most popular dishes from the a la carte menu.” For £95 ( ₹ 9,563 approx.), a series of dishes are served that highlight local ingredients infused with Indian flavours: Atul’s chicken tikka pie with cumin; coconut marinated stone bass crab with Devon crab coquette; and fig-stuffed cottage paneer tikka with cavolo nero and korma.
Babur, Forest Hill
At this popular, family-run South London spot, chef Jiwan Lal is marking the holiday throughout the month of November with a special menu, featuring mains of steamed bhapa sea bass or a tehari biryani. Diners have the choic between a three-course meal for £50 ( ₹5,145 approx.), or for £65 ( ₹6,689 approx.) they can opt for wine pairings that showcase the restaurant’s large wine list. For a Diwali celebration, Babur has gone all out on the desserts. Lal has recreated his grandmother’s kheer recipe, a buffalo milk risotto with white chocolate and raspberry gel. Fancy something else? Diners can choose the ghevar, a disc-shaped sweet served with kulfi. On November 12, Babur is hosting a special Diwali event, elevating the menu with festive decorations and performances by dance group Bollywood Vibes.
This Raj-themed establishment is one of the most esteemed Indian restaurants in London and a longtime holder of a Michelin star. Gymkhana is the crown jewel in JKS, the Sethi family’s restaurant empire. Together, siblings Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi operate dozens of establishments in London, including Hoppers and Brigadiers (see below). This year, on its 10th anniversary, Gymkhana will offer a special Diwali feast as an ode to the restaurant’s most coveted plates. For £110 ( ₹11,320 approx.) guests will receive a five-course menu featuring dishes such as Amritsari pink shrimps, kesari chicken chops, chicken butter masala and Bengali prawn curry.
Pahli Hill, Fitzrovia
Pahli Hill is turning the five-day festival of Diwali into a week long celebration with featured guests. Chef Avinash Shashidhara is installing art from Chila Kumari Singh Burnman, who decorated the Tate Museum with lights in 2021. On November 8, Sabrina Gidda, author of Modern South Asian Kitchen, will serve a special collaboration dinner with Shashidhara that might include a monkfish and scallop kebab. On November 11, the festivities will migrate to the Bandra Bhai, the stylish basement bar for cocktails and live music.
Dishoom, multiple locations
Cult favorite Dishoom, which has locations in Shoreditch, Canary Wharf and its flagship in Covent Garden, is featuring beetroot halwa on its menus from Nov. 6 to November 19. The dessert, made with carrot, pistachios, cardamom and beets, is a sweet and nutty dish. The restaurant is also throwing a party on Nov. 8 starring musician Almass Badat, who has collected a lineup of South Asian artists to perform at The Steel Yard, three restored Victorian railway arches under the Cannon Street Bridge. The event is sold out, but anyone nearby may likely hear the music.
Brigadiers, City of London
Brigadiers is bringing in the Hindu new year with a special £85 ( ₹8,747 approx.) Diwali Feast Menu by Executive chef Shanti Bhushan. From November 6 until November 12 the restaurant will be “encouraging socialising and camaraderie” across its rooms with some of its most popular dishes. The lineup features Brigadiers’ achari chicken skins, original BBQ butter chicken wings, maharaja lamb biryani feast, Calcutta anda curry, spinach burrani raita and dal Champaran.
Farzi London, St James’s
On November 12, this modern-Indian bistro in Haymarket is hosting an unlimited vegetarian feast. For £25.95 ( ₹2,670 approx.) diners will get a 15 dish platter, or thali, representing different regions of India. For meat lovers they’ll also have an a la carte menu, featuring Bihari lamb chops, beef boti kebab and laal maas, a hot Rajasthani mutton curry. The team has also organized Bollywood DJs to perform on November 10 and 11.
Copper Chimney, Shepherd’s Bush
West London’s Copper Chimney, an offshoot of a café in Mumbai that opened in the early 1970s, has been serving a special Diwali menu since opening in 2019. This year, the tradition will continue: For the month of November, the chefs will prepare set menus, starting at £35 ( ₹3,602 approx.), with traditional North Indian flavors in dishes like black dal maharaja, jeera potatoes and fish rahra, fish fillets in a spicy onion and tomato gravy.
Bombay Bustle, Mayfair
At this modern Indian eatery, where the decor is inspired by Mumbai’s old first class railway coaches, there will be a selection of traditional homemade Indian sweets for the holiday, at the restaurant and to take away. The colorfully decorated boxes will be filled of motichoor ladoos (£22), balls made of flour, sugar and ghee, or Habshi halwa (£18) a nutty, rectangular sweet.