Touring

Touring: Southall’s Indian hotspots with Monisha

5th May 2016

Words: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

At the entrance to Southall station, in west London, there is a sign that reads “Welcome to Southall”. Below this the same message appears, but in Punjabi. It’s the first indication, as you arrive on the mainline train from Paddington, that Southall is not your average London suburb. Over 55% of the area’s population is Indian/Pakistani, the majority originating from the Punjab region which overlaps the north of India and eastern Pakistan. This makes for an intriguing cultural juxtaposition: drab British suburbia offset by the brightness and intensity of South Asia. It also makes for a very exciting food prospect, which is what brings us to Southall station on a brisk, sunny day in early spring.

Our guide is Monisha Bharadwaj, a food writer and broadcaster who lives in neighbouring Hounslow and has been coming to Southall regularly since moving to London from Mumbai in 1987. At the station Monisha gives us a quick overview of the area, then asks: “What do you think about when you think about India?” We mumble something about colours, spices, smells, but what she’s getting at is India’s vastness and diversity. “Diversity is key. Many foreign influences – Chinese, Greek, Middle Eastern, Portuguese, British – have each brought something to Indian culture.”

With that in mind, we set out to discover what Indian culture has brought to this small pocket of London since migrants started settling here in the 1950s. Monisha is an informative and entertaining guide and she knows the area extremely well – it turns out she’s been running walking tours of Southall for years. “If you want to see Indian food in London,” she says, “this is where you come.”

_MG_4366

For more info on Monisha’s cooking classes and walking tours, visit www.cookingwithmonisha.com

FIRST STOP

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha

Time: 3.14pm

We make our first stop outside a Sikh temple just beyond the train tracks – it’s a great big block of a building, distinguished only by bright yellow and orange signage. “Every temple has a kitchen attached,” Monisha explains, “and people who work there volunteer to cook and clean. It’s part of the culture to offer food to visitors.” During the recession, she says, the temple fed “everyone in Southall who needed it”.

Sikhs eat meat but temple food is vegetarian. A meal in here might consist of roti, two vegetable dishes (such as sag aloo), dal, salad, yoghurt and dessert. “It’s very good,” says Monisha, “but it’s not the main point of visiting. If you went around to your friend’s house, you wouldn’t go straight into the kitchen, would you?” Dan and I glance at each other guiltily, then shake our heads in unison. We gaze through the window at the colossal cooking pots (a thousand portions per pot, says Monisha) and the enormous cans of sunflower oil outside. Then we continue on.

2-8 Park Ave, Southall UB1 3AG; www.sgsss.org

_MG_4338

SECOND STOP

Quality Foods

Time: 3.21pm

After a quick pause outside Suman Marriage Bureau (“Arranging marriages since 1972”), we get swallowed up by this vast Indian supermarket. “I used to come here once a month when I moved to London in the 80s,” Monisha tells us. “Now Indian ingredients are more widely available – but this place still gets things that you can’t find anywhere else.” The sheer variety in the fruit and veg section makes this easy to believe: we marvel at obscure gourds and beans, Indian gooseberries, fresh green peppercorns, jackfruit, chillies… Even the lentil aisle is something to behold.

Indian ingredients are more widely available now – but this place still gets things that you can’t find anywhere else

We decide to put the shop to the test. Last year, while trying out a recipe for The Gannet, I looked everywhere for mango powder but came home empty-handed. Will Quality Foods provide? Monisha leads us deep into the spice section. We move up and down the long aisle, surveying hundreds of packets. They have every kind of dried seed, root and berry imaginable – but apparently no mango powder. Then Monisha seizes a packet from the shelf and hands it to me triumphantly: it’s labelled as “Amchoor (mango) powder”. Quality Foods passes the test.

What we bought: A chunk of jackfruit, a block of compressed tamarind, amchoor (mango) powder and some amla (AKA Indian gooseberries), which turn out to be incredibly bitter.

Sidenote: In the spice section we meet an Indian-Kenyan man originally from Mombasa who bemoans the state of his country, then tells us about his Somalian friend who is trapped in Mogadishu and can’t get out. He is buying liquorice root, which has anti-depressant properties. “Everyone talks to you in this shop,” says Monisha afterwards. “And each time, it’s a tale of woe.” (Earlier, a mother stopped Monisha to complain about her moany child.) “Maybe it’s something to do with you guys.”

47-61 South Rd, Southall UB1 1SQ; www.quality-foods.co.uk

_MG_4341

DD__1476

DD__1423

DD__1755

DD__1748

THIRD STOP

Panji Sweets & Savouries

Time: 4.15pm

Next, Monisha takes us to the sweet shop. A tiny premises on the corner of Southall’s Broadway, Panji claims to have more than 250 varieties of Indian sweets, savouries and snacks. Outside is a stand selling jalebi, a curly orange confection made with a wheat flour batter that is deep-fried and then soaked in sugar syrup, giving it a double-whammy of pure badness. The stand is unattended so we head inside to gawp at the rows of shockingly colourful sweets behind glass counters.

Monisha explains that sweets made at home are considerably less sugary than these commercial varieties, which boost sugar content to increase shelf life. Duly warned, we select a few brightly coloured bonbons and put them in a box for later. On our way out, the jalebi stand is being fired up, so we linger for a few minutes and watch as the man squirts wide coils of batter into hot oil, flips them around and then fishes them out in big linked-up chains before dunking them in syrup. It’s an impressive show but none of us has an appetite for deep-fried sugary stuff right now so we continue on.

What we bought: Almond barfi, coconut gulab jamun, habshi halva.

1 The Broadway, Southall UB1 1JR; www.facebook.com/panjisweets

_MG_4356

DD__1545

DD__1600

DD__1605

FOURTH STOP

Poornima

Time: 4.44pm

It’s time to sit down and eat, so Monisha ushers us back around the corner, past the old Himalaya Palace cinema (which is now an indoor market), to a very unassuming Punjabi restaurant called Poornima. There are glitzier restaurants in Southall but this little café, for Monisha’s money, is just as good if not better. The atmosphere is decidedly relaxed – a TV over the counter plays Indian news – and the owners are extremely friendly. We place our order and take a seat.

There are glitzier restaurants in Southall but this little café, for Monisha’s money, is just as good if not better.

As our food arrives, Monisha explains that there are six key tastes in Indian food –sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent – and every meal tries to balance these tastes. Here, the balance is good (for one, the intense bitterness of the karela gourd is nicely offset by its sweet gram flour filling). The owner, Surinder Jnagal, comes over afterwards and tells us that everything here is freshly made. He insists we try his famous aloo paratha and then sends us off with a couple of excellent desserts.

What we had: Mustard greens with makki di roti (a kind of cornbread). Dal makhani (black lentils). Stuffed karela (bitter gourd). Aloo paratha (potato flatbread) with raita. Salty lassi. Tea. For dessert: gajar (carrot) halva and patisa.

What we talked about: The Indian caste system. The centrality of potatoes in Irish cuisine. Monisha’s ambition to write a history of Indian food “from time immemorial to the present”.

16 South Rd, Southall UB1 1RT; www.poornimarestaurant.co.uk

DD__1669

DD__1624

DD__1631

DD__1638

_MG_4370

FINAL STOP

Saravanaa Bhavan

Time: 5.38pm

Earlier on, we paused outside 97 South Road and Monisha spoke about the building’s history. Until 2012 it was a pub called the Glassy Junction, which branded itself the first Asian pub in the UK – you could pay for your pints here in rupees. “Punjabis didn’t know much about pubs but they knew how to drink,” says Monisha. “The men drink Scotch, but not just any Scotch – it has to be Black Label. Women don’t drink much – it’s still taboo, particularly in the countryside.” When Monisha goes to weddings in India, she doesn’t get served alcohol: “They don’t want to disrespect you.”

Now the pub has been taken over by a South Indian restaurant chain with outlets on five continents. Monisha says it’s very good, so on our way back to the station, despite being full to bursting, Dan and I decide to try it out. We order a couple of dosas, which turn out to be arm-length and quite greasy. Perhaps this was a step too far. We do our best with the dosas, leaving behind hand-sized chunks, then pay up and head to the station where a train whisks us back into central London.

What we had: Paper dosa, ghee dosa. Cobra beer.

97 South Rd, Southall, Middlesex UB1 1SQ; www.saravanabhavan.com

DD__1781

DD__1798

DD__1672

Posted 5th May 2016

In Touring

 

Words: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

More from Touring

Touring: Cork City’s Watering Holes with Caroline Hennessy – A leading authority on Irish brewing takes us on a boozy tour of Ireland's culinary capital

Touring: Mexico City Tacos with the Authors of Tacopedia – Everyone in Mexico City has an opinion on tacos but few know the dish as well as Deborah Holtz and Alejandro Escalante. We join them for a tour of the city’s best taquerias

Touring: Gothenburg bars with Llama Lloyd – We go cycling around the best bars and music venues in the docklands of Gothenburg with Robin Olsson, aka local coffee legend Llama Lloyd