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Imli Street: A restaurant concept to bring the variety of Indian street-food culture into the heart of Soho London

Kolkata Puchka kl

In October, Michelin Starred Chef Alfred Prasad, Director Cuisine & Executive Chef of Tamarind Collection, London invited me to a lunch in the recently re-opened restaurant, Imli Street, in Soho/London, which gave us a great opportunity to talk and taste the enormous variety of Indian street food the restaurant has to offer.

The concept and setup of the restaurant changed completely during the makeover period from February to April 2013. You now enter a restaurant with an open bar as the centrepiece, which is surrounded by bar-style arranged tables, and a second restaurant room. The design is modern and fits in perfectly with the mixed Soho atmosphere of agencies, the creative crowd, and young tourists seeking to discover London beyond the travel guide descriptions. Interestingly, there’s no hint in the decor of what you are about to discover in the menu.

Alfred explained that the menu – divided into four sub-menus – mirrors the variety of Indian street food across the country. India has more than 30 states, and four of them are bigger than the United Kingdom. The size alone of India suggests that Indian cuisine has far more to offer than what is normally found on Indian restaurant menus.

The first dishes of the menu are dedicated to “Food Carts,” an Indian cuisine born on street sides and in highway restaurants called “Dhaba’s”. This food is famous for its freshness. Street food traders tend to buy the ingredients they need to cook the dishes they want to sell in the next few hours, which makes the food delicious and fresh. There’s great variety, from North Indian style lamb ‘Boti’ kebab to ‘Tangdi Kabab’ (chicken drumsticks) with ginger, yoghurt, and chilli or Kaleji (chicken livers) fry.

Puffed Bread and Potato Curry kl

The next section, “Coastal Shacks,” is dedicated to the enormous variety the different coastal regions of India have to offer. This, with a coastline of more than 7,500 km, is not little. This section alone would be enough for one visit in Imli Street.

“Railway Cuisine” is one section on the menu inspired by the food served on Indian train journeys. The Indian railways are the world’s second largest employer. While people in Europe and the US measure their journeys in flight time, you are likely to travel for up to three days in India if you want to cross the country by train. Serving food on such journeys and for such a large amount of people requires special planning and preparation, which has turned Indian Railway cuisine into a culinary subculture in its own right. During my lunch, I tasted Puri Bhaji, which is a spiced curry of crushed potatoes served with Puri’s (deep fried puffed bread). I could easily imagine that a three day rail trip in India would not only be a journey across the country but also across different culinary landscapes.

The last main section of the menu is named “Beyond Borders,” and it aims to honour the cultures that have influenced Indian cuisine in the last few centuries. India, with its more than 10,000 km border, has been influenced and occupied by many other cultures, and many of them have left their culinary footprint in the country. Because of this, India has always been a melting pot of many cuisines, and Indian chefs understand how to absorb other cuisines’ dishes and ingredients and apply them to their own cooking skills. For instance, curry powder was invented by the British Empire to make the transport of Indian spices more efficient. Indian-Chinese cuisines is a prime example how two food cultures can merge into a great sub-cuisine. The dish Chilli-Chicken on the menu is one such tribute to these culinary fusions.

‘Chaat’, possibly the most popular of Indian street food rightly features independent of the four main sections. I tried the ‘Kolkata Puchka’ or ‘Pani Puri’ as it is otherwise referred to as. Mouthfuls of little crisp ‘puri’s’ with spiced potato, sprouted moong lentils and pomegranate, topped-up with a slightly spicy liquid ‘Pani’, you should eat this little dish in one bite. You get an immediate burst of four to five different flavours, and it gives you a truly surprising culinary moment.

Street food as offered at Imli Street is that all-day, pick up food from the street trader or highway stop, gather with the entire family (maybe at the beaches in Bombay), and enjoy the food’s freshness and unique taste. Indian Street food describes what the Indian lifestyle can be. It is an expression of freshness, of unique ingredients and preparation techniques that differ throughout India. The food is a gathering point for family and friends to come together at home, in little street sides, or at the beaches to enjoy. “When I eat this food and close my eyes, I still have the feeling I had when I was sitting at the beach in India enjoying the food with friends and family,” Alfred said at the end of our lunch.

Rice Crispy Potato Onion Bhaji kl

For me as a European, the lunch with Alfred was an impressive hint of all that Indian cuisine can offer. I would recommend approaching Indian street food cuisine slowly, and if you are in London and have the time, visit Imli Street more than once to focus on different aspects of the menu.

Matthias Tesi Baur

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