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Indian Restaurants: UK vs. US

For those lucky souls who have eaten in Indian restaurants both in the US and the UK, what differences--if any--have you noticed between the restaurants in the two countries?

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  1. By the by, the majority of "Indian" restaurants in the UK are actually Bangladeshi owned. What's the general ownership situation in America? I'll be interested to see if possible different ethnicity has a bearing on food differences.

    As a further aside, that may prove to be interesting, I can't recall seeing an Indian restaurant on trips to the eastern side of the pond, whilst here pretty much every small community will have one. FWIW, the village where I live (population about 5k) had three Indian restaurants (and one Italian) together with another three Indian takeaways (and two Chinese, two kebab/pizza and one fish & chips). By the by, none of the three are any good to my mind and its some years since I've eaten at any.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      Yes, outside of a few places with good-sized Indian immigrant communities (NYC, New Jersey) Indian restaurants are nowhere near as common in the US. Now Canada as a former Commonwealth nation has a much larger Indian immigrant population and thus more Indian restaurants. The "Indian takeaway" is not common here either. Most Indian restaurants in the US are sit-down restaurants.

      1. re: Harters

        In my city of 230K people, there are two Indian restaurants. The owner of one--and, I think, the better of the two--is from Hyderabad, and I gather there are quite a few Hyderabadis in this college town. The owner of the other is a Sikh, but I'm uncertain from whence he hails. More generally, my guess is that Indian restaurants in the US tend to be owned by Indians.

        1. re: Harters

          I'm a lifelong New Yorker who also has been to London dozens of times. For a long time the gap was extremely large. (1980s through the 1990s.) NY Indian restaurants were barely adequate. Occasionally a decent one would open and you'd grab on to it like a drowning man would clutch on to a life preserver.

          On the positive side things have gotten a lot better in the last 10 years in NY. Part of that is based on demographics. From Wikipedia -

          "The New York City Metropolitan Area is home to approximately 600,000 Indian Americans, representing the largest Asian Indian population in the Western Hemisphere."

          Income levels are rising so these folks can afford to spend a reasonable amount on dinner. The result has been that the number and quality of Indian restaurants has really increased.

          In absolute terms the Indian restaurants in London are still better but the gap has started to narrow. The better Indian places here now match the quality of a good London neighborhood place. The top London restaurants still blow the NY places out of the water but the overall quality level continues to rise.

          If you were traveling to NY I'd never recommend that you go out of your way to eat at an Indian place. You've got better at home. But if you had a craving I could send you to some places that are respectable. That's progress.

          1. re: Bob Martinez

            We figured we'd start in London with the usual over the top names such as Tamarind and Benares. The flavors are so much clearer and we agree that there isn't that style or level anywhere we've been back home. (And, no surprise, the London prices so much higher.)

        2. Where to begin? First, a lot depends on where in the USA you are. You pretty much need to be in a fair sized city so that you get multiple restos competing. Often, it's the shabbiest place serves way better food than the fancy looking place. (Indika in Houston is an exception), In the US you are very unlikely to get a curry that will burn off the roof of your mouth unless you specifically request it to be so. Many Indian places in the US seem to rely heavily on all you can eat buffet at lunch and in those buffets chicken is the predominant meat. Ordering a la carte in the US items like pappadums (and even chutney sometimes) are extra. In a city like Houston or Dallas there is a large Asian community and you can find many regional areas represented in the ownership and also menus.

          2 Replies
          1. re: kagemusha49

            Actually, I don't recall any Indian restaurant in the US where the pappadums--always accompanied by mint and tamarind chutneys--were not gratis.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              Obviously we have dined at different places. Sometimes you get one free.

          2. It's hard to find a fair Indian restaurant in the US, let alone a good one. Wretched buffets are the best most of us ever see.

            Even a mediocre Indian restaurant in the UK will be better than 90% of our Indian restaurants.

            6 Replies
            1. re: knucklesandwich

              I refuse to eat buffets. If there's a buffet on for lunch, I'll request the menu and order from it.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                Some only offer the buffet for lunch. One near me has very good veggie sides on the lunch buffet, but the only 3 meat options are all chicken. It's still good for 10 bucks. A couple friends who had dinner there were disappointed, but that's hearsay so I won't name it.

                1. re: Veggo

                  Well, apparently, I've been double lucky. Have yet to strike the Indian joint that offered the buffet only at lunch.

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    Forgive me for not communicating well. The Indian resto I spoke of is all buffet for lunch, all menu for dinner. I plan to do dinner for the lamb vindaloo, but the lunch buffet for 10 bucks was satisfying.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      You communicated just fine. Perhaps I did not. What I was trying to say is that I have not yet patronized an Indian restaurant that served ONLY the buffet during lunch. If I wanted to, I've always been allowed to order off of the menu.

                2. re: Perilagu Khan

                  I hate buffets too! I think the food tastes more bland. Much prefer ordering off the menu.

              2. Another difference - balti is now common in the UK - very rare in the US

                5 Replies
                1. re: kagemusha49

                  Before your post I had never even heard of balti. Just read the Wikipedia article on the stuff. Looks like an opportunity here for an enterprising Indian restauranteur in the States. I'd sure plunk down coin for it.

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    Penzey's sells a Balti spice blend, a sure sign that SOMEONE in Middle America is aware of Balti cuisine.

                    http://www.penzeys.com/cgi-bin/penzey...

                  2. re: kagemusha49

                    Balti is generally agreed to be a British invention - developed by high street curry houses in one area of Birmingham.

                    Indeed, you do see it now on menus in curry houses throughout the country. And, no, it doesnt taste any different from their usual fare and, indeed, outside of Birmingam's "Balti Triangle" it isnt usually even served in a balti (the dish gets its name from the bowl, rather than a style of cooking).

                    1. re: Harters

                      I thought it was because the chefs came from Baltistan - a hilly area just north of The Kingdom of Moseley. The best are from The Hill of Sparks and The Ladies Pool... ;-)

                      1. re: PhilD

                        Seems as though the balti pan comes from Baltistan - so we're probably both right.

                        Authentic, tradtional Birmingham cuisine, eh?

                  3. I've spent a fair amount of time in Britain and I've found that British Indian tends to be sweeter (thanks to the infamous brit balti dishes) whereas American Indian tends to be milder, although both British and American Indian are still milder than the typical Indian food in India.

                    In Dubai where I now live, there are "British Indian" restaurants that are hugely popular with the British expat community. The food from there is definitely sweeter than what I've found in American Indian restaurants and much, much sweeter than anything in India (save the cloyingly sweet Indian desserts) or the bulk of the Dubai Indian restaurants catering to the Indian expatriate community.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Roland Parker

                      Good observation. It had occurred to me that--save dessert--the Indian food I make and have eaten in the US is notable for the lack of sweetness. That is probably one reason I love it so much. And if Brit-Indian is fairly sweet, I might not take to it.

                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                          I've never noticed that our curries are in any way sweet. Perhaps I just order different dishes from Roland, when he was eating here.

                          1. re: Harters

                            It may also be that you've developed a taste for sweet that means it's presence does not register.
                            The sweetness of food in the UK can be overpowering at times, especially for those not accustomed to it.

                            1. re: Lizard

                              Possible but unlikely. I was raised during a time when sugar was still rationed, in the aftermath of WW2 and I would always say that I don't have a sweet tooth. It's a subject I'm always conscious of as I'm diabetic.

                              Interesting comment about sweetness in British food. It's a comment my partner & I always make about American food - so much so that we rarely order dessert when in America.

                              That's not to say that sweet does not figure in British food. Of course, it does. And, in the context of this thread, accompanying chutney is indeed often very sweet (particularly in not very good Indian restaurants). I also make chutney at home as a long term preserve - it's very dependent on the preservative nature of both sugar and vinegar. But it would be most unusual to see sugar, or other sweetening agents, in a curry recipe - so unusual that I cannot recall ever seeing it. In a wider context, we have a very long tradition of making dessert pies and, as common in Northern Europe, we often traditionally serve a fruit sauce with meat - say, apple sauce with roast pork.

                              1. re: Harters

                                FWIW, the Khantessa, who has a bit of an anti-sweet tooth, studiously avoids American Chinese food because she considers it too sweet.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  Ah, something of a similar thing here - at least with "sweet & sour" dishes. Fine if I go into Chinatown but an almost complete lack of "sour" if I go to either of the takeaways in the village.

                            2. re: Harters

                              I agree with Harter's i don't find UK Indian food to be sweet. I have eaten a lot of curry - as a student I lived in the Balti Triangle in Birmingham before Balti was invented and have since eaten curry around the world and UK curries are similar to many others.

                              Overall I find US food to be very sweet, including the bread, so I would have thought I would have noticed.

                        2. This probably won't help you but in Orlando, Florida we have a large population of people from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

                          So this means we have a bunch of restaurants and stores that offer Indian food, spices, etc.

                          We've got a lot of different cuisine here from india based on our large IT hub and Indian culture.

                          1. I have a hard time finding onion bhaji on menus in the US. I often see pakoras and samosas, but that's it.

                            1. Perilagu Khan, as I currently reside in the US, but have lived in London and have travelled to India countless times, just like US Indian restaurants, UK Indian can vary slightly or even largely from restaurant to restaurant. In my large US city, several versions of CTM are identical, while others are on polars ends.
                              And we have well over 15 Indian restaurants here in town. Five alone are on or near college campuses.

                              That said, my one main observation was that UK Indian restaurants love to use raw shreaded coconut either as a garnish topping when serving or in the dish itself if it contains a sauce such as CTM, Korma or even Vindaloo.

                              As I am not at all a big raw coconut fan, I found out the hard way. Thus I had to ask for it without, which became a large struggle due to the habitual use of it by the cooks, or just order dishes that did not come with it at all. But I did have to ask every time I ordered at any Indian UK restaurant what did and did not have raw coconut.

                              Aside from that , most US Indian restaurants only do bottled beer, especially Indian brews, where in the UK they used taps and kegs and were serve in pint or 1/2 glasses. Far better that way IMHO.

                              I do frequent a few local Indian places that cook and serve items that are not mainstream for most US Indian places and I sometimes even order non-menu items if the chef suggests he's in a adventerous mood.

                              Aside from the coconut and sometimes more chunky or less purree'd sauces in UK dining experiences, nothing else comes to mind.

                              BTW, did I say I hate raw coconut? LOLZ.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: jjjrfoodie

                                Thank you. That's some good info.

                                You mentioned different beer formats, but have you noticed any differences in serving wine in the UK versus the US? I never drink beer with Indian food, but must have a couple of glasses of a good white wine.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  In London proper and other large UK cities that had high traffic Indian restaurants, many used the commercial multi-bottle wine dispensing systems that use Nitrogen IIRC to keep oxigination of the open bottles at bay.

                                  http://www.cruvinetsys.com/

                                  Once outside the city or in small towns, even tourist places like Windsor, most places sold wine by the glass via standard open bottles or sold whole bottles just as any other restaurant does.

                                  Selection can vary by the volume the restaurant does, but most serve it, both in the UK and US if they have a beer and wine license.

                                  My little 6 table Indian take-away I frequent does not have a license but the overhead is low, prices awsome and great food.

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    Wine isnt too commonly drunk in British curry restaurants. They're beer places. Perhaps there's much to do with the history of the high street curry house - it was a place you went to after the pubs shut and carried on drinking.

                                    I'd say that now many places only serve Indian beer, like Cobra and Kingfisher. And, of course, there's a growing number that do not serve alcohol at all - either because of the costs of the alcohol licence or, increasingly, for reasons of religious faith.

                                  2. re: jjjrfoodie

                                    The coconut thing is interesting. I would have thought only good South Indian restaurants would use a lot of coconut, as in the UK fresh coconut will not be cheap. I don't think many Bangladeshi or Punjabi restaurants would use it as it's not really an ingredient from the north (although some dishes will have some) and it would be expensive.

                                  3. I am convinced that the best Indian food outside of India is in Dubai.

                                    1. As an American and a chilihead who's spent a great deal of time in the UK, one thing that struck me is that in the UK, vindaloo tends to be quite a bit hotter than in the US. Though having said that, there is a fantastic new Indian restaurant that recently opened near me (Boston) that offers dishes prepared "Indian hot" (their term), and they are easily as hot as I've had across the pond. But that's rare over here.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: BobB

                                        My favorite local Indian restaurant prepares the food about as hot as I can stand, and I can stand a lot. I know the chef, and he obviously takes great delight in preparing the scorching dishes he knows I love so much. Heck, even his "medium" hot dishes are too potent for most people.

                                      2. I've eaten at several London Indian places and countless American ones. My limited experience in the London context leaves me very pleased but not particularly blown away with the food. But it should be noted that I haven't tried the high-end Indian out there nor anything beyond the Brick Lane places and then some other place or two east of Euston station.

                                        On the USA side, I have been to some disappointing places, but I've also had the best Indian food I've experienced. Chicago has great Indian restaurants, there is a place west of Detroit, in Dearborn, called Neehee's which does only vegetarian Indian street foods and dosas, and that is the best Indian I've had in the USA. I happen to be going to Houston soon for the first time and mean to try Indika, which I notice is mentioned upthread here.

                                        Very likely, if I knew the best places to go in the UK and had lots of time, I might give a different response.

                                        6 Replies
                                        1. re: Bada Bing

                                          Brick Lane in London is packed with bog standard high street curry houses - a smaller version of Manchester's "Curry Mile". I'm not surprised that you werent blown away, BB. Next time you're visiting us, please post on the UK/Ireland for some up to date reccs. Without doubt, we can feed you better than Brick Lane.

                                          1. re: Harters

                                            Yes, thanks. I do recall reading that there's better Indian out toward Hammersmith, but I did not have the time to get there.

                                            1. re: Bada Bing

                                              I only visit the capital as a tourist so have no great expertise here - but there's better only just across the road from Brick Lane. There's certainly a well recommended place in Hammersmith - Indian Zing - that hits the national restaurant guidebooks.

                                          2. re: Bada Bing

                                            I think Neehee's is actually in Canton, not Dearborn

                                          3. I eat in Indian restaurants in the Boston area often, and generally enjoy the food. When I was in London, I ate at a couple of Indian places and the big difference I noticed was that when you order "spicy" food, you get spicy food. I was glad I had my raita handy.

                                            I also noticed that they had a much larger and more varied selection of vegetable dishes. In the restaurants around here, you get the same 5 basic dishes: Spinach and cheese, cauliflower and potatoes, chickpeas, lentils and eggplant. In London, I had a delicious pumpkin curry which I hadn't seen on menus here.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: mwk

                                              You should try Shan-a Punjab, which opened a few months ago in the old Cognac Bistro space on Harvard St. in Brookline, about halfway between Allston and Coolidge Corner. They bill themselves as "modern Indian" and have a bit more variety than most. They're also the place I referred to earlier as offering some of the hottest Indian food (if you request it) that I've found in the US.

                                              1. re: BobB

                                                Thanks Bob. Actually, I'm a fan of their original location in Quincy, "Sher-A-Punjab". There's a bit more variety in the vegetarian options, which is nice. The spice level is fairly good as well. If you order "indian spicy", it's definitely got a good kick to it.

                                            2. I live in St. Louis, and while over the past 2-3 decades we've seen a marked increase in Indian restaurants, what strikes me is that they're now being seen in the very far suburbs as you go west. (Not true in all points of the local compass, BTW.) The areas have heretofore been unexposed to a lot of ethnic besides small Chinese spots - unless you consider Italian "ethnic" which it isn't in these parts. To a lesser degree this also seems to be happening with Thai food.

                                              But I am looking forward to Indian BREAKFAST at Dishoom in London this spring....

                                              1. how about us very lucky souls who've grown up in india and spent 15 years each in the us and the uk ?(vbg)

                                                actually, as i've said many times before on these boards, the term 'indian' food is unfortunate - its almost exactly like saying 'european' food.

                                                in a sense, the indians have themselves to blame for this: growing up in the 1970's - 80's in mumbai, indias most cosmopolitan city, most restaurants were either punjabi/moghlai, indian chinese or south indian. sure mumbai had a handful of parsi, goan, lucknowi, malvani etc restaurants but very few south mumbai types ever discovered them.

                                                so when the cuisine travelled abroad, it was inevitably punjabi/moghlai, which is why every one thinks of these sorts of restaurants as 'indian' restaurants.

                                                as for your question - there are pitifully few good indian restaurants in the uk. most indian restaurants here are like the typical chinese restaurant on the upper east side or upper west side - serving indian versions of moo goo gai pan. as harpers points out below, its because some staggering amount are bangla deshi run (well over 90%) and serve dishes that no indian from the home country recognises. simple formula: indian dish name (i.e. vindaloo), some protein and some pre prepared bloop. voila.

                                                the reason for this is, i think, that there is no large pool of newly arrived immigrants to the uk (but when there IS such a collection, then we all get very lucky like the keralan restaurants in east ham).

                                                on the other hand, the new york area has such a pool. and even though the bangladeshi's are insidiously attempting to infiltrate the us scene (i give you 6th street in nyc), the indian restaurants in at least the nyc area are going to be MUCH better than the curry house here.

                                                having said that, there are are few expansions from india at the higher end here that i haven't seen in the us - like quilon, moti mahal, trishna and of course the bombay brasserie.

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: howler

                                                  "even though the bangladeshi's are insidiously attempting to infiltrate the us scene (i give you 6th street in nyc),"

                                                  Okay, now I'm confused . Sixth Street is nobody's idea of haute Indian cuisine, but those places have been run by Pakistani and Bangladeshi expats since the 1970s at least.

                                                  1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                    i didn't mean it as a new thing - just that the bangladeshis aren't shy of peddling their version of indian cooking even where there's plenty of recently arrived desis.

                                                    1. re: howler

                                                      I'm still confused, because the Sixth Street Indian for better or worse is the Indian food that (non-Indian) Americans have been eating for decades and expect to to be served in an Indian restaurant. Why would the bangladeshis be "shy" about peddling a commercially successful product to an audience that likes and expects what they're peddling?

                                                      Are Americans in places with larger immigrant populations learning there is more to Indian than Sixth Street? Absolutely. But it's like with Chinese food. There's a lot more to Chinese than American Chinese restaurant Chinese. But nobody's going broke running the beef and broccoli and General Cho's chicken places, not even in SF and NYC.

                                                      1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                        sorry, can't help your confusion. i did try though.