At Hyderabadi Spice, part of East Ham’s thriving Indian restaurant scene, we sampled Zuber Momin’s richly spiced, unforgettable chicken ka salan.
Sejal Sukhadwala (author of “The Philosophy of Curry”) and I lunched at Dishoom, a popular Indian restaurant now with multiple outposts in London, where I interviewed Rishi Anand, the head chef and recipe developer. He gave me a lesson in gunpowder potatoes, a recipe based on Parsi cuisine. The potatoes are grilled, half-mashed, then tossed with melted butter and a spice mix that includes cumin, coriander and fennel, plus scallions, lime juice and freshly chopped chilies.
We then moved on to Cinnamon Kitchen to taste a cheesecake with a layer of gulab jamun spheres inside. Our final destination for our day of eating Indian in London was Hyderabadi Spice in East Ham, just one stop short of the end of the Hammersmith Tube line.
Over lunch, Sukhadwala provided me with a quick history of London curry houses. When Bengali sailors jumped ship in England to escape the horrible conditions onboard, they often settled in East London. After WWII, they began to buy up fish and chip shops, many serving curry as a sauce. Over time, the curry proved so popular that it became a separate menu item. Hence the London curry house.
As I walked down the main street in East Ham, I walked by Indian restaurants with names such as Taste of India, Thattukada, Ananthapuram and Ananda Bhavan. These are a lot more sophisticated than the old-school curry houses, so popular that many well-known London chefs come out after service to get a curry education. One such place, and a favorite of many chefs, is Hyderabadi Spice. Inside, it looks as though it could be any run-of-the-mill barbecue joint in Kansas City. Nothing fancy, a handful of tables, function over form.
That first impression quickly faded when I spoke to the chef, Zuber Momin, an upbeat, engaging cook who brought out masala French fries, a fresh take on a classic fried cauliflower dish with Chinese influence, two types of naan and an amazing chicken curry called chicken ka salan.
“Salan” is the term for a style of Hyderabadi curry made with mild green chilies. Recently, London’s Indian chefs have been experimenting with their own riffs on this classic. Hyderabadi Spice’s version starts with a long list of ingredients, including sesame seeds, peanuts, turmeric, dried coconut, curry leaves, nigella seeds, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds and tamarind.
We found chicken ka salan to be a classic case of translation. Most of the ingredients are widely available in grocery stores, from shredded coconut and garam masala to turmeric and mustard seeds. We omit the nigella seeds and make the curry leaves optional, since they are not common pantry ingredients in the U.S. But tamarind is clearly essential—the backbone of this dish—so we held fast.
To develop the complex layers of flavor for this dish, we use classic curry technique. We first dry-toast the peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds, then cook the onion, ginger and garlic in oil, followed by ground spices. After that, we puree it all in a blender. Then cumin seeds and mustard seeds are sizzled together, the puree is added, then the tamarind and finally the chicken.
This is not a simple Tuesday night supper—it’s serious cooking. But if you want to appreciate the sophistication of the cuisine of southern India, chicken ka salan is a great place to start.