Something often overlooked by the new breed of “field-to‑fork” locavores is that imported spice has been part of the UK diet for more than 800 years. London’s Guild of Pepperers was founded in 1180 specifically to monitor the purity of spices entering the country, and Britain’s palate has been pleasantly tickled ever since.
This occurred to me while dining at the excellent Taquería, on London’s Westbourne Grove, as I dribbled some of its punchy habanero hot sauce onto a chilito relleno taco: charcoal-grilled, marinated, cheese-stuffed fresh jalapeños, streaked with refried beans and scattered with more cheese.
The astonishingly moreish tortillas from which Taquería’s tacos, tostadas and totopos are formed emerge from El Monstruo, a hulking machine that can spit out a tortilla every second.
London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in 1810 but closed a year later. Now, though, there are more high-quality Indian restaurants in the capital than ever. One such is the Michelin-starred Trishna (first picture), on Blandford Street. I went for lunch recently with a friend and ordered every dish on its “lunch bites” menu.
We were eventually defeated by two excellent biryanis – one made with jackfruit, one with seafood – but not before we had accounted for a superb tranche of bream, smothered in a smooth, jade-green marinade of coriander, spinach, ginger, garlic and mustard oil, matched with a smoky, piquant tomato kachumber; a lovely seafood salad with turmeric-fried baby squid, Goan sausage, samphire, scallops and prawns; and lamb masala cooked with warm spices from India’s east coast and topped with curry leaves. Trishna is the big brother of the much-praised Gymkhana – both are the offspring of chef/proprietor Karam Sethi – and it is the perfect place to enjoy top-notch Indian cuisine in an elegant but relaxed setting.
Spice is joyfully evident, too, at The Modern Pantry (second picture): New Zealand chef Anna Hansen’s beautiful Clerkenwell restaurant (I must declare an interest here, since I compile its wine list), where the “signature” dish is an omelette stuffed with prawns cured in Malaysian/Indonesian herbs and spices, served with sliced chilli and a smoked chilli sambal. My last lunch there featured turmeric-battered mackerel with roast Jerusalem artichokes and nashi pear, then chunky lamb chops spiced with cumin and preserved lemon – a purée of peas and yuzu adding a cool, citric edge.
I don’t think there is any other city that can offer this sort of diversity to its diners: authentic Mexican, superb Indian and cool fusion. In London, spice is the variety of life.