Nov 8th, 2015, 11:14 PM

The International Edge of London Dining

By Anne Elder
Thankfully, no mushy peas here. (Photo: Mohans1995)
The British dining scene was nothing special -- until international fare arrived.

I had the worst meal of my life when I was nine years old -- in London. Or at least that’s how I remember it.


It was the London after Harry Potter had captivated America's youth but before the London Eye. I was seated in front of a white tablecloth, my big eyes skeptically focused on a plate of pale gray -- ahem, grey -- meat with pale white sauce. Surely they didn’t expect me to eat it...right?


It took me 16 years to realize that the best food in London isn’t English. It's a colorful blend of spices and flavors that have been imported and adapted -- flavors that are changing the British appetite. As one London native confessed to me, most Londoners today don’t even eat typical British food beyond a “greasy spoon”. The local appetites have shifted from mushy peas and clotted cream in favor of a mix of Indian, Chinese, Italian, and American food, among others.


It’s easy to see why -- the Migrant Observatory’s 2013 data on foreign residents of London showed that 37 percent of Londoners were born outside the UK -- with India the most common country of birth. As more and more foreigners move to the city, they bring their own flavors, which has greatly improved -- saved, I dare say -- the British dining scene.


Fries and things, not chips. (Photo: Anne Elder/Plume)


In 2015, Time Out’s list of the top ten cheap eats in London featured Chinese, Lebanese, Indian, Caribbean, Turkish, German and even Baltic cuisine, with few classically British spots making the cut. International dining isn’t new to London, though. The city‘s first Chinese restaurant dates back to 1908, though the boom happened in the second half of the 20th century. In 1960, the city had only 500 Indian restaurants; by 2013, there were 9,500.


Today Indian cuisine is a £3.5 billion industry, employing more than 60,000 people. But that doesn’t mean the British palates could handle the heat. The mild Indian dish chicken tikka is among the most popular dishes, and is now even seen as a “true British national dish,” at least according to a speech given by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2001.


Authentic Caribbean food and rum in Notting Hill, where many Caribbean immigrants called home in the 20th century (Anne Elder/Plume)


And as the international dining scene booms in London, the British culinary experience has improved as well. London is also positioned to take on craft beers, as it was proclaimed as the “beer capital of the world” last week (Germans, take note).


Just last week, a group of the country’s top chefs and entrepreneurs met to form the Great British Food campaign. The five-year campaign aims to grow the country’s food and drink industry, while acknowledging the transformation of British food over the past 40 years. "We are now transforming ourselves and taking our place as one of the most exciting food cultures in the world – a unique blend of tradition, innovation and openness,” said Defra Secretary Elizabeth Truss.


British cuisine, it seems, now transcends any specific definition, encompassing a realm of international delicacies tailored to the British palate. As the country seeks to increase local sourcing while embracing imported traditions, it sets itself up for a unique blend of localized global cuisine -- something my nine year-old self would definitely approve.