My father came to the UK in 1968 – an Indian doctor responding to the NHS call for workers. He spent his first week at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel in Euston. To get locum jobs, he would scan the classified section of the British Medical Journal and ring around hospitals with vacancies. Each position came with accommodation and lasted a couple of weeks, after which he’d return to the YMCA as the cheapest option and scout for the next position.

The YMCA provided Indian meals, which were pretty decent. For a taste of home otherwise, my father would venture round the corner to Drummond Street and frequent its Indian and Pakistani restaurants. The founders of Patak’s – the condiment brand – ran a shop here. So did the confectionery chain Ambala Sweets. One of the UK’s oldest south Indian vegetarian restaurants, Diwana Bhel Poori House, opened a couple of years later, followed by Raavi Kebab, Gupta’s Indian Sweets & Savouries and RaviShankar, among other family-run establishments that still remain. 

The author’s parents in 1970
The author’s parents in 1970

By the time my mother – also a doctor – arrived in the UK in October 1969, my father had secured a longer-term position at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Tottenham, north London. On the morning of 20 November, my mother went for an interview at nearby St Ann’s Hospital for a job in the infectious diseases department. Afterwards, she changed into a white sari and red embroidered cape and hopped on a bus to Haringey Civic Centre, where she and my father got married. Celebrating over cake with colleagues at the Prince of Wales, my mother got the call from St Ann’s to say she’d got the job. She started a few days later.

Gupta on Drummond Street
Gupta on Drummond Street © Sam Rockman

Homesick and hungry, my parents continued to make the pilgrimage to Drummond Street in evenings or at weekends to eat whole feasts for less than £2 and stock up on pickle from Patak’s and gulab jamun from Ambala Sweets. Indian food was becoming mainstream and it wasn’t uncommon to find queues outside the most popular destinations. At Ambala, though, you could still mark the difference between white customers who left with modest packets of chaat and sweets, and south Asian customers who walked away heavily laden.

Lately Drummond Street has been struggling. Work on HS2 turned the area into a construction site. Access to Drummond Street became restricted. Customers dwindled. Covid-19 struck an extra blow. Many of the original shops and restaurants are still operating, but the street is losing out to the nearby King’s Cross development and more touristy Brick Lane.x

Chicken biryani, mixed vegetable curry, a special platter and lamb shank at Masala King
Chicken biryani, mixed vegetable curry, a special platter and lamb shank at Masala King © Ben Sage

Resources have been committed to help regenerate the area. In the past six months, the “Season of Spice” project has raised the street’s profile with events, murals and installations. It culminates this week with Diwali celebrations.

But the recent closure of another historic south Asian food destination – the India Club on the Strand – underlines the precarious situation still facing Drummond Street and what may be lost in the future. The India Club was established in 1951 by members of the Indian League, spearheaded by Krishna Menon. A bar, restaurant and social club, it served as a meeting place for groups such as the Indian League and Indian Journalists’ Association and as a hub for London’s Indian community. It also became a haven for anyone looking for cheap Indian food and a slice of London restaurant history.

The India Club Restaurant, now closed
The India Club Restaurant, now closed © Courtesy The India Club

Fondness and affordability count for a lot in hospitality. Historic importance, I would argue, does too. But such considerations did nothing to stop the landlords edging the India Club out in September in favour of a luxury hotel.

Leicester-born food writer Gurdeep Loyal has become a vocal champion for Drummond Street. After moving to London in the early 2000s, he ended up in Euston in part because it granted him access to its samosa and burfi. For him, the street is an invaluable resource in central London: “At a western supermarket, you might get 10 curry leaves or 10 cardamom pods per packet. That’s not going to touch the sides when I’m cooking.” To non-south Asian cooks, he adds: “If you want to explore different cuisines respectfully, the best way to do that is to support those communities.”

Raavi Kebab in the late ’80s or early ’90s
Raavi Kebab in the late ’80s or early ’90s © Amara Eno
Stuffed paneer and spinach dosa at RaviShankar
Stuffed paneer and spinach dosa at RaviShankar © Ben Sage

It’s a common refrain that the first generation of any diaspora makes the journey, takes the heat of being outsiders and puts down new roots. Only the second and third generations are able to tell the stories. “For me, places like Drummond Street and Melton Road in Leicester, where those first generations set up community, are beacons of their resilience and narrative,” says Loyal. One could add Soho Road in Birmingham or Southall’s Broadway and Wembley’s Ealing Road in outer London, which evolved after Drummond Street. “These places hold so many memories. We owe it to our history to preserve them.”

Diwana on Drummond Street
Diwana on Drummond Street © Sam Rockman

The biggest draw of Drummond Street is still the food. The seekh kebabs at Raavi Kebab, for instance, are among the best in London. The restaurant’s chicken tikka marinade is made to the same recipe the original owner Chaudhary Riaz Ahmed got from his brother-in-law in Lahore 40 years ago on the proviso he keep it within the family. “The stories here,” says his daughter, current owner Tehreem Riaz, who moved to Britain aged six and used to live above the restaurant. “We’re not a brand cooked up by a consultant.” 

A selection of dishes at Raavi Kebab
A selection of dishes at Raavi Kebab

Next door at Diwana, the samosas, bhel poori and curries haven’t changed since the restaurant opened in 1971, the recipes passed down through four successive chefs. “Ambala hasn’t changed either,” says former Diwani director Mohammed Salique, who grew up round the corner. “The rasmalai, jalebi, laddoo are all the same. I can tell you because I’ve eaten them since the age of 13. That is the uniqueness of this street.”

Sentimentality alone won’t revive Drummond Street. As Riaz warns: “We could be like Woolworths. People think they should go, but they never do.” But it moves me to think that my parents came to this street as newlyweds and sat at the same tables to eat the same food, cooked to the same recipe, as I might today. 


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