An unheralded revolution is brewing in Tooting. This is extremely exciting news for revolutionaries and foodies alike. But before I tell you what it involves, some caveats.
First, we're not talking here about the return of Citizen Smith, the would-be Che Guevara who led the Tooting Popular Front in John Sullivan's sitcom of the same name. Though commies abound here, he's not been seen since 1980. Second, this is a revolution involving Tamils, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.
And finally, this is not one of those reviews in which your correspondent is doing someone a favour. The good Lord Leveson would serve me on toast if I so much as dared to promote some undeclared interest. So in the spirit of full disclosure, let me tell you that though I grew up in Tooting and am the son of a Tamil father, the revolution described below is not one in which I have played an active part. Until now.
You see, Tamils do curry too. In Britain, we allegedly adore curry. It's been the national dish for a decade. But the curry you get at your local Maharajah or Taste of India is generally an Identikit, rather than Indian, product, devoid of creativity, flair, originality and difference. To the extent that it has a provenance, it tends to be the cuisines of Bengal, Gujarat and the Punjab. Now the Tamils are fighting back.
In parts of north and west London – Wembley, say, and Hammersmith – Tamils have been fighting a kind of insurgency for an age. Tooting is now the front line: in the past few years, three restaurants have opened that I wish had been there when I was growing up.
The first, Dosa'*'Chutny, has the silliest name but the best methu vada (50p), a kind of lentil doughnut. The restaurant has a non-vegetarian (and therefore basically non-Tamil) selection; but of the veggie stuff, the mysore masala dosa and onion utthappam (£3.50) are extremely good, and the basic sambar (a lentil-infested sauce) is magnificent.The dal maghani – lentils mixed with ghee and spices – meanwhile, is better than any version of this dish I've tried.
Tamil food is distinguished from west and north Indian food chiefly in its use of rice as a staple. When mixed with various lentils and fermented, this produces a batter than can be fried to make dosa, or boiled to make idli. Next door to Dosa'n'Chutny, at Saraswathy Bhavan, the idli is beautifully moist, and the rasam – a spicy tamarind soup – hot and delicious. There is a superb paneer dosa, with proper chunks of the cottage cheese-type stuff, and the chana dal, made with black lentils, is a warming goodness no autumn should go without. You could have all that plus a smooth, rich mango lassi for less than a tenner.This place does both the best utthappam – a thicker dosa, usually with some extras mixed into the batter – in Tooting, while the chutneys (tamarind, coconut and tomato) are all spicy but manageable.
Yet overall, the best of the bunch is a bit down the road, towards Tooting Bec. Saravanaa Bhavan (pictured) does a south Indian thali for £6.95 that, when you think of the greasy nonsense you can pay £7 for in Soho, must count as one of the best plates in London. There's a mountain of rice; a very good, crisp poori; excellent sambars and rasams and a fine pickle; two vegetable curries, not too hot but well flavoured; raitha; smooth curd; sweet made with ghee, cashew nut and sugar; appalam (Tamil poppadom); and best of all, a special kuzhambu – a dal cocktail you'd pay handsomely for alone.
For anyone flirting with Tamil cuisine for the first time, the dosas here are the biggest and boldest, and the potato curry is both delicate and delicious, while there's a rava kichadi (roasted semolina with onions, tomatoes, carrot, green chilli and green peas) that I will be ordering every time. I've been here thrice in the past month. Though always packed, you can generally get a seat.
So if you'd like to know what authentic foreign cuisine really means, get down to the Tamil takeover of Tooting; just mind the commies.
SCORES 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK 4 NEEDS HELP 5 DOES THE JOB 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE 7 GOOD 8 CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
66-68 Tooting High Street, London SW17, tel: 020 8767 9200 £35 for two, including lassies
Saraswathy Bhavan 8/10
70 Tooting High Street, London SW17, tel: 020 8682 4242 £55 for four, including lassies
Saravanaa bhavan 9/10
254 Upper Tooting Road, London SW17, tel: 020 8355 3555 £10 for one, including lassi
South Indian stunners
9 Horton Grange Road, Bradford, tel: 01274 575 893
Zingy south Indian veggie food (plus a spot of publicity, courtesy of Gordon Ramsay) is making quite a name for this inventive spot
153 Granby Street, Leicester, tel: 0116 255 4667
Delicious and unusual southern Indian food at wallet-friendly prices – served by people who care – makes this friendly Keralan popular with all
Mint and Mustard
134 Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, tel: 02920 620 333
In a city with 1,000 identical Bangladeshi taste-alikes, this stands out – a modern and eclectic Gabalfa three-year-old that impresses with its Keralan and Goan cuisine
Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012 www.hardens.com