London is one of the most multicultural destinations in the world: There are more than 300 languages spoken in the city, with foreign-born residents accounting for a third of the population—not to mention all the Londoners of foreign descent. The British capital is a cultural melting pot.
This diverse range of influences results in a great gastronomic smorgasbord and a city in which you’ll find cuisine from almost every nation and region around the globe. For those with limited time in London, our Forbes Travel Guide correspondent Joe Reaney has pitched in to help select our top five international dishes to taste—and where to get them.
London is awash with Indian restaurants and curry houses—there are almost certainly more than a thousand—and a select few offer divine haute cuisine to rival any French or Japanese dinner. For all the varied tikka kebab, grilled seafood and aromatic biryani dishes on their menus, we heartily recommend sampling a saucy curry with pilau rice and fluffy naan.
Of all the capital’s Indian curries, our favorite is the super-spicy vindaloo of ox cheek, served nightly at the enormously popular Cinnamon Soho. In a close second place comes the lobster masala (diced lobster tail tossed with browned shallots, tomatoes and spices) from Tamarind of Mayfair, while in third there’s the creamy chicken tikka makhani (tandoori chicken in a rich butter sauce) at Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington. To discover a less saucy side to Indian cuisine, reserve a table at Amaya in Belgravia.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken
An estimated four percent of Londoners have some Jamaican heritage, and communities of expats from this tiny Caribbean island can be found in all four corners of the British capital, from Tottenham to Hackney to Brixton. Naturally, the country’s cuisine has had a big impact on London’s culinary scene, and you’ll find Jamaican restaurants on a lot of the main streets.
Jamaica’s most popular gastronomic export is jerk chicken—meat marinated in a hot “jerk” seasoning (often made of cloves, cinnamon, garlic, nutmeg, allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers), most commonly served with rice and peas—and there are many places in London to try this delicious dish. For the cream of the crop, we recommend a trip to Cottons in Camden, which has been churning out finger-licking-good jerk chicken for more than 25 years. But for a more upscale experience, try the succulent boneless chicken at Chef Collin Brown in Tower Hamlets.
Throughout Thailand, pad thai is considered to be the ultimate street food, cooked fresh in front of your eyes by food cart vendors everywhere from Bangkok’s famed Khao San Road to Patong’s Banzaan Market. But in London, this mouth-watering dish of stir-fried rice noodles is very much restaurant fare, best enjoyed in one of the city’s upmarket dining establishments.
The best version of this dish to be found in London comes courtesy of Belgravia’s Mango Tree. This restaurant’s pad thai gai combines rice noodles stir-fried with corn-fed chicken, peanuts, bean curd, bean sprouts and a special homemade sauce, covered with an egg net—and it’s one of Mango Tree’s most enduringly-popular dishes. Other great London pad thais include the noodles with bean sprouts, spring onions, eggs and prawns at Nipa in Bayswater, and the one topped with prawns, ground-roasted peanuts and housemade tamarind sauce at Blue Elephant in Fulham.
Lebanese Baba Ghanoush
There has been Middle Eastern migration to the U.K. since the 1600s, but London’s Lebanese population has dramatically increased in the last 40 years. Consequently, while the nation’s cuisine does not yet have quite the foothold in the British capital’s culinary landscape as Indian, Chinese or Caribbean food, it is now increasingly popular with London foodies.
Perhaps the ultimate Lebanese dish is baba ghanoush—a delicious composition of roasted, peeled and mashed eggplant mixed with virgin olive oil, garlic, tahini (sesame paste), cumin, vinegar and lemon juice—and there are several excellent London restaurants in which to enjoy this popular appetizer. The finest baba ghanoush can be found at super-chic Noura Lounge in upmarket Belgravia, but you’ll also find sublime examples at Maroush near Marble Arch and Warda in Southgate.
London is home to an abundance of so-called Mexican chain restaurants, serving cheese-smothered nachos and salsa-filled fajitas by the conveyor belt. However, there is also an increasing number of more genuinely individual exponents of gourmet Mexican food in the city. And if you want to remove the “Tex” from the “Tex-Mex,” seek out an authentic tostada.
The tostada itself is just the deep-fried corn tortilla; but it’s the topping that makes each one unique. This explains why great London tostadas vary all the way from the sublime “ceviche” option at Wahaca in Covent Garden (where tortillas are loaded with tossed salad of shrimp, scallops, habanero chili, lime, cucumber and mint) to the ever-popular tostada at Mestizo in Camden (piled high with either chicken or beef, as well as beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado and salsa verde).
Photos Courtesy of Wahaca, Cinnamon Soho and Blue Elephant London