Idli to filter coffee: Why traditional food is missing at one South Indian restaurant in London

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And why some think the curry hospitality industry as a whole needs to ‘adapt, change and evolve’.

Having recently landed in London, I was on the lookout for a restaurant near me that could cater to my Indian palate.

After a quick search online, I found myself at Ganapati, a South Indian restaurant in Peckham. Without looking at the menu, I asked for idli, sambhar and filter coffee, a classic South Indian meal.

“What is idli?”, asked the waitress at the restaurant. “And, we don’t serve filter coffee,” she replied.

Shocked at the revelation that I had to explain what an idli is, only to find out it’s not on the menu, I made do with a delicious parantha and some chicken. 

Idli is a type of savoury steamed rice cake made from fermented rice and urad daal. It is a staple food in South India and is found in almost all South Indian restaurants and traditional street food stalls across India. 

Surprised that a South Indian restaurant does not serve idli or filter coffee, I decided to talk to Claire Fisher, the owner of Ganapati.

“We have tried to put it on the menu but there is not enough demand,” she said. “We do not have a huge number of Indian customers, so we didn’t manage to sell idli before.”

A quick dive on social media will show you that the British, in general, are not fans of idli. In 2020, a post on X (formerly Twitter) from a British professor calling idli boring created a massive uproar on social media.

The traditional South Indian filter coffee has a rich and creamy texture which is served in a stainless-steel tumbler and a vessel called a ‘Davara’. 

Traditional Indian filter coffee [Flickr: Niyantha Shekar]

A recent list of the ‘Top 38 Coffees In The World’ released by travel guide platform TasteAtlas ranked Indian Filter Coffee to be the second best coffee in the world, closely following the Cuban Espresso.

According to the British Coffee Association, people in the UK drink approximately 98 million cups of coffee per day. With the growing demand for coffee, the lack of filter coffee seemed illogical to me.

Aktar Islam, founder of Opheem, a Michelin-star Indian restaurant suggests that the curry hospitality industry as a whole needs to adapt, change and evolve.

“There was a massive explosion of what we now refer to as British curry – which was inspired by cuisine from the Indian subcontinent but in reality, had very little resemblance to its counterpart in India – but the problem with the model is that it never diversified, never really changed with the times.” He blames this lack of change for the recent decline of traditional British curry houses in London.

While this form of cultural diffusion may come as a disappointment to many, it only seems pragmatic to make a business financially and economically successful and cater to the tastes of particular geographic markets.

“We have had filter coffee in the past, but people were not really having it. After COVID, we decided to lose the coffee,” Claire explained.

Speaking about consumer habits and cultural differences Claire told me that filter coffee is too milky and mild for the European taste.

“We need something much stronger. People here don’t drink coffee with food like in India. They want something strong after they have eaten.”

Featured image by Shreyak Singh via Unsplash

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