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VEERASWAMY: ADDING SPICE TO LONDON FOR 90 YEARS

It’s not just The Queen celebrating her 90th birthday this year… Veeraswamy, arguably the oldest Indian restaurant in the world, chronicles its 90 year journey for The Resident 

Words: Mark Kebble

It’s a real treat to eat at Veeraswamy. From the greeting by the doorman in traditional dress, to getting the lift up to the first floor and entering the traditionally decorated restaurant, it’s little surprise this has been one of Regent Street’s longest standing success stories. Marking its 90th birthday this year – a milestone it shares with The Queen (more of that later) the ever-changing menu is, on my visit, offering dishes from the Royal cuisines of India, plus a lamb biryani that was available at the very beginning in 1926 (and which was stunning).

‘In this country that dish has become known for being cheap and cheerful, whereas we regard it as a gourmet dish,’ says one of Veeraswamy’s current owners, Namita Panjabi, when I meet her at the restaurant the next day. ‘A biryani takes a long time to make. It’s lamb slow cooked with the best rice available, and brought to your table steaming. It has a nose and a body too, almost like a fine wine.’

It’s a far cry from your standard curry house, but Veeraswamy has always had a regal air about it and has been one step ahead of the rest. Opened originally by Edward Palmer, whose passion for Indian food was influenced by his native grandmother in Hyderabad, even the restaurant name has a story attached to it. ‘It was originally Veerasawmy,’ Panjabi explains. ‘Edward Palmer’s grandmother was called Veera, so it was a play on “Veera Saw Me”. At a later point, a printer thought it was spelt wrong as they knew of a Veeraswamy, so it was changed and remained that way.’

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Under Sir William Steward, who bought the restaurant in 1934, Veeraswamy became a hotbed for the rich and famous, and the British returning from India craving real Indian food. Steward ran it for some 30 years, before a succession of different owners took over. It was 20 years ago that Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani purchased it and, after a period of it being a commercial success, but not a well loved restaurant from an owner point of view, set about revitalising it.

It is an iconic restaurant. Every single good Indian chef or manager in London has passed through Veeraswamy

‘It is an iconic restaurant,’ she says simply on why they had to buy it. ‘Every single good Indian chef or manager in London has passed through Veeraswamy.’ The two certainly know an opportunity when they see one, as today they own Chutney Mary, Amaya and the Masala Zone brand, along with Camellia Panjabi.

It was in that 2005 that they ‘completely stripped Veeraswamy back’ to capture the history of the original restaurant in spirit and décor. The food, although boasting an ever-changing menu, has long been fantastic and it’s clear that all involved at Veeraswamy are proud of its illustrious history, from the fact it was essentially the first Indian restaurant in the world (only street market style offerings existed in India pre-1926), to the role HM The Queen plays in its past.

‘In 2008 we were asked to cook for a function hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace,’ Panjabi smiles at the memory. ‘It was the first time the Queen had asked for an outside caterer to come in and cook.’ Just as the world has greeted the 90th birthday of Elizabeth II with a great deal of warmth, it’s also a feeling that undoubtedly extends to Veeraswamy.

99 Regent Street W1B 4RS; 020 7734 1401; veeraswamy.com

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