A family history

Posted on Back of House Nov 2010 - by Tandoori Magazine
A family history

Durbar, in west London, is one of the capital's oldest Indian restaurants with a long culinary heritage. It's executive head chef Shamim Syed talks to Tandoori.

When Syed Abdul Quddus launched his restaurant, Durbar, just off Westbourne Grove, in 1956, little did he know that he was giving birth to an establishment that would run into the next millennium. The restaurant is now one of the oldest Indian eateries in London.

Though with full credit to the restaurateur for making Durbar a landmark name, it's really down to his sons - executive head chef Shamim Syed and his elder brother Salinur Rahman Syed, running front of house - who inherited his restaurant, for carrying on the family history and the culinary heritage at its core.

For the man who eventually made it into the kitchen and turned such renowned locals as Jude Law, Joanna Lumley and even Prime Minister David Cameron before he moved into 10 Downing Street into fans of Durbar, it was a daunting task to join the business.

"Initially, when I left school to work at the restaurant full-time," says Shamim Syed, "I wasn't sure if I could cope with the pressure of the kitchen. But gradually I got used to the environment and then everything became almost second nature. Little did I know then that in 1996 I would take over Durbar as its head chef or that I would even make it as a runner-up in the Best Ethnic Chef category for the Craft Guild of Chefs awards this year."

Of course, the Indian restaurant sector and the food being offered nowadays is a far cry from the 1950s. "In those days," says Syed, "not only was the menu limited, alongside whatever Indian dishes we had, we would also have English ones like steak and chips or even curry and chips. Times have changed drastically, where we now have a choice of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes to healthy dishes and more seafood and seasonal items."

Syed, who likes to come out of his kitchen and say hello to all his customers individually on a daily basis, is at pains to point out that even the make-up of the customer base has changed over the years.

"You get a very mixed crowd these days," he says, "and it isn't just English people, but people from around the world, not to mention customers even coming in from the subcontinent and saying how authentic our cooking is. That sort of feedback is very heartening to a chef. Sometimes you even see three generations of the same family coming in and saying that they have been coming to Durbar all their lives, which is very gratifying."

More than anything though, admits Syed, it's the appreciation of Indian food by the British people that has made such stalwarts as Durbar stand the test of time.

"Indian food is no longer the bastion of a post-pub spice binge by hooligans," he concurs. "People are much more respectful of the cuisine and discerning in their choice of what they are having. They read more, they go out more, they travel more and they have the luxury of buying all kinds of ingredients in their supermarkets. It makes my job easier and extremely satisfying to know that I can give them the kind of Indian cooking they find appealing."

Sample Dishes - Durbar

Chicken Makhmali
Tikka chunks of chicken broiled in clay oven             
Crab Cakes
Goan-style spicy crab cakes                 

Lime Chicken 
Cooked with coconut, lime juice, lemon grass and chilli
Prawn Molly
Cooked with raw mango
Fish Shorsher 
Fish in a delicate sauce with coconut milk and mustard seed

Butternut Squash Bhajee
Lightly spiced
Dall Misron Spicy
Five different lentils cooked together

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