The inspiring story of Masala India – and 5 things you must try

The tale of Leyton’s finest Indian restaurant. Plus insider tips on the best dishes to order

Emran Shaheen is a true East Londoner. One sunny morning a decade ago, he woke up and decided to quit his job in the civil service. Why? To return to working in the cafes and restaurants he remembered enjoying as a teen growing up in Hackney.

Fast forward a few years, and when acquaintances over in Leyton opened Uptown Burger on the High Road, they took “me in for a job,” he says. He simply wanted to learn everything he could.

But that venture soon started to struggle, and it was then that Shaheen – who goes by his last name – and wife Rumi had a lightbulb moment: to take on the outlet and launch their own dream restaurant. “Rumi would always have an issue with the Indian food in every restaurant we eat at,” he says, with a smile. “Something was never right.”

Rumi and Shaheen. Photo: own

For passionate home cook Rumi, who learned her skills from her mother, other people’s food is just never quite tasty enough. So, despite no professional experience – let alone cooking for a 78-cover restaurant – the enterprising couple gave it a shot, with Rumi running the kitchen as head chef.

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They opened Masala India on a shoestring in June 2018. Their USP? A tiffin-focused Bengali menu, the idea being to allow customers to try things they might not usually order.

Recognise it? Photo: MI

“It’s actually a British invention, the tiffin,” says Shaheen, whose father came to London in the 1950s. “Tiffin time was tea time, but the Indians put it into practice – and it’s now this big thing.” The menu, which is full of helpful little explainers and witty asides for those who unfamiliar with the concept, says that in India it’s a “food roulette” and supposed to be “pot luck, so traditionally your mother or wife chooses for you.”

Endearingly, they don’t pretend that what they’re doing is special. “It’s what we eat at home. So it was all about being bringing comfort food. Rumi puts the same passion into how she cooks for her children into how she cooks for her guests. It gives her a buzz.”

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What tiffin to order?

Meat tiffin. The porota (left) is recommended. Photo: Masala India

From the four tiffin options – meat, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan – you simply select one item from each section: chef’s signature curries, vegetable dishes, classics and bread or rice. There are so many potential combinations that you could eat out every night for a month and not get bored: we can recommend everything from the moreish chicken shashlik and butter-soft king prawn salan to sag paneer, tender lamb chops and kala bhuna. A bread tip? The buttery, flaky porota: 100% delicious.

Shaheen admits it was a slow start but the restaurant gradually became busier due to word of mouth. “It really is the best marketing,” he says. “We grew organically, through our guests, just telling the neighbours, telling their siblings, bringing their parents.”

Socially distanced: the dining room. Photo: SE

And were there any teething troubles? “Oh, Rumi knows what she’s doing,” he says, with a laugh. “But at the start delivery time was the issue. Can we have our guests dine here within that hour? That became very challenging for us because when we first opened food was taking ages to come out. But as soon as customers tasted it they forgot about that; one of our guests set up an online page, and people posted glowing reviews in on it.”

Shaheen prides himself on service: tap water is served swiftly to the table, and papadoms with a selection of dips before the customer asks. “Munching on something makes people comfortable,” he says. And operating a rare and welcome BYO policy, customers are encouraged to bring their own wine (an off-licence is conveniently next door).

Magical: covered garden. Photo: MI

Best of all in the age of Covid, the heated covered Tiffin Garden is now essential for mixed households to observe social distancing. The characterful wood floor was, in fact, the old boarding from the burger shop; plants, rugs and ornate Indian screens add visual interest.

“It was originally the bin area. And now some customers say they feel like they’re in India, some say Morocco; everybody has their own experience in the garden.”

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A word on the samosa chat

The multi-layered, textural samosa chat is topped with chana masala, sweet and tangy chutney and diced onion, tomato and coriander salad. Crunch comes from the sev (long, thin strands of gram flour made from chick peas, deep-fried and spiced), meaning each bite bursts with flavour.

So what’s next? The couple have big hopes for both a lunch and Sunday brunch service launching soon, as well as putting more fish on the menu, especially now that A&M Seafood has opened down the road. “I’ll be cooking some new sea bass, cod and monkfish dishes,” says Rumi.

And plans for the future don’t stop there. “People always say that the heated garden would make a lovely work space to bring a laptop in, have a chai and some pani puri, and work from here,” Shaheen says.

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Shaheen and Rumi’s 5 to try

Khala Bhuna. Photo: MI

1. Kala Bhuna
Translated literally as ‘black meat,’ the lamb is slow-cooked for at least four to five hours, the bhuna a richly warming condensed sauce: “We would normally prepare this for special guests at home,” says Shaheen.

2. Dal
Another of Rumi’s specialities, this yields a smokiness that really works alongside the kala bhuna. “We have two different dals: red split lentil and chana dal, the former for the sauce and the latter for the texture.” She smokes the garlic and the onion, and then adds them to the dal.

Begoon and shim. Photo: MI

3. Begoon and shim
Many Bengali dishes are meat-free, offering bountiful choice for plant-based diners: the dim bhuna is a popular egg dish, but another favourite of Rumi’s is a pot of chopped silken aubergine and Asian broad beans, “a home staple”, she says.

Sizzling lamb chops. Photo: MI

4. Lamb chop and Tandoori chicken
The meat enjoys a 48-hour marinade, entirely made by Rumi from scratch: yoghurt, chilli, turmeric, garlic, ginger, yeah, vinegar and oil. And once suitably tender, the lamb chops take just five minutes to char juicily in the big tandoor oven.

Delicate: pani puri. Photo: MI

5. Pani puri
A street snack to enjoy before your tiffin, pani means condiments, puri the airy semolina wheat puffs. “These are hollow so you normally crack a hole,” says Shaheen, “and insert the chickpeas mix, then the tamarind chutney, coriander chutney and the chat masala, which is the finishing garnish. And you down it all in one – the flavours explode in your mouth. Often in restaurants they arrive on a plate already made for you. What we’ve done, we hope, is create a fun way for guests to make it themselves.”

Dishes costs from £2-13. Tiffins are £16. There is no corkage charge if you BYO wine or beer. Find Masala India at 466 High Rd, Leyton, London E10 6QA, open daily 5-10pm except Tuesday. More info here. Follow Masala India @masalaindiauk

Main image: Stephen Emms. Please note this is a sponsored post in collaboration with Masala India. If you’ve enjoyed reading it, please share it and tell your friends to help our wonderful local businesses continue to thrive against the odds. If you’re a business who would like to be featured in a similar way please email: info@leytonstoner.london. Thank you.

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