Order a curry in southern India and the waiter might just stare at you for a bit. The dishes we know and love as curry—fish, meat or vegetables flavored with glorious spices—have individual names back home on the Indian subcontinent. But the idea of curry has conquered the globe and is an international favorite.
The word “curry” might derive from the Tamil word kari for a side dish with rice, or it might be based on the old English word cury, referring to a stew. An English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in the 1390s. All hot food was called “cury” from the French word cuire, meaning to cook, according to the BBC.
Where to find the best curry, or other Indian foods? We asked leading chefs to name some of their local favorites. We shamelessly expanded the definition of curry to encompass snacks, kebabs, biryanis, and whatever else they fancied, along with the saucy creations that Anglophones lump together under the term curry.
Here are their picks.
Uncle Cafe, Guangzhou: Chef Andrew Wong of A Wong restaurant in London is a fan of this informal restaurant in the Hensheng Commercial Centre. “I ordered the mutton curry and enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “It’s Pakistani-style, with robust spicing.”
Indego by Vineet: Vineet Bhatia is one of the world’s most respected Indian chefs, and this beautiful restaurant at the Grosvenor House hotel can hardly be described as a hidden gem. You can dine on a terrace overlooking the Dubai Marina. U.K.-based chef Romy Gill, of Romy’s Kitchen, can’t resist going back for his starter of 3 Chaats vegetarian nibbles. “These snacks were a very important part of growing up in India,” she says. “The flavors dance in your mouth, and the dish is beautifully presented.”
Student Biryani: This Pakistani fast-food chain, which was founded in 1969, has three outlets in Dubai. The meal deals and garish decor might put you off, but the food is very good. “The Bihari Kebab is the star of the show,” says Chef Vivek Singh of Cinnamon Club in London. “They use chicken on the bone, marinated in a paste of fried onions, garlic, ginger, papaya and chili for hours, then cooked over low charcoal embers. It’s one of the finest kebabs I have ever eaten.”
Aaheli, Kolkata: This smart Bengali restaurant is housed in the Peerless Inn, a luxury hotel in the heart of the city. It’s the pick of Chef Abdul Yaseen of Darbaar restaurant in London. He enjoys the bhapa ilish, steamed fish like salmon, in yogurt and spices. “It’s a classic Bengali dish and this is as authentic as it gets,” he says. “It’s fresh fish from the Bay of Bengal with fresh ingredients. You will fall in love with it.”
Arsalan (Circus Avenue branch), Kolkata: This popular mini-chain of eight restaurants serves Mughal food from north India. It’s bright, it’s brash and it’s been popular since the first branch opened in 2002. Harneet Baweja, of Gunpowder restaurant in London, is a fan of the mutton biryani rice dish. “I love the potatoes as much as the meat in the biryani,” he says. “I like the Calcutta style with its subtle flavors and slow-cooked pieces of meat.”
Bademiya, Mumbai: This is a legendary late-night food stall near the Taj Hotel. “People order their kebabs & breads and enjoy them while standing on the street or using their car bonnet as a table,” chef Vineet Bhatia says. “My favorites are lamb brain & liver masala with roomali roti (handkerchief bread), finished off with a shahi tukda (Indian bread pudding) which is light and divine.” London-based chef Atul Kochhar of Benares restaurant in London is another fan. He goes for the chicken reshmi tikka.
Bhel Puri at Juhu Beach, Mumbai: This beachside seafood stand is a destination for food lovers in Mumbai, including Bhatia, who grew up in Juhu. His favorite dish is bhel puri puffed rice tossed with green chili, coriander, onion and fine sev (gram flour) vermicelli. “It’s an experience to eat this at the beach as the wind blows and the seawater tides clash and the water sprays on you,” he says.
Bukhara, New Delhi: This is a very posh Indian restaurant in the luxurious ITC Maurya hotel. It’s about as far from being a hidden gem as the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and Bill Clinton is among the many world leaders who have dined there. (Just don’t call it a curry house.) You don an apron and eat with your hands. The meaty barrah kebab is the pick of chef Karam Sethi, of Gymkhana, in London. Chunks of leg of lamb and chops are marinated in yogurt, malt vinegar and other spices before being char-grilled. “They are the best lamb chops in the world,” he says. Gunpowder’s Harneet Baweja is another fan. He goes for the dal, a blend of black lentil, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, simmered overnight and finished with cream. “It is decadent and could easily be my last meal,” Baweja says.
Dum Pukht, New Delhi: This is the other posh restaurant at the ITC Maurya hotel in New Delhi. It specializes in the historic royal cuisine of the rulers of Awadh, in north India. Dum phukt is a method of slow cooking in sealed containers for deep flavors. This richly decorated room is Kochhar’s pick. “Their lamb biryanis are to die for,” he says. “It’s the best place in the world to have biryani.”
Kabab-e-Bahar, Hyderabad: Kochhar also likes this lakeside restaurant in the Taj Banjara hotel. The lamb shikampuri kebabs, with patties of finely minced lamb with roast gram flour, “are very moreish,” he says. “Hyderabad is the city where they specialize in creamed paneer stuffed kebabs. They are delicious.”
Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar (Dongri branch), Mumbai: This brightly lit and inexpensive mini-chain is a favorite of Gunpowder restaurant’s Baweja. He likes to order dabba ghosht, which features cubes of mutton in a mild gravy, garnished with egg and salt. “It’s melt-in-your-mouth,” he says. “The restaurant is an old-school joint with regulars that have been coming for years.”
New Kulfi Centre, Mumbai: This Indian ice-cream shop near Marine Drive has been popular for decades. “They serve the best kulfis I have ever had,” Bhatia says of the Indian dessert. “My favorite is the paan kulfi: betel leaf filled with coconut, dates, betel nut, fennel—basically a mouth freshener. People specially drive down and wait in cars while the staff come over to take your orders and serve you.”
Oh! Calcutta, Pune: This award-winning restaurant is styled on the colonial clubs of old Calcutta, serving traditional Bengali cuisine. It’s the pick of Darbaar’s Yaseen, whose favorite dishes include bhapa ilish fish, marinated with fermented mustard paste and fresh green chillis, then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. “The flavors take me to the river banks and the fish market from where my aya (house maid) used to bring freshly caught fish to be prepared at home,” he says.
Tunday Kababi, Lucknow: This famous and lively cafe traces its history to 1905. The minced buffalo-meat galouti kebab is a favorite of Gymkhana’s Sethi. “You can eat them in the restaurant or have them delivered to your car window,” he says. “They are rich, heady, spiced kebabs originally made for toothless royals—the world’s most moreish kebab.”
Munnar, Tel Aviv: Indian food isn’t big in Israel, but London-based chef Eyal Jagermann from the Barbary reckons it’s worth seeking out Munnar, a popular vegetarian restaurant. “I remember having a Swiss chard and kale curry served with paratha roti, brown chickpeas stew with daal and chutney,” Jagermann says. “Everything was served with spiced yogurt, and it was fantastic.”
Jiyuken, Osaka: Osaka’s oldest Western restaurant is famous for its curries. It’s the pick of London-based chef Yoshinori Ishii, who holds two Michelin stars at Umu. His favorite dish is the meibutsu (specialty) curry, which contains beef, onion, spices and vegetables, stewed down and then mixed with white rice. It is served with a raw egg on top. “Whenever I am in Osaka, I visit this small place, which brings back childhood memories,” he says. “It is very much home-style cooking with simple, subtle flavors. If I am hungry, I order a side of beef and potato croquettes or curried beef cutlets.”
Shiseido Parlour, Tokyo: This Ginza dining room, owned by the cosmetics company, specializes in yoshoku Japanese-style Western cuisine. It’s a Tokyo institution, where you might order meat croquette and macaroni gratin. Or curry rice, a distinctively mild dish that appeals to the local palate. The rich sauce features onion, garlic, ginger and curry powder. Ken Yamada, of Anzu restaurant in London, came here as a child with his parents. “I love Japanese curry, and Shiseido Parlour’s curry is as old school as it gets,” he says. “I went back recently and it was exactly the same.”
Banana Leaf Apolo: This casual restaurant on Race Course Road serves its curries on a banana leaf, rather than a plate. It’s a favorite of British chef Alun Sperring of the Chilli Pickle restaurant in Brighton, who enjoys the fish head curry. “This dish has become famous since the ’60s when a South Indian restaurant owner offered it to entice the local Chinese clientele,” he says. “The gravy features lots of tamarind, chili, onions, garlic, tomatoes, coriander, cumin, turmeric and fenugreek powder served with okra and aubergine and a side of steamed rice. It’s delicious and as you work through the large bowl of thin gravy expect a nice burn to build from within.”
Curry Masala, Madrid: French chef Arnaud Bignon, who holds two Michelin stars at the Greenhouse restaurant in London, came across this restaurant in the center of Madrid. He particularly enjoyed palak paneer, a dish of fresh spinach with paneer cheese. “It had a perfect balance of richness and acidity,” he says. “The paneer was soft both in texture and in flavor but the spices really stood out in the spinach.”
Gunpowder, London: This tiny restaurant near Spitalfields market is always packed with diners drawn by its big flavors and modest prices. The spicy venison and vermicelli donut is a favorite of Romy Gill of Romy’s Kitchen. The snack features venison slow-cooked for 4 to 6 hours, flavored with curry leaves, ginger, chili and other spices. “Venison can dry out, and it’s difficult to get the spicing right,” Gill says. “Here, it is perfectly balanced: The flavors are subtle and the heat isn’t overpowering.”
Mirch Masala, Tooting, LondonThis casual restaurant in suburban Tooting has a large menu focused on spicy karahi dishes cooked in a deep pan like a wok. Cinnamon Club’s Singh is a regular and likes to order the Karela gosht mutton curry on the bone with bitter melons. “For gutsy, spicy, rustic cooking from the Punjab, this is as good as it comes,” he says.
Indian Accent, New York: Will Bowlby of Kricket, in London, is a fan of this modern Indian restaurant in Le Parker Meridien in Midtown. It’s an import from New Delhi, where this fine-dining establishment is the best Indian restaurant in the world, according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. “The standout dish was the pulled jackfruit phulka,” Bowlby says. This soft bread is more normally served with pork, which is also available. “The consistency and flavor of the jackfruit emphasized again the fact that veg is often the way forward, especially when it comes to Indian food.”
Junoon, New York: This Michelin-starred Midtown restaurant is a favorite of Gill. The lal mirch ka paneer is a starter of house-made cheese, tandoori pepper coulis and confit peppers. “Paneer can be tasteless and rubbery,” she says. “This is beautifully made and prepared. It melts in your mouth and the spicing is just right.”