How London's Oldest Indian Restaurant Got Its Start

AS THE FIRST of the three Round Table Conferences got underway in London in 1930, the Indian delegates — those who weren't from the princely states, exceedingly well-off, or prominent enough to be hosted by the wealthy — found that lodgings and dining were not exactly easy to come by due to racism. The delegates had been provided what we'd call a "per diem" — a sum to cover their daily expenses. But to address the food issue, a better solution was needed. An Indian Social Centre was set up at Chesterfield Gardens in Mayfair, and it was catered by a reputable restaurant that specialised in Indian cuisine: Veeraswamy. (Shafis was another popular — and less high-brow — hangout for the Indian delegates, advertised as "not merely a Public Restaurant; it is a Proper Rendezvous for all Decent & Dignified People".)

Veeraswamy was not the first Indian restaurant in London; Sake Dean Mohamad had set up the Hindoostane Coffee House in George Street back in 1810. But Veeraswamy was known for its high-end fine dining that had charmed the city's elites. Its fame was founded in the owner Edward Palmer's success at the grand British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25. 

Edward Palmer had an illustrious family lineage, although the glory days of his ancestors were long past by his time. His great-grandmother was Princess Fyze Baksh aka Faiz un Nissa, of Oudh. She married a William Palmer with whom she had two sons; confusingly both were also named William. One of the Williams would go on to establish, with his Gujarati partner, the financial institution that came to occupy a prominent role in the Nizam's Hyderabad. House of Palmers' power made it a target in the eyes of certain officials from the East India Company. Financial mismanagement or deliberate sabotage, by the time Edward was born, House of Palmers was no longer part of the rarified air of Hyderabad's aristocratic set. 

Edward's parents were James Edward Palmer, who was known as the "blind major of Secunderabad", and Annie Ponnuswamy. He was born in Hyderabad and reportedly came to London with the intention of studying Medicine, perhaps around 1870. But his interests lay elsewhere. Using a version of his maternal family name, he launched a food business: Veersawmy (the spelling reflecting the "sami" sound in Tamil) & Co. Under the brand name of "Nizam", he retailed curry powders, pastes, pickles and spices. An early advertisement for one of the Nizam products — Madras Curry Powder — reads:

"Real Indian Curry At Last! 

Possessed of that delicate flavour and aroma so much appreciated by Anglo-Indians and Connoisseurs.

Guaranteed to reproduce the freshness and piquancy of a Real Madras Curry. 

Highest quality both as regards purity and flavour.

Absolutely incomparable."

Lower down, the advertisement includes the name and address of the enterprise: Veerasawmy & Co., Rye Lane, London, S.E. West End Depot — 21, Wigmore St. West. 

This wasn't Edward's sole endeavour. Alongside he was also catering and conducting cooking demonstrations at venues like Debenham & Freebody's. For one of these sessions, Edward is noted to have worn "a superb oriental coat of crimson brocade and snowy turban" while preparing a full menu of Indian dishes, the recipes for which were printed out and shared with his audience. 

In 1915, Edward authored a book called "Indian Cookery", editions of which are still available today. To publish the tome, he used the name "EP (for his initials) Veerasawmy". 

But it was over 1924-25 that his fame received its greatest boost. As the British Empire Exhibition opened in Wembley, the India Pavilion roped in Edward as an adviser. His participation was a great success: an official report from the time notes that Veerasawmy had served up to 500 curries a day, and that any future collaborations should include him once again. Inquiries for Veerasawmy's food began rolling in.

Buoyed by this acclaim, Edward launched a restaurant on Regent Street in 1926. He may not have known it then, but it would become the oldest running Indian restaurant in London, with a slew of celebrities (including royalty) among its diners over the years. The Veeraswamy (the spelling had changed by this time) is now run by restaurateurs Namita Punjabi and Ranjit Mathrani of Chutney Mary and Masala Zone fame. It even earned a Michelin star a few years ago, for its use of the finest British produce — like Welsh lamb — in its signature dishes like Rogan Josh. If in its early days, it excelled in serving dishes like Duck Vindaloo, Madras Curry, Dak Bungalow Curry etc, by 1959, long after Edward had relinquished ownership, the menu featured a mix of "Indian, Pakistani, Ceylonese, Parsee & Malayan dishes". There was also a dedicated English-French section for those who didn't want to experiment with new cuisines. A sepia tinted photograph dating to the restaurant's opening years depicts a large group of Indians, described as "Punjabi students" — the men in Western suits, the women in saris — seated at Veeraswamy, with a few white guests. 

BP Peiris, the Sri Lankan lawyer and later cabinet secretary, recalls that during his time in the UK, he took a German friend for a meal at Veeraswamy. Going by incidental details, this should have been sometime in 1926-27 itself. In his memoirs, Peiris writes that Veeraswamy was "a very expensive place — a rice and one curry cost about 10 shillings and six pence". Peiris and his companion were served by the head waiter, "a fair, military-looking man…dressed in a white sherwani, jodhpurs, red sash and red turban". Peiris writes about taking the man to be a Kashmiri, only to realise later, after a long exchange where the latter refused to serve him more liquor (since in the head waiter's opinion, Peiris had already had one too many, and that too when he had a lady to escort home) that he was also a Lankan compatriot. 

Another story connected to Veeraswamy and liquor is that of Prince Axel of Denmark, who seemingly had a barrel of Carlsberg beer sent to the restaurant every year after particularly enjoying a meal there. This in turn is said to have led to the popular pairing of lager and Indian food. For all the dignitaries who dined here, however, Veeraswamy also had a fleeting brush with the wrong kind of fame in 1951, when one of its former employees — a Backary Manneh — was apprehended for murder. Scotland Yard was reportedly able to trace the crime to Manneh because he used a distinctive knife, stolen from the restaurant, to stab his victim. The "Veeraswamy knife" became the key evidence in the case against Manneh.