You could easily miss Drummond Street. Just west of Euston Station in central London, it’s an unassuming stretch of townhouses, basement flats, restaurants and shops, easily walked in a couple of minutes.
But look closer, and almost every restaurant and store is South Asian. Menus feature South Indian masala dosa (spiced pancakes), Mumbai-style street food and Lahori lamb kebabs; shop windows display South Asian sweets and savoury snacks; and there’s enough spices, pulses, pickles, pastes and flours to cater an Indian wedding.
Growing up in 1980s London, my family would come here looking for what the suburbs had yet to offer. Today, more than 30 years on and sat in Diwana Bhel Poori House, probably the UK’s oldest South Indian vegetarian restaurant and a Drummond Street favourite since 1971, it feels like little has changed, from the wood-panelled interior to the paintings on the wall. The food is still delicious – its chef for 30 years became the owner a decade ago and also runs Chutney’s restaurant, also on Drummond Street.
South Asians have lived in London since the mid-17th Century, when ships of the colonial East India Company docked in the capital. However, most came in the middle of the 20th Century; many from post-Partition India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to help rebuild post-war Britain, work in the National Health Service or as students of the diaspora. The 1960s and ’70s saw the arrival of East African Asians, mainly Punjabi or Gujarati, like my family, exiled from or leaving ex-British colonies of Kenya and Uganda. At a time of upheaval, change and occasional racism, Drummond Street was a literal taste of home to London’s vibrant South Asian community, thanks to a small-but-growing presence of family-run cafes and stores.
Yet despite decades of trade, Drummond Street flies under the radar. This little street between Regents Park and the British Library is nearer a railway station than a major attraction and eclipsed by its more famous counterpart, Brick Lane near Liverpool Street in the east of the city. There, far greater numbers of Bangladeshi restaurants flourished from the 1980s, and its better-known “Banglatown” tag a nod to its long-standing resident community. But while Brick Lane got trendy, as clubs, shops and bars, including those inside the ever-expanding Truman Brewery, attracted Londoners and tourists alike, Drummond Street, despite its central location, has more or less stayed as it was – which is why so many people come back to it.