J and I are going to India. In October. For two weeks. I am very very excited. I was originally planning a trip to visit a friend who has just moved back to Abu Dhabi, and my flatmate, who will shortly be moving to Singapore, until I realised that I didn’t actually want to go to either Abu Dhabi or Singapore and that as I am short on both holiday and funds, I should go somewhere I really really want to go. And I’ve really really wanted to go to India for years now. I mentioned this to J over a pork bap near Hampstead Heath and it turned out he really really wanted to go too. So we are. We’ve just booked our flights and in our excitement have planned a summer of warm-up activities, the first of which was a visit to Neasden Temple (its proper name is BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir) followed by the local restaurant, Shayona, last Sunday.
On the tube there I excitedly pulled out my latest book purchase – Curry by Lizzie Collingham. It is a history of India through its food. J then pulled out his current read – India the Road Ahead by Mark Tully. Yes, we are both geeks. The walk from Neasden tube to the temple is along the side of the North Circular. Scenic. The temple itself sits rather incongruously in its surroundings, on the side of a main road opposite a row of distinctly English houses. Made from intricately carved light cream limestone with seven pinnacles topped with fluttering red flags, it is the largest Hindu temple outside of India (discounting Angkor Watt which is no longer in active use) and, when it was inaugurated in 1995, was Britain’s only purpose built one. We entered via a walkway from the Haveli, a cultural centre next to the Mandir. It is only when you enter the shrine and look up at the stunning doomed roof that you realise exactly where you are in the Mandir. The inside is covered in white Carrara marble, with hefty pillars featuring intricately carved religious scenes and altars with statues of gods colourfully decorated. There was a mix of men, women and children both praying and observing, and it felt very inclusive. After walking around, we went downstairs to the Understanding Hinduism exhibition, which was a basic introduction to the religion and the history of the temple.
We then went for lunch at Shayona, a vegetarian Indian restaurant just across the road from the temple. We ordered mango lassies, and pulled out our India guidebooks to start thinking about a route. For starters we shared plates of chilli paneer and Bombay bhel. The chunks of soft, slightly tangy cheese were covered in a hot sticky sauce and nestled between large pieces of grilled peppers. The bhel was different to other versions I have had – there were less fresh ingredients, the puffed rice simply coated in a coriander dressing and topped with a sprinkling of peppers and pomegranate seeds. There was rather a lot of both dishes. We finished them and wondered how we would have space for our mains.
We shared a sag paneer, the creamy spinach sauce a nice contrast to the slight tang of cheese but still a bit too rich,a lovely light tarka dhal, and two portions of delicious buttered naan.
The food wasn’t elegant or particularly exciting but it was good home cooking, and we hope very authentic. The bill came in at just under £20 each. It was an interesting afternoon, as supposed to a gastronomic adventure, but one that is definitely worth doing.
If we can eat like this for two weeks in India we will be very happy (we’ve both decided to go vegetarian when there in a bid to avoid the worst of the stomach grumbles). We are flying in and out of Delhi, and plan on visiting the golden triangle and Rajasthan. If anyone has suggestions on where to go, stay and eat, then I would love to hear them!