24th October 2022
Yatra is based on the busy London Road in Southborough. Nestled on the high street between an estate agent, nail bar and sushi restaurant, I almost missed it, but then I was caught like a Bisto kid by the aroma of freshly ground spices, wafting from the kitchen and in I went with my mother.
Kirti, his wife Twinkle and Paul have been here for one and a half years. Kirti, originally from Gujarat has a Master’s in hospitality. He worked for three and a half years in Indian restaurants in the UK, before moving to Subway running two of their sites in Leicester Square. He and Paul, (from Kerala), ran a catering company together. They used to cook for friends who loved their food so much that they suggested they open a restaurant. With clients from London, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, they found a space in Southborough and Yatra The Indian Café was born.
Now I am constantly telling people I can never find an authentic Indian offering in my hometown, let alone a decent street food place. Can you imagine my surprise when Yatra rock up at the Tunbridge Wells Food Festival, making fresh masala dosas and chilli chicken. They apparently do a lot of festivals but this is the first time I have clocked them. Kirti tells me about the café, that they are on the TN card directory and therefore I must visit. Try stopping me if this dosa is anything to go by. It’s insanely good.
When we first walk in the café looks a little unloved, but Paul tells me they are in the middle of decorating and will be placing more tables into the main area. There are cute dolls hanging in the window and at the back by the main counter displaying their specials, are several shelves of spices, household staples, sweets, snacks and pickles, which are available to buy. Lunchtimes are quiet here, with 60-70% of their business being takeaway through Deliveroo and Just Eat, but the best way to eat Indian food is on the premises and I highly recommend dining in. They are applying for an alcohol licence however in the meantime you can BYO and pay corkage.
The menu is split into chaat, sandwiches, dosas, rolls, burgers, lunch boxes, larger meals, drinks, (hot and cold), including lassi and desserts. They are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free friendly, so it is a good idea to let them know your dietary requirements, which they will be delighted to accommodate.
The specials board looks very exciting, Desi Chicken, Butter Chicken, Paneer Makhani, Special Chicken Biryani, Bombay Potato, Paneer Butter Masala, Paratha, Onion Bhaji. Everything is made on the premises by the three of them. We are here for the chaat and dosas which we have not stopped thinking about since the festival. Mum orders the Pani Puri, also known as Gol Gappa or Puchka in Kolkata. If you travel to Kolkata you will see street vendors on bicycles with huge bags of them on their back. These are filled with mashed potatoes and chick peas. Served with mint and tamarind water, you pour the latter into the shell and put the whole thing in your mouth. My mother can eat several on the go, the record is twelve but she hopes to smash it.
Punjabi samosas are not like those soggy filo style samosas that you buy in supermarkets, the homemade pastry melts in the mouth with spiced potatoes within and they are usually served with a tamarind chutney. Today they have not made any and so we opt for spinach pakoras, chopped spinach, spices, coriander seeds and chickpea flour, deep-fried. Now my mother is the queen of pakoras and bhajis, but even she concedes these are some of the best she has tried, “A class”. I am inclined to agree with her. No undercooked mush inside, they are crispy and fabulous. We polish them off in seconds, thinking should we order more to take home. There is a ritual in our home at 4pm, work permitting. Everything stops for masala chai, pakoras and chit chat. We always used to do this at my auntie’s and the tradition has carried on. Mum will often fry aubergines in gram flour and serve them up piping hot. You can pretty much fry any vegetable in chick pea flour and have them with a quality Darjeeling tea. Speaking of tea they make their masala chai from scratch on the premises, here. The cardamom flavour is wonderful.
Next come the dosas. They are superb. Dosas are South-Indian, wafer- thin black lentil and rice pancakes. They resemble the shape of a large drainpipe and can be served plain or stuffed, but always with sambar and coconut chutney. Many people eat them for breakfast but now they are popular any time of day. There is a real art to making them and they have mastered it here. Every one, light as a feather. I remember my friend Cyrus Todiwala showing the celebrities on Masterchef how to create them. They made a real hash of it, holes everywhere and burnt edges. None of that here. I prefer mine stuffed with masala potato but you can have cheese, paneer or chicken as alternatives. If you try anything at Yatra, have these, they are marvellous. Several school children walk past on their way to buy some fast food and I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they had a dosa station out front so that they can taste real street food. I think the Pani Puri would be popular too, it’s just a case of having enough staff to do it. Kirti says he wants to grow customer confidence in their cuisine. It’s a slow process but more people are becoming aware of this incredible food.
On another occasion I come back to try their Paneer Tikka Grilled Sandwich. Popular on the streets of Mumbai, this one is toasted, packed with marinated paneer, spiced peppers, onions, mint chutney and melted cheese. Ask Asma Khan of the famous Darjeeling Express and she will tell you of her love for these delights. Aloo chaat is also a favourite. Here they get chunky chips and smother them in ginger, chilli, onion, coriander and tamarind and green chutney. The result is a heavenly combination of crispy, sweet and sour. You’re going to love their improvised version of this popular dish.
Whilst sitting here the aromas coming from the kitchen are incredible. That unique smell of curry leaves frying that my friend Karan from Hoppers always talks about, during his cooking demonstrations. The delivery app bell is sounding non-stop, it has its place but if you want to understand the layering of flavours that go into this style of cooking, just sit down and take it in, there is nothing quite like it. When I used to wake up at my mother’s home in Kolkata in the early hours, family cooks would be frying fish curry, ready for the day’s lunch. It’s a sinus clearing experience I can tell you. No windows to close, just shutters. The smell would penetrate everything. Now I can’t get enough of it. Although it annoyed me then, the smell of Kirti’s tilapia curry being made in the kitchen is evoking so many memories. I am again reminded of my time in India. My aunt once filled three Tiffin boxes full of my favourites and travelled half way across the city just because she knows how much I love fish curry and even more, prawn malai curry. I tell Kirti about my memories and he immediately brings some out with steamed basmati for me to try. Oh those flavours are unmistakable. I think if he ever makes Shorshe Maach, (Bengali mustard fish) I will be in heaven. This will definitely do for now.
My mother and I are so delighted with the availability of such authentic food in Tunbridge Wells, we have booked for their special Diwali Thali. For those who don’t know, Diwali is the Festival of Light, where people come together to celebrate with their families and friends all over the world. We can’t wait to celebrate with Kirti, Paul and Twinkle at Yatra Indian Café. Thank you for a wonderful experience.
All opinions are my own. An exclusive review for the TN card.
TN card reward : 10% discount on food to takeaway or eat in, when spending £20 or over. Excludes existing offers and promotions. FInd more details here.