I had my first curry in 1983. My home town in North Yorkshire only offered fish and chips or takeaway chinese so I was in my late teens when I finally succumbed. For those of you who can’t quite picture the scene British food was in a real state. The pub chains offered some very strange menu choices. Tomato juice and grapefruit with a cherry on were common starters. Every menu had steak and kidney pie and plaice. I still remember almost having palpitations when our local hotel offered spaghetti bolognaise (a truly horrible scalding-hot watery confection looking back) as a starter for the first time.
Of course curry had featured on the school dinner menus but not in any form known to man. They contained some form of pulse and almost invariably sultanas but they set my expectation of what a curry was for many years.
There was, of course, a period when unspeakable imitations of all sorts of oriental food was served in boxes full of sachets and packets to be fried and boiled within an inch of their lives. I confess that the first time I tried one of these I enjoyed the experience – it felt a bit like using one of those toy chemistry sets.
And so to 1983. I was at University in Birmingham when, one lunchtime, four of us went to try a “student special” at one of the many restaurants to choose from in Selly Oak. It was a three course meal for probably an infeasibly low amount of money. We were one of the only groups of people in the place and I remember the nervousness. I was expecting real fire but was unsurprisingly underwhelmed by the basic chicken curry I ate that day. What did stay in the memory was the wonderful taste and texture of the naan bread and the poppadoms with the pickle tray. The slices of canned peach which constituted dessert have long since gone.
I’d got the bug though and over the next 12 years in Birmingham I tried lots of different restaurants. The highlights for me were having a roast leg of lamb Desi Lamb one Christmas Eve at Lal Qila in Erdington and the regular trips up the Ladypool Road to an unlicensed balti house – the city claims to have invented the balti in 1977. Adil’s and Punjab Paradise were the favourites and the table naans were legendary. I even took a party of business contacts there and had a tremendous night. In Sutton Coldfield the Sonargaw and Bashundora kept us entertained although around us it seemed that the challenge was to try and eat the hottest curry possible. The Phaal was on every menu and one testosteroned individual would always order it and proclaim it’s deliciousness before mysteriously disappearing for a few minutes. Further afield we even went out to Lye to try Mister Dave’s. The search was always on to try and find the best curry.
It was in Birmingham that we did a night class for a while to learn how to make a decent curry at home. Although you can get them anywhere now Birmingham had great corner shops then to get the more difficult ingredients. Before doing the course we had tried cooking at home but somehow it never tasted the same – seeing an expert do it made us realise just how easy it is provided you give enough time to get the base right – particularly the onions.
Sure enough my home town in the North East did catch up. In Birmingham the culture was typically to have a curry last thing in the evening. Around 10 o’clock things were fine but it did get a little rough around the edges and it was best to vacate the places by midnight and leave the poor staff to their fate. In my home town the Indian Cottage opened up and was basically a regular restaurant with a bit of Laura Ashley and chintz. It was certainly a curry restaurant but done in the way that didn’t frighten the horses – the curry sauces were creamy and sweet.
We moved to Leicestershire and the delights of Belgrave Road. Seeing the Diwali celebrations there was absolutely fantastic and we also used to try the Indian sweet shops (I’ve never fully come to terms with the levels of sweetness involved: I don’t think my tongue can reach that far up the scale). There we had a clear favourite – Friends Tandoori. Thankfully our children enjoyed a curry at this stage so it worked really well. What was obvious though was the different styles between Leicester and Birmingham. To me the typical Birmingham curry was very moist and oniony whereas Leicester curries seemed drier on the whole and the vegetables were less cooked – it took a while to adapt. It did highlight that curry restaurants are all about entertainment. They understand exactly what their customers want and cater for them – its not about showing off for the sake of it.
And so to Ashbourne. The Bengal Cottage is a great staple. It has its ups and downs but the staff are generally friendly, and there’s often someone in there that you know. Service can be patchy when they have a big table booking but if you are on the big table you can have a great evening. I’ve never had a bad meal there and I’ve had a couple of great ones.
I’ve been to the Red Chilli a couple of times and enjoyed it. It’s a little bit more expensive but they definitely go for the Leicester style curry – you can taste each ingredient more. For a quieter environment and the benefits of an alcohol licence its a good evening out.
We’ve also got Panda which serves the best takeaway in my opinion. I love to watch the guys cooking – on a busy night its like a machine.
For Thai curry, The Basement is worth a mention. It’s the best place to eat out in Ashbourne at the moment in my opinion. There’s always a very warm welcome and the food is consistently good. Those who like chilli heat may feel its a little toned down but you’ll still have a good evening.
The best kept secret, for those who don’t want to go out but can’t be bothered to cook either, is Rafi’s Spicebox. There are two shops – one in Sudbury in Suffolk and one in York – but they have an online business too. They offer curry base ingredients in vacuum packed bags – typically a curry paste, some dried fried onions and a mixture of ground spices. The label tells you what to add. In the shops they make them up to order from the spice trays. They are full of flavour and you can choose the heat to order http://www.spicebox.co.uk. I’ve tried a few out of the range including the rendang, the red and green Thai curries and a few of the Indian curries and my favourite is the Xacuti. I know it’s not Try Ashbourne First but you still need to add meat and some vegetables to it.