Village spice

Kasturi, SE7

When you read from a food writer (Solange Berchim in the Greenwich Visitor) that the curry she ordered from Kasturi in Charlton was one of the best she had tasted, it is time to take notice.

The Greenwich Curry Club had a mammoth Christmas curry here when it was called the Viceroy, so we clearly needed to check out the venue’s new incarnation. After a couple of warm-up drinks in the friendly White Swan we skipped the starters and headed straight for the mains.

I’m currently on a Vindaloo rush and the chicken one (£6.95) was spot on – well spiced and a decent amount of vinegar. It’s amazing how many restaurants ease up on that ingredient when it’s a core part of the Goan dish.

Elsewhere on the table, the Lal Maas (£9.95 ), a Rajasthani lamb dish, didn’t explode in heat as we expected from the menu’s description, but it disappeared nonetheless, along with a Hyderabadi Lamb Biryani and Mashq-e-Tanjan, the chicken version of the same dish (both £9.95). Considering there were the remnants of a Keema nan (£2.95) and pilau rice (£2.95), an empty bottle of red wine and a few Cobras littering the table, the final tally of under £20 a head was exceptional for this quality.

I particularly like the tight menu, in particular only listing a handful of “speciality” dishes. Now, that is a restaurant that is confident in itself and one where you can be more confident that the chef actually does specialise in those dishes.

Kasturi, 10 The Vilage, Charlton, London, SE7 8UD. Tel: 020 8319 3439. E-mail: info@kasturi-restaurant.com. Open: daily 5.30pm – 11pm.

Scores on the tandoors
Food 8
Decor 7.5
Service and friendliness 8.5
Vibe (early Wednesday night) 7
Value 8

Plenty of fish

Saffron Club, SE3

Not only does this Blackheath restaurant have one of the coolest names in the curry world, it also has a superb selection of seafood dishes. Sparking my interest was the Punjabi Fish and Chips (£8.95), a twist on the British classic, with Ajwain seeds used with the gram flour for the batter and served with a yoghurt dip. There’s even peas. Spicy I wonder? The waiter did admit that the dish was pretty much standard fish and chips with a hint of spice but then that’s not such a bad thing in my book anyway.

Other tempting fishy delights on the menu are the Mixed Seafood Curry (£13.95) with tiger prawns, salmon, fish and mussels in a Goan sauce and Bulsari Salmon (£11.95), a brochette of fresh salmon with onions and peppers. There are also four different prawn dishes (from £12.95) and Tandoori Trout Fish (£10.95) served with a stir fried aubergine and tomatoes.

To say there’s a fair bit of competition in the restaurant stakes in Blackheath is an understatement but Saffron Club has certainly put its marker down when it comes to fish.

But as this is a Nepalese restaurant specialities such as Chicken or Lamb Hariyali (£8.95) and Himalayan Chicken (£8.95) are also to be recommended. The latter is cooked with Jimbu, a popular spice from the hill regions of Nepal apparently. Not your usual ingredient that’s for sure. And, as can be seen from the photo below, there are some excellent, fresh vegetable side dishes too.

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Saffron Club, 39 Tranquil Vale, Blackheath, London, SE3 0BU. Tel: 020 8297 1071.

Scores on the tandoors
Food 7.5
Decor 8
Service and friendliness 9
Atmosphere 6 (Tuesday evening)

Value 7.5

Popadom and pickles

Crayford Tandoori, Crayford, Kent

I used this Indian restaurant a lot a few years ago, so I was delighted to see it going strong on a recent visit.

This is a classic small-town curry place: it serves more or less all the old-school dishes in its attempt to satisfy everyone: from young couples getting ready for a night out to oldies making their visit a night out, to groups celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and all those people in-between (like our jolly table down from London for the night).

And a classic place deserves some classic ordering. So where to start? Ah, the joys of an Indian. No faffing around like in other places; it’s not what to order, it’s simply how many to order.

“That’ll be six popadoms please.” See mum, I can order with no hands (on the menu) now.

Then it’s the pickle tray ritual as people make a grab for their favourites.

“Oh, that’s hot! Try that one.”

“Oh I love that one.”

“Is that the mango? Mmmm.”

“What’s that one? I don’t think I’ve had that one before.”

“Yes you bloody have,” I want to cry. “This is a classic curry house. They’ve been dishing up the same stuff for years when it comes to this bit of the meal.”

In case you haven’t been out since 1978 it goes like this…

  1. The popadoms arrive 18 seconds after they have been ordered. Some people in your group are still removing their coats and before long another member of the group will return from the loo and exclaim: “oh you’ve ordered popadoms,” as if it is unusual.
  2. The amount of popadoms you get will be the highest number that a member of you party asked for. So if everyone asked for six but one person said ten then the waiter will have only have heard him and you will get ten. Nobody argues because it’s not the done thing.
  3. The popadoms will be moderately warm as they were cooked earlier and have been sitting under a warmer tray. Nobody argues because it’s not the done thing.
  4. The pickle tray will include, a) some chopped onion with mint and a bit of vinegar. b) mango pickle. c) lime pickle. d) yoghurt/mint sauce. There is never a variation of the pickle tray in a classic curry house, although occasionally the  yoghurt/mint sauce can be bright green thanks to colouring, which is rather exciting, even though it tastes no different.
  5. Everyone tucks in. There are two ways to eat popadoms and pickles. One is to break off small bits of popadom and put on the pickles one at a time so you can actually taste them. The second is to pile a mixture of all the pickles on your plate and mix them up into a complete mess in a complete disregard for the individual taste of each one. You can then scoop up the mess on to your popadom and wonder why it is dripping all over the place.
  6. After five minutes someone at the table asks for another tray of pickles because they have already been devoured. This is the equivalent of a large bottle of ketchup and mustard being used on a couple of hotdogs but no worry, the waiter will assist us.
  7. The waiter mutters something in Hindi to his colleague. This can roughly translated as “that greedy bunch have eaten a whole pickle tray in five minutes. Thank goodness we charge £1.10 per popadom these days.”
  8. After another five minutes the waiter returns to collect the empty tray but as he touches it someone exclaims, “we haven’t finished yet,” before picking up the last miniscule shards of popadoms and popping them into his mouth.
  9. The waiter says something else in Hindi.

And so begins a classic meal in a classic Indian restaurant, which on this occasion served up an excellent Chicken Tikka Sag (£8.95), Keema Bhuna (£7.95) and Sag Aloo (£3.20), as well as the largest King Prawn Butterfly starter (£5.95) I have ever seen.

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Sag Aloo (left) and Chicken Tikka Sag.

Crayford Tandoori, 4 Empire Building Waterside, Crayford, Kent, DA1 4JJ. Tel: 01322 529 907. Open: Sunday to Thursday 5.30pm – 11pm, Friday to Saturday 5.30pm – midnight.

Scores on the tandoors
Food 7
Decor 6
Service and friendliness 7.5
Vibe (Saturday night) 8
Value 8

If it ain’t broken

Spice of India, London SE1

A rambling, long menu is often worrying. How can a chef know, and cook, all these dishes properly methinks.

But somehow it seems perfect for the Spice of India. This is a proper curry house. Packed with an adoring after-work crowd all tucking into popadoms and dips and loving the array of old-school dishes on offer, the place is buzzing midweek.

This Waterloo favourite has stayed true to what most of us fell in love with when it came to Indian food – good, tasty food with no nonsense. It may not have that stark (cool, you know) Scandinavian-inspired interior design and astonishing unheard of dishes we can boast about at work the next day as if we are great culinary sub Continent explorers, but it does serve decent curry at decent prices.

The Spice of India might not be new and shiny but it certainly doesn’t feel dated; it’s just happy in its own curry-house skin. And I’m happy it’s there. Chicken Rogan (£8.25), Prawn Bhuna (£8.75), Pilau rice (£3.25) and a nan bread (£2.95) hasn’t tasted so good in a while.

Spice of India, 65 The Cut, South Bank, London, SE1 8LL. Tel: 0207 1286 or 0207 928 5280. Open: daily noon–2.30pm and 5.30pm–11.30pm.

Scores on the tandoors
Food 7.5
Decor 6
Service and friendliness 7.5
Vibe (early Wednesday night) 9
Value 8

Where is Ralph?

Shezan, Oxford

In the glory days of Oxford the Cowley Road was rammed with Indian restaurants. Indian restaurant, Indian restaurant, pub, Indian restaurant, that’s how it went. Which was perfect for us.

I should explain. The glory days were the late 1980s when we were students in this fine scholarly city. Us is four friends who used to live together in those glory days who have met for a reunion. It’s 30 years on.

We meet in the New Inn, at least that’s still there. Blimey, the prices have gone up Roger. The Indians have been invaded by Mesopotamian skewers and forced from their land. And then, as if to plant a warning flag to any counter invasion the Mesopotamians have inserted huge chunks of lamb and chicken in the windows, continuously dripping fat and spice from their bulky masses.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a kebab as much as the next half-drunk person who is wildly hungry at 11.30pm. Don’t diss a kebab, it does the trick. But Turkish food, eaten with friends as you stumble along the pavement dribbling into the pita as you search for another bit of sliced meat while dodging people looking at their phones,  doesn’t do much for a shared dining experience.

Indian food does, however. It’s all sharey is Indian food. The saddest Indian casualty along the Cowley Road, says Jon, is the Jomuna. He’s right. The Jomuna was our second home in the late 1980s. We must have eaten there three times a week at least. Ralph was the wonderful manager. We once turned up with a (very small) handful of change as the pubs were shutting and asked, “what can we get for this?” He picked up the change without counting it and replied: “whatever you want boys.” He worked for Oxford council in the day and in the restaurant at night and, if my memory serves me right, was studying part-time as well. For someone who thought getting up for an afternoon lecture was commendable I was in awe of the man. That night, out of respect for Ralph and being well brought up young men we opted for a basic curry and rice despite him repeating the all-in-offer.

But what we really wanted was a Chicken Tikka Masala. This glorious dish had just been invented (although we didn’t know that at the time) and the Jomuna had it on its menu. My goodness it was wonderful. But as it was a couple of quid more than the other dishes it was most certainly only ordered on special occasions, such as birthdays or when we’d found a pound note (yes, it was that long ago) on the pavement.

The only other time we had a Chicken Tikka Masala was when Rob (you’ve met all of Us now) returned home from a weekend triumphantly waving a £50 that his grandad had given him above his head. “Beers and a Jomuna?” he asked.

We eked out a couple of games of pool at the Bricklayer’s Arms and Britannia and squeezed in a pint at the White Horse, but frankly there was nothing else on our minds other than visiting Ralph.

Chicken Tikka Masala was better in those days. And I know it is not my memory playing nostalgic tricks with me because I still make it using a recipe from Pat Chapman’s iconic book, Favourite Restaurant Curries, which was first published in 1988. It was before the phrase British Indian Restaurant (BIR) curries had taken hold, but this book was exactly that: curries how the Brits liked them. The recipe in the book is an amalgam from the Oakham Tandoori in Leicester, Dilruba in Rugby, and Koh-i-noor, in Newport. This is how Ralph’s Chicken Tikka Masala tasted and if you want to know what this and other 1980s curries were like then this is the book for you.

But Jomuna is gone so we head across Magdalen Bridge and up the High Street to the Shezan. They look somewhat surprised to see us, even though it has just passed 10.30pm. That’s another thing that has changed: Indian restaurants are much more respectable now and a lot don’t even bother with the after-pub crowd. Leave that to the Mesopotamians.

But we are just in time to order says the young waiter, who is friendly enough but wasn’t even born when they were inventing Chicken Tikka Masala. The decor is all contemporary Mogul style and the snappily dressed owner Salim has the story of the place. This superbly located restaurant has been a dining room since 1915 and he has been here since 1978, when he started out as a pot washer and general this-that-and-the-other type helper. He’s a nice guy and advises me to have Lemon rice (£3.95) with my main, which is a winning recommendation.

Tonight we are also ordering Paneer Tikka (£5.95) starters, Goan Chicken (£10.95) mains, Peshwari nans (£3.95). But, I am delighted to say, there is still one Chicken Tikka Masala (£9.95) on the table.

It’s lovely to know that not everything has changed.

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Goan Chicken Curry (very good with Lemon rice) and Paneer Tikka.

Shezan, Ist Floor, 135 High Street, Oxford, OX4 1DN. Tel: 01865 251600. Open: Mon–Thurs noon–2.30pm and 5.30pm–late. Fri–Sun noon–3pm and 5.30pm–late.

Scores on the tandoors

Food 8
Decor 8
Service and friendliness 7.5
Vibe (late Friday night) 5
Value 7.5

Recipe… Chilli Paneer

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Serves 4 (as a main dish)
Cooking time: 35 mins 

What you need
• 4 tablespoons cooking oil
• 4 tablespoons cornflour
• 1 tablespoon red chilli powder
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 500g paneer cheese, chopped into small, evenly sized chunks or strips)
• 1 large onion, roughly chopped
• 1 each of red, yellow and green capsicum peppers, chopped into bite-sized chunks
• 20g garlic, roughly chopped
• 2 tablespoons Baj’s Blazin’ Original Hot Sauce*
• 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon brown sugar
• 4 green chillies, sliced down the middle and cut into chunks (deseed if you wish, but what a waste!)
• Small handful of coriander to garnish

How to cook
1. Mix the cornflour with 20ml of water, the red chilli powder and some salt and pepper. Coat each piece of paneer in the cornflour mix.
2. Heat a little oil in a frying pan to a medium heat and shallow fry some of the paneer for a couple of minutes until slightly golden. Set aside on kitchen towel. Repeat until all the paneer has been cooked.
3. Add the onions, peppers to the oil and cook for 3-4 minutes on a medium heat.
4. Add in the garlic, Baj’s Blazin’ Original Hot Sauce, soy sauce and brown sugar to the onions, peppers and garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes on a medium heat.
6. Add in the paneer and cook for a further 3 minutes, then add in the chillies, salt and pepper to taste and stir well.
7. Once everything is warmed through, sprinkle on the coriander leaves and serve.

* Recipe courtesy of  Baj’s Blazin’ Sauce from Greenwich.

 

 

Recipe… Egg Curry (street style)

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Egg curry street style
Serves 4

What you need
• 8 eggs
• 3 potatoes
• salt to taste• 3 tbsp oil
• 1 onion finely chopped
• 2 tsp roughly chopped garlic
• a 2-3cm piece of ginger peeled and roughly chopped
• 1 tin chopped tomatoes
• a small handful of coriander (tear the leaves off and chop the stems)

Spice mix 1
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 2 cloves
• 2 cardomom pods (cracked open slightly)
• 6 peppercorns
• 3 whole dried red chillies (or a tsp of crushed dried chillies)
• 1 bay leaf

Spice mix 2
• 1 tsp turmeric
• 1 tsp cummin
• 1/2 tsp chilli powder (add more if you like your curries hot)

How to cook
1. Hard boil the eggs and remove the shells.
2. Peel and slice potatoes and pat dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle potatoes with salt.
3. Heat the oil and fry the potatoes until they are cooked through and just start to brown. Set aside.
4. Fry the eggs in the same oil for about 5 minutes, rolling them frequently to avoid them crisping. Remove eggs and set aside.
5. Turn up the heat to ensure the oil is piping hot. Add the whole spices and cook for 20-30 seconds (cover the pan with a lid as it may spit). Timing is important. You want to infuse the oil with the flavours of the whole spices but if they burn you will have to do stage 5 again.
6. Add onion, garlic, ginger and tomatoes and turn down to a medium heat. Cover and cook for about 12-15 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid the sauce sticking.
7. Add the Spice Mix 2 with some salt, and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another 10 minutes. You may need to add in some water if the sauce is too thick.
8. Add the potatoes and eggs. Stir so the eggs are covered with the sauce but be careful not to break them up. Heat through for about five minutes.
9. Spinkle on the coriander.