THREE pints of lager and a prawn vindaloo – or a gallon of white wine and a chicken bhuna. And don’t forget the poppadoms and mango chutney while you’re waiting to blow the roof of your mouth off with extra chillies.
A drunken night out on the town is traditionally incomplete if it doesn’t end with sweat, tears and a greasy tomato sauce stain somewhere inappropriate thanks to an impromptu meal in a flock-wallpapered Indian restaurant.
Indian food, has for the most part since it’s arrival in Edinburgh 60 years ago, meant a curry with pilau rice – the hotter the better depending on your level of machismo or lack of respect for your stomach.
But as Mahatma Gandhi perhaps should have said, the times they are a’changing.
Indian food is becoming recognised as a cuisine of variety and subtlety of flavour – thanks to chefs like Rick Stein, whose current BBC series sees him sampling different food styles in an attempt to educate us Brits about what real Indian food is all about – there isn’t a chicken tikka masala in sight. And then there’s London-based Vineet Bhatia who was the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star in 2001 and has since gone on to win another two.
Not shy of a Michelin starred restaurant or two, Edinburgh is also beginning to see a change in its Indian offerings.
At Voujon in Newington, owner Salim Miah believes that curries have been adulterated and altered to suit the Western palate and as such have lost almost all resemblance to what people in India actually eat – or indeed what Indians in Edinburgh sit down to in their own homes.
His restaurant, which concentrates on northern Indian food, aims to change that through its cuisine and its sophisticated surroundings.
“The way we cook in Indian and Bangladeshi is very different from that in a British restaurant,” he says.
“The meat and vegetables for each dish are cooked with the spices right from the beginning, and a real curry will take at least an hour to prepare.
“Some of the most popular dishes like chicken tikka masala or red fort chicken, don’t come from India – they are a Western fabrication, so by coming to Voujon our diners have the opportunity to sample something of the real India.”
And as India has more than 40 languages and 28 states with their own food traditions, it’s not surprising that the variety of flavour and fragrance in Indian food has been impossible to capture in just curry. Down in Leith – not a stone’s throw from the Michelin-starred restaurants of Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart – there’s Mithas, the newest addition to the Khushi empire.
While Jaimon George, group general manager, is not quite prepared to say it out loud, a star is exactly what his company is aiming for.
Given that in its two years since opening it’s scooped awards including the Scottish Restaurant Awards’ Indian Restaurant of the Year and the Scottish Curry Awards, Restaurant of the Year and is the only Indian restaurant in Scotland to have two AA Rosettes, then it seems that impressing the Michelin people is the obvious next step.
Jaimon says: “There’s a wrong perception about Indian food in the UK and we are definitely looking at changing the way people think about it, moving to high-end dining, a night out with wonderful food and a good bottle of wine.
“While there will always be a demand for the kind of thing we do at Khushi’s, we wanted to show people what Indian food is really about – not anglicised Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi food, or very hot curries which blow your tastebuds so you can’t taste any of the other spices that are used.
“A lot of Indian restaurateurs are thinking the same but we wanted to lead rather than follow, to show that Indian food is about good quality, fresh ingredients, not lager and vindaloo.
“And that an Indian restaurant can be a place of sophistication and excellent service. That’s why we’ve been winning awards.
“It’s been breaking new ground and I think people were unsure at first, but now 80 per cent of our clients are repeat custom.
“Obviously a Michelin star would be amazing, and great for Edinburgh, but we’re not aiming for that, rather just keeping customers are happy.”
While Khushi’s might have started off rather humbly back in 1947 in Potterow with just chicken or lamb curry on the menu – coriander, fiery chillies, warming ginger, vibrant turmeric and powerful garlic adding the flavour – Mithas is a whole different bhaji of culinary expertise.
For a start there are dishes like tandoori king prawn with sun-dried tomato and chilli, partridge in a honey and mustard marinade and the emphasis is more on tandoori and kebab dishes than curry, though if you fancy a lamb bhuna be prepared for a flavoursome mix of mace, nutmeg, coriander seeds, bay leaf, ginger, garlic, star anise, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and dried chillies.
Naans are on the menu but are crisp and light – and you won’t find a poppadom or a pakora. There’s even a proper dessert menu and today it opens its cocktail bar and will offer a 100-strong wine list. BYOB is so yesterday.
“It became obvious that if we were to offer a high-end dining experience then people would not want to be bringing their own wine,” says Jaimon.
“So this is a new venture for us as well. So we will be able to match wine to our menu which contains a lot of fish – 11 different types.
“Monkfish tikka is extremely popular but then so are dishes like baby leg of lamb slow cooked in tandoori raan.
“We’ve put a lot of investment into this because we really believe Edinburgh people will want to try authentic Indian food, not a European-ised version.”
Jim Forrester, of the Indian Chef of the Year competition – established by Edinburgh restauranteur and hotelier Tommy Miah back in 1991 – believes that there has been a steady increase in the quality of food on offer in the city’s Indian restaurants, although they are 90 per cent Bangladeshi, he says.
“The competition was set up specifically to increase the quality and skills of Indian chefs, to move the cuisine away from the bog standard being offered by Indian takeaways and I think it’s been very successful in doing that.
“We have seen a real move away from dishes like chicken masala which is not Indian anyway, but invented in Birmingham or Bradford for the English taste, and towards more authentic Indian food and giving people a proper dining experience.
“It’s good news and it can only keep getting better.”
Spicing up every meal time
• Not all “Indian” food is Indian. A lot of restaurants are of Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, origin and so the food is different. Pakistani food is heavily meat-based, Indian more vegetable and fish and Bangladeshi food uses a lot of beef and less spice.
• Not all Indian food is hot and spicy – in fact it all depends on taste. Chillies can be added or not used at all and the same goes for spices.
• Indian food doesn’t have to be fatty and unhealthy. As in most cooking, fat or oil can be reduced, and most dishes contain a lot of vegetables, while tumeric, ginger, garlic and green chillies are said to have some medicinal properties.
• Curry powder is a key ingredient in every curry – the all-important powder is actually a mix of spices collectively
known as garam masala. While the basic ingredients used are the same, each cook uses their own proportions so the end result will often differ.
• Chicken tikka masala is the most popular Indian dish in the world. It’s certainly popular, but it’s not an Indian dish at
all. It’s believed
to have been created in either Glasgow, Newcastle or Birmingham
in the 1960s to please British palates.
• The British Raj rule of India has given us kedgeree, piccalilli, mulligatawny soup and even Worcestershire sauce.