Lives of Spice: Scotland’s curry kings

Asif Ali outside the Shish Mahal in 1976
Asif Ali outside the Shish Mahal in 1976
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THREE and a half million portions of curry are eaten every week in the UK. But how did the dish become so ubiquitous? Chitra Ramaswamy goes in search of Scotland’s curry kings and their stories

It’s morning in Mithas, the latest addition to Edinburgh’s Indian dining scene. Chefs arrive at the fine dining restaurant on Leith’s waterfront, known to foodies and estate agents as Michelin Mile, and get to work. The tandoor is fired up. Lamb chops are slapped with spices and wrapped in thin stretches of sheep’s stomach. An industrial sized masala chai pumped up with Tetley’s teabags bubbles on a hob. Restaurants at this hour feel a bit like theatre stages before curtain up, all action and anticipation. And Mithas is one fancy stage, with its Tom Dixon lighting, wood panelling, and marble imported from Pakistan. The look may be modern, but the history is generations old.

A Glasgow bus advertises Shish Mahal curry house restaurant in Glasgow

A Glasgow bus advertises Shish Mahal curry house restaurant in Glasgow

It was 1935 when Edinburgh’s original curry king arrived in the capital. Khushi Mohammed had no money, no education, no English, and no suitcase. He came from the Punjab region of India and as the only son of a farmer, and the eldest of five, there was a lot riding on his success. He spent the first 12 years working as a door-to-door salesman. Apparently, there are still people who come in to his restaurants to reminisce about the time a Muslim man pitched up on their doorstep to sell them a mop.

Fast-forward to 1947 when the war had ended and the Partition of India and Pakistan was beginning. More and more Indian students were arriving in Edinburgh. They were homesick, and Mohammed saw an opportunity. In 1947 he opened what many believe to be Scotland’s first Indian restaurant.

At Mithas, which recently won Best Indian Restaurant at the Scottish Restaurant awards, I meet Mohammed’s son, Islam. A softly spoken, sharp-suited man, he describes his family with a rueful smile as “basically like the one in East is East”. What was on the original Khushi’s menu? “Six dishes,” Islam says. “Lamb curry, chicken curry, kofta curry, vegetable curry … and lamb curry.” He laughs. And the sixth dish? “My dad realised the Scots liked mince and tatties so a mince and potato curry was added. It was so popular we didn’t take it off until a decade ago.”

A basic canteen that looked more chippie than curry house, Khushi’s was originally called the Lothian Restaurant and was, as the name suggests, based on Lothian Street. Edinburgh’s first Chinese restaurant was just around the corner. In those days most of Mohammed’s friends were Italians: “They were getting a hard time after the war and so they looked out for each other,” Islam explains.

Charan Gill of The Ashoka Group

Charan Gill of The Ashoka Group

Today we’re cooking the one dish that has remained on the menu since the start. Lamb bhuna, a classic north Indian curry that bears no resemblance to the 1947 recipe. Head chef Pramod Nawani, who trained at London’s Amaya, picks out mace, nutmeg, coriander seeds, bay leaf, ginger, garlic, star anise, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, and dried chillies. A sophisticated shopping list for 2012, never mind post-war Edinburgh under rationing.

“Every time the students went home at the end of term they would have a list of things to bring back,” Islam explains. “It was like trafficking, with the students as spice mules. And my dad would make trips too. In the 1970s, he used to drive all the way to Pakistan in a VW camper van with my mum and the three eldest kids. He said it was to visit family, but it was also to bring back mangoes. It took them three weeks just to get there.”

Was Khushi Mohammed really the first person to bring Indian cuisine to Scotland? Like any good curry, the debate simmers on. Glasgow, four times winner of Curry Capital of Britain, has its own story to tell, one of old pals and new rivalries, flashy restaurants and flashier cars, booms, busts, and bhunas. Glasgow has enough curry kings to make up a monarchy, or at least a very good pakora bar. It also lays claim to the invention of chicken tikka masala and houses what was once the biggest Indian restaurant in Europe, La Crème De La Crème, a pockmarked folly in Finnieston that, in its day, filled the bellies of Sean Connery and Michael Jackson.

Rumours of early Indian restaurants in what was once the second city of the British Empire abound. Remember the one on Sauchiehall Street between the wars that disappeared without a trace? And what of the rowdy cafe on the Broomielaw that, in the mid-1930s, catered to Indian sailors working on the Clyde?

Islam Mohammed - Owner of Mithas (Indian Restaurant) in Leith

Islam Mohammed - Owner of Mithas (Indian Restaurant) in Leith

My search begins beside another river, the Kelvin, on Gibson Street in the West End. A stretch that includes a primary school, student digs, takeaways and newsagents, it was once known as Scotland’s Vindaloo Valley. “All the restaurants were curry houses and there were queues down the street every day,” recalls Charan Gill, Glasgow’s most showy curry king with a reputation in the trade for being something of a silver fox with a silver tongue. One restaurateur describes him to me as “a star man or a narcissistic self promoter, depending on who you’re talking to”. Suffice to say the title of Gill’s memoir, Tikka Look At Me Now, says as much about the man as the book’s contents.

“Curry was considered cheap student food for after the pub,” he tells me. “A curry was a challenge. It was about groups of guys drinking pints of lager and eating the hottest curry they could stomach. There was racism, fights, the lot. You expected it, and you got on with it.”

Gill arrived in Glasgow in 1963. The son of a Punjabi bus driver, he left school at 16 and worked in the shipyards by day and the Ashoka by night. In 2005 Gill, who most recently announced he was going to host a meditation event, sold off his empire of Indian restaurants (the Harlequin Group) for a reported £8 million. But it was his father’s generation who introduced the cuisine that would become as much a part of Scotland’s diet as Irn Bru. Today, in Britain, 3.5 million portions of curry are consumed every week. Not the case in 1960, when his dad arrived. Where did he eat? “He didn’t,” snaps Gill. “These guys shared shoes. They didn’t eat out. Sometimes they didn’t eat at all.”

Around the corner, on Park Road, is the site of one of Scotland’s earliest Indian restaurants, the Taj Mahal, opened in 1954. It’s now the Shish Mahal, which was originally on Gibson Street where it was known for its dinner-jacketed waiters and those long queues. The Shish is where chicken tikka masala was invented in 1972, thanks to a handy can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. It’s also part of the story of Glasgow’s original Indian restaurants.

“My grandfather, Noor Mohammed, arrived here in the 1940s from the Punjab,” says Asif Ali, the smartly dressed, generously proportioned man who runs the Shish. “He went to Dundee to work in the jute factories, then came here to the shipyards. There was a cafe called Green Gates on Bank Street where he would go with his Punjabi pals for egg and chips. Eventually they scraped enough money together to buy it and call it Green Gates Asian Restaurant. It was a disaster. When they started up again with the Shish Mahal, people must have thought they were mad.”

Instead, Glaswegians came in droves. “Some folk ate here seven days a week,” Ali recalls. “My dad worked 20 hours a day. He would be in the restaurant in the evenings and then he’d walk to the Gorbals to stay with his uncle so he could go to work at a wholesale traders in the morning.”

And so to Balbir’s on Church Street. This is the flagship restaurant of perhaps the most influential yet enigmatic of Glasgow’s curry kings. Everyone I speak to says I must “talk to Balbir”, and here he is, wandering around his chi-chi restaurant, a quiet, distinguished 60-year-old Indian (most of Glasgow’s curry kings are Pakistanis) with mischievous eyes and a taste for good wine.

Balbir Singh Sumal arrived in Glasgow in 1961 and waited tables as a teenager at the Taj Mahal. He founded the Ashoka chain in 1973, and gave Gill his first job in the business. Oh, and not to be outdone, he also invented the chicken chasni, a sweet and sour curry made with mango chutney.

“I personally don’t like the title of curry king,” he sniffs. “Indian food is about so much more than curry.” What was the food like back in the day at the Taj Mahal? “Awful,” he says. “A lot of condensed milk, sugar, and tomato sauce. I quickly took an interest in learning to cook and always got on with the chefs because I watched Indian films and knew all the songs. That’s how Charan and I became friends. He loved singing too.” He grins. “But that’s another story.”

Things could get rough, Sumal says, but that was life. “People would run out without paying,” he recalls. “But Glasgow is a good city. You would get one person calling you ‘Mohammed’ and another saying, ‘Oi, quieten down. Show some respect.’ The worst kind of racism was the sober, condescending kind. Still is.”

Back in Edinburgh, over our lamb bhuna, Islam tells me how the story of the city’s first curry king ended. In 1977 Mohammed, struggling with dementia, made his pilgrimage to Mecca. His wife, Hamida, and Islam’s younger brother went with him, while the other six children stayed behind. One morning Mohammed went out to pray and never came back. “The idea behind a pilgrimage is that you leave your worldly possessions behind,” Islam explains. “So my dad had nothing on him, no passport, no wallet. People looked for him but there are more than a million people there…we just couldn’t find him. We think he must have died out there and been buried.”

A week later, Hamida had no choice but to return to Edinburgh. She had seven children and a restaurant to run. “I can’t put in to words how she must have felt,” Islam says quietly.

“She had to carry on, running the restaurant, coming home at night, feeding us all, doing the housework… day after day, not knowing if her husband would come back. We didn’t know what was going on. We knew our dad hadn’t come back, but we didn’t know we were never going to see him again.”

Hamida, or rather Scotland’s original curry queen, is in her eighties now. She cooked in Khushi’s into her seventies, long after the children had grown up. “That’s how she is,” Islam says. “That generation didn’t sit around the house. And she wanted us to look beyond the restaurant because it was such hard work.”

Islam studied physiotherapy at college, but in the end, history and family pulled him back to the kitchen. “What we’re doing now is nothing compared to what my parents and that first generation of immigrants did,” he says. He looks around at Mithas’s glamorous dining room, the chefs in the open kitchen sliding skewers into the tandoor, the tables filling up for lunch. “None of this would be here if it weren’t for them.”

• Kirsty Wark is the guest chef at Mithas on 24 June. All profits go to St Columba’s Hospice