Today is Eid al-Fitr, or to most of us, the end of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar. After a month of fasting between the hours of sunrise and sunset, which in the times before clocks was determined by the Imam being able to tell the difference between a black thread and a white thread, it’s a time of great feasting and celebration among the Muslim community.To we four non Muslims who have spent every Sunday evening for the last eighteen years enjoying a beer and a curry it means a once yearly struggle to get into a restaurant to enjoy said curry (or to get a taxi there). Any other time of the year we can walk in and, usually, dine almost alone.
It got me thinking (the weirdest things do) and my thunk went thus:
I feel we need to support our ethnic restaurants more. We now have a wider variety than ever before, Tibetan, North Indian, South Indian, even – finally – true Bangladeshi but many come, serve really good food, but then vanish, presumably through lack of support.
When we started our curry nights in 1999 (we were originally gonna party like it but we didn’t care for Prince), Sheffield was a veritable curry desert. Apart from a couple of notables on Spital Hill which I’ll mention later, the vast majority of Sheffield curry houses were run by Bangladeshis who catered exclusively for the white populous of Sheffield who liked, and still do mainly, their curries in the Western style. That is either: Brown, mildly spicy oxtail soup – Madras. Or red, mildly spicy tomato soup – Chicken Tikka Masala (BTW did you know you can buy CTM condoms? “Do you like chicken? Well get a load of this it’s fowl” Says it all really). Both accompanied by half a dozen floating bits of meat in them. The whole resembling some surreal Jackson Pollock vision of a floundering dog turd. To go with it was the ever present pillau, pullao, pissedon, or however else it could be written on the menu, rice and a naan bread. Oh and of course, copious amounts of Carling (we were post Black Label at this moment in time though, I think).
Most of these places thrived, many still do, although you’d hardly ever see an Asian family in one of them eating. I’m sure most of us had our rite of passage into the curry world at somewhere like Everest, Vijays, New India Garden or the like.
The ones which opened trying to introduce authentic, Indian or Pakistani cuisine to Sheffield almost always failed. The exceptions being Nirmals on Glossop Road, and Kashmir and Mangla, both on Spital Hill.
Nirmal’s was an institution.
The Guptas were a rarity in Sheffield, Indian Hindus running a restaurant and the food was traditional Indian. With Mrs Nirmal Gupta front of house, the ordering ritual usually ran something like this:
Nirmal: (with small blackboard in hand) “Here’s today’s special board what would you like?”
Diner: “Actually I’m fancying Chicken Mangalore from the main menu”
Nirmal: “No you’re not. What would you like? Chicken Saag?. Lamb Saag? The Prawn with spinach is lovely or there’s Vegetables with lots of Spinach.”
Diner: “Well, I really was looking forward to the Chi…….”
Nirmal: “So, that’s one Lamb Saag. What about you now?”
I over exaggerate, of course, but shall we say that Mrs Nirmal could be a little forceful sometimes. But the food was good, and front of house was pure theatre. Some of the current crop of restaurants purporting to be “Indian” north or south, ‘cos it’s fashionable, could learn a thing or two from the spicings at Nirmals all those years ago…….
Of the other two stalwarts providing Pakistani food at that time both were excellent in their own ways.
The Kashmir (or, to give it it’s proper name, “The Kashmir Curry Centre”), sadly gone now, at the bottom of Spital Hill had the wonderful Paul (AKA Bsharath Hussain) serving you on most nights. A gentle, very quietly spoken man he was a delight. The absolute antithesis to Mrs Nirmal, he could be hard to find if you needed anything while dining. More than once on a quiet Sunday evening with only us dining we’ve had to search for him only to find him quietly praying in a corner.
As you can see The Kashmir wasn’t posh (The best ones NEVER are :-)). The food was Pakistani, lots of meat with a dry, clinging, fragrant sauce that was redolent with flavours of ginger and garlic which were still on your tongue on the bus ride home. They were always served in a stainless steel tureen of the type we kept the Sunday veggies warm in. It had a lid and when you lifted it you got the heady scent of the spicy curry and the freshly chopped coriander (stalk and all. BTW, Too many people don’t use the stalk and most of the flavour and aroma is there) mingling together. The naan breads were also the weirdest I’ve ever come across in over 40 years of curry eating. I swear they were Yorkshire Puddings of the pancake, cooked in a frying pan variety, such was the texture. But they were very good.
Incidentally, The Kashmir was one of the first places to introduce Indian street food to Sheffield back in the early 2000’s. The cracking snack known as Gol Guppa, little bite sized puris you crack the top off and put chutneys inside then pop, whole, into your mouth first arrived in Sheffield known as “Popabombs” at The Kashmir.
In keeping with most Pakistani restaurants in Bradford, where the vast majority are to be found, The Kashmir was a strict dry house. Water and soft drinks. Having been nurtured in such places, I have never been able to drink beer or wine with a curry and still don’t. Mango lassi beats them all anyway 🙂
Lastly, The Mangla, a little way up the hill. It too was a dry house but had a cracking little deal going with the then opposite pub, The East House. You could go in there for a pint or two then, when you were ready, take your beer over the road to have with your curry and the restaurant would return your glass for you. True table service. The toilets there were up a flight of stairs so steep they had Sir Edmund Hilary sweating, and not from the strength of the Vindaoo I might add! Sadly, it never seemed the same after the East House closed and they went all upmarket with faux leather seats and proper tables.
Where are we now? Well, not a lot better really. Nirmal’s and Kashmir are gone. Mangla’s still there and there are two very good places down on the Wicker. Gulshan, almost as old as the Kashmir and Kebabish, more of a grill type place but still serving great food. There are, thankfully lots of more regionalised restaurants rather than just “Indian” or “Chinese”. But most white South Yorkshire folk head to the englishised stalwarts and I really feel they’re missing out on great food. The Asian community in Sheffield too don’t seem to support local restaurants as much as in Bradford, where whole families descend on a restaurant, and I’m talking in the 30s and 40s in number. Tonight will be busy but next Sunday will be back to one man and his dog or rather four middle aged men and a copy of the CAMRA magazine (no sandals though. There are limits)
To my mind, integration starts with acceptance. Here’s a multiple choice question to finish. Which do you think helps promote integration and acceptance while supporting ethnic communities trying to earn a living here?
a) Spending your free time at a traditional, ethnic restaurant, learning their customs and culture in one of the oldest and best ways possible, namely sharing a meal with them.
b) Shouting anti government slogans at a JC/Momentum rally?
I know which I’d choose…and I will tonight. If I can get a bloody seat!!