Curry, A Biography

This morning, contemplating my lifelong relationship with curry, I took my usual route to Colliers Wood, turned right into Merton High Street, and continued to Tooting Bec Station where I boarded a tube train back to Morden.

Passing a hoarding on the road which forms a bridge dividing two sections of the Wandle Trail, I reflected that, as you know, Bacardi is not the nourishment with which I would choose to spice up my night.

Since my previous posts are peppered with curry references, I will not point these out.  There will be some repetition as I put it all together.  I have written of the numerous closures of English pubs, which are often transformed into Asian restaurants.  Delhi Heights in Colliers Wood manages to flourish with its fusion approach.

The Sree Krishna restaurant, which I passed on the approach to Tooting Broadway, was discovered by Jessica and me during our time in Furzedown in the 1980s.  We were encouraged by the fact that this South Indian establishment was frequented by indigenous doctors from the nearby St. George’s hospital.  Its food remains excellent, but, good as it is, for family atmosphere and friendliness of service, it cannot match the marvellous Sri Lankan Watch Me on Morden Road.  Sri Lankans were not here in the 1980s.

The crush of crowds in Tooting Broadway rivalled Oxford Street at sales time.  A young boy, bending to pick up a coin, caused a log-jam.  ‘Walk properly’, cautioned his mother.  ‘Nah, it’s my pound’, replied the boy, trying to avoid passers-by as he straightened up.  Further on, a short man, speaking to a much taller one, was heard to utter: ‘I’ve often wished I was three inches taller, or it was three inches longer.  Everyone’s got something like that’.  An interesting philosophy, I thought.

I had run past Tooting Bec station on countless occasions on my regular journey to Harrow Road in those Furzedown years.

Today’s title is that of Lizzie Collingham’s book which Louisa had given me and which contains the recipe for Susan’s chicken.

As with so many of my life-changing directions (see post of 18th July), I have Jackie to thank for my love affair with this princess of preparations.  In 1965 she introduced me to dining out, especially on her favourite food.  Having married early, bought a house, and started a family, my sole experience of meals which were not home-cooked was cafe lunches funded by luncheon vouchers provided by my pre-social-work employers.  When we were wed Jackie would save up the cost of a restaurant meal  from her housekeeping money and we would walk up from Raynes Park to the Wimbledon Tandoori in Ridgway.  During our stay in Wimbledon Village in 2011 we returned to that venue to which we introduced Becky.  None of the current staff had been born in our Amity Grove years.  It is now a firm favourite with Becky, and where, to the delight of those who served them, she became engaged to Ian.

The dishes of the Indian sub-continent are colourful, flavoursome, and emit a wonderful aroma.  Jackie loves walking home from the Civic Centre inhaling the splendid variety of smells emanating from Morden homes.  Not everyone likes the heat of chillies, but to me it is manna.  It was therefore natural for me, when I began to stay overnight in my counselling room in Harrow Road, where I had my own kitchen, to learn to cook my own.  This area was full of Halal shops where I could buy all the ingredients, even late at night.  If the recipe called for something I didn’t have, I simply popped across the road and bought it.  The Morden Food Store has replaced those Harrow Road emporiums, and Tooting

Broadway now has such suppliers in abundance.  Balti cook book 10.12It was Jessica who bought the Balti cook book which is my curry bible, well spattered with various spices.

Once I grasped the basics I was able to experiment and produce my own variations.  The preparation of Curried Boxing Day turkey is now a tradition in which my grandson Oliver loves to join me.  Asian spices can also enhance the flavours of some traditional English dishes.  Green cardomoms I find particularly beneficial in adding aromatic flavouring to stews; and garlic, not always included in our recipes, is often helpful.  It was green cardomoms which upset five-year-old Oliver when I forgot to mention I had included them and he bit on one.  The Italian arrabbiata makes plentiful use of chillies.

Only once have I prepared a complete meal, including the breads and complicated rice accompanying meat and vegetable dishes.  I did this in Newark for our friends Jill Tattersall and Tim Cordy.  I began early in the morning and it must have been 9 p.m. by the time we sat down to eat with me all in a fluster.  I even made my own garlic and ginger pastes, clogging up the blender.  Now I take Jackie’s advice and buy the pastes, the breads, and the samosas.  ‘Why make work for yourself?’, she asks.  ‘The Indian housewives don’t’.  I cannot bring myself yet to use the popular sauces produced by Patak or Lloyd Grossman.

Most of what we think of as Indian restaurants are in fact Bangladeshi, almost all the staff of which originate in the Sylhet city district.  I am told the influx began with sailors jumping ship in the UK.  My all-time favourite is the Akash in Edgware Road, at which I have been a regular, often attending weekly, since the early 1980s.  Majid outside akashMajid, the manager, and Shafiq, the chef have been there since its opening some forty years ago.  Shafiq came third in a Westminster-wide competition, beating such famous opposition as Veereswami’s in Regent Street.  It must be fifteen years since I actually placed an order, for, as soon as he sees me, Shafiq begins cooking a meal they have tailor-made for me.  This is a spiced-up naga strength Haldi.  A Bangladeshi restaurant in Westbourne Grove, whose full title, which I cannot remember, contains Bombay, did not change it when that Indian city reverted to its name Mumbai.  When I asked the proprietor why, he replied that he was not interested in an alteration.  His customers would not understand.

Veereswami’s was the first Indian restaurant in London, having been established for the benefit of officers of the Raj on leave in their home country, yet missing the culinary delights of their adopted one.  It now has a modern ambience and decor, with trendy design and staffed by waiters and managers in fashionable dress.  Others who have rejected the traditional famous flock wallpaper are the Tandoori in Woolston in Hampshire, and the Shaan in Churchgate, Newark.  These latter two are notable for their modern artwork and the Shaan, in particular, for the vibrant washes on its walls.  The Shaan is unique in my experience in that white English waiting staff outnumber those from Bangladesh.  The owner was born and brought up in Newark although he still employs native immigrants.  His family run another, long established, restaurant, which survives, in my view, on reputation alone.

With certain exceptions, such as some, but by no means all, in the West End of London, these Asian restaurants present excellent value for money.  Service is usually attentive, professional, and comfortable, offering napkins and finger wipes, with mints accompanying the bill.  This does not apply to Mitcham’s Raj, although if you can wait several hours; bring your own napkins; ask for a drink for which the waiter can dash out to the next-door shop; try not to tear the soiled paper tablecloths; and help yourself to cutlery; you will find the food exemplary.  Like Eastern Nights in Thornhill, they are dependent on takeaway meals for survival.  The Akash, also has a steady takeaway trade which keeps one dedicated member of staff rushing in and out all night.  This method of obtaining an evening meal has its place, for example if you have young children in bed asleep, or, as once in my case, you are suffering from a fever which only an Akash special can assuage.  I prefer to sit down and be served dishes which have come straight from the kitchen.

And let us not forget that Chicken Tikka Masala has now overtaken fish and chips or roast beef as the English national dish.  This has been specially adapted for us because we like our gravy.

This evening we collected our friend Sheila from her home in Tooting to eat in the Sree Krishna.  It being Hallowe’en they had candlelit pumpkins on the bar, which reminded me that Majeed at the Akash always erects a Christmas Tree.  Sheila drank sparkling water whilst Jackie and I had Kingfisher.  The meal was first rate and the coffee was particularly good.

No-one Forgets A Good Teacher

Although it had rained all night the day was a bit brighter and the drizzle lighter.  Setting off for Wimbledon again, in Martin Way I met the reformed pipe smoker (see 29th. June post) walking his two Alsatians.  Scaffolding was going up and a hedge being strimmed in Mostyn Road.

Walking along Wilton Crescent I remembered the excitement engendered by Angela Davies, the first girl who set my teenage pulses racing.  We had met at the school dance, the only occasion on which we were officially allowed contact with the pupils of the Ursuline Convent.  I had spent a very uncomfortable few days attempting to learn the waltz, at which Angela considered I still wasn’t much good.  Nevertheless she didn’t seem to mind the last one, and we were to share a delightful nine months in 1959.   Today, on my return up this road my paths crossed with a robin scampering into one of the established gardens in this beautiful preservation area.

Near Dundonald recreation ground a driving instructor was speaking into his mobile phone as his tutee executed a perfect reverse around the corner I was crossing.

As often when rounding Elys Corner, I thought of Richard Millward.

Throughout my childhood the bus conductors (London buses in those days were staffed by two people) had cried: ‘Elys Corner’ when reaching the original building.  It is to Richard Millward’s history of Wimbledon that I owe the information that the founder of the department store that bears his name had offered inducements to the conductors to advertise his emporium in such a manner.  Among the stories featured in that book is the one of Jack (posted on 13th. May).

Knowing they would have a display of Richard’s book, I popped into Fielder’s, stockists of excellent art materials and bookshop near the bottom of Wimbledon Hill.  The display corner had been given over to tennis for the moment, but the manager of the book section happily created the pictured group for me.

 

A most inspirational teacher, Mr. Millward dedicated his life to teaching history at Wimbledon College.  He was one of those pupils who never really left the school, returning after university to take up his life’s work.  Learning about the Tudors and Stuarts we would eagerly await ‘Sid’ striding into the classroom with a rolled up chart under his arm.  This would be hung on the wall to illustrate the day’s lesson.  Richard Millwardc1956These were beautifully produced maps and diagrams which brought the subject alive.  He had made each and every one.  He was, like me, a cricket fanatic.  I still have the history of cricket he inspired me to write and illustrate as a homework exercise.  His nickname, ‘Sid’, was taken from a lesser known bandleader who once performed at Wimbledon Theatre.  The title of this piece is taken from a one-time advertising slogan for recruitment into his profession.  It was so true.

Quite different was ‘Moses’, whose remit was European History, so named because he was an ancient priest.  His teaching aid was a small dog-eared, equally antique, exercise book from which, seated in his pulpit, never taking his eyes off the page, he would churn out notes he must have made much earlier, as if he were reciting an oft-repeated sermon.  For some reason, Moses always picked on me.  Until one miraculous Monday morning, he didn’t actually know my name.  He had decided to climb down from his perch and wander round the classroom.  Passing my desk and glancing at my exercise book, reading the name, he asked: ‘Knight?  Are you the famous bowler?’.  ‘That’ll be my brother Chris’, I replied.  ‘But didn’t you get eight wickets on Saturday?’, he continued.  Well, I had. (I also got seven on the Sunday, but as that was in a club match I thought it best not to mention it).  From then on the sun shone out of my backside.

Another priest who also used me as a butt was Fr. Bermingham.  He did it so often that one of the boys ran a book on how many times this would happen in any particular lesson.  Quite a bit of pocket money changed hands.  Now, as I sat in the same place for both periods, in the centre of the front row, because I was just beginning to realise I should have my eyes tested, I thought it might be politic to move.  I therefore took up residence right at the back, to the left of his area of vision.  As if on cue, quite early on in the proceedings, he opened his mouth to speak, looked in what he thought was my direction, closed his mouth, and scanned the rows of grinning boys.  Eventually lighting on my similarly smiling face, he said: ‘Ah, there you are Knight, like a great moon over the horizon’.  At least he knew my name.  However, he had just given me another one.  For the rest of my schooldays I was known as ‘Moon’.

Please don’t get the impression I was a victim.  Most of the masters, like Bryan Snalune, who may get a mention when something appropriate crops up, actually liked me.  In fact, Frs. Moses and Bermingham probably did as well.  Their observations were generally meant to be humorous.

Our garden fox was well camouflaged today.

This evening The Raj in Mitcham was revisited.  In order fully to appreciate the flavour of the Raj it is essential to read the post of 26th. June.  So attracted by the description of our previous visit was Ian that he insisted on savouring the experience himself.  Alda joined us with some ambivalence.  Now we were six.  I must say we were initially disappointed.  The tables, albeit with paper tablecloths, were actually laid.  Only one of the papers on the the two tables which were pushed together to accommodate us bore the evidence of previous use.  A mound of excellent poppadoms was served on time.  The drinks quickly followed.  Given that they had probably come from the shop next door, we were fortunate to find them, this time, cold.  The bottles of Kingfisher still bore their price labels, and the charming cook/waiter/whatever who served us had, after all, said he would go and buy Becky’s orange juice.  The second round was more successful as Flo was presented with a large Kingfisher instead of an orange juice.  Things got better as we had to wait an hour and a half for the main meal,  having previously each received a really good onion bhaji starter.  We could forgive our server for not realising we had wanted these with the main meal, and, in any case, we needed something to soak up the Kingfishers while we waited.  Eventually the chef asked us if we were ready for the main meal.  Ready?  We were desperate for it.  This time the paper napkins arrived with the food.  Once again we were treated to magnificent food all round.  It truly is a miracle that these two men can produce such a wonderful meal.

It was Ian who became the first to sample the loo.  Unfortunately there was no toilet paper.  He decided to pass.

No other customers graced the establishment.  Mitcham does not know what it is missing.

The final disappointment was that the Dallas Chicken customers had let us down.  There was no chicken leg to step over as we left the restaurant.

And so to car, to Links Avenue, and to bed.

Brendan

Animal Found 6.12On this fine summer’s day I set off for Cannon Hill Common, with the vague idea that I might be able to take some nature photographs with which to illustrate this post.  In Maycross Avenue I spotted an RSPCA notice fixed to a post announcing that a tortoise had been found.  Without anything particular in mind I photographed it.  I then began to wander aimlessly, hoping I might find a new route to the common, but sensing I was moving away from it.  There now seemed no purpose to my walk.  I was covering streets I’d never traversed before, and, as these roads between Hillcross Avenue and Grand Drive seem to go all over the place I hadn’t much idea where I was until a bus stop signed in the direction of West Sutton suggested I might be heading for Grand Drive.  This was indeed the case and I walked up to the end of Hillcross and along it for a while until diverging onto the path between the gardens of that street and Morden Park. Overgrown path 6.12 This was almost a bad mistake, for the path was very overgrown and at one point I had to crouch low to wriggle under a fallen branch spanning the fences on each side of the path.  At one time I would have happily crawled through what was effectively a tunnel, but now it’s far too much effort to get on my hands and knees unless there’s something else I can do whilst down there.

Ah, but there was a purpose to my meanderings.  I was clearly being guided by whoever or whatever is above.  Some distance along Shaldon Drive, which I couldn’t find now without a map, there was another notice pinned to tree.  Have you guessed it?  Yes, it was a notice offering a reward for the return of a lost tortoise.  Naturally I rang the number on this sign.  When I explained that I may be able to help the woman who answered to find her tortoise she and I both became rather excited.  She asked me whether I’d remembered the number on the first poster, and, of course I was able to say that I had photographed it and arrange to call her back when I had summoned the image to my camera screen.  I explained what I was doing with my walks and why I had taken the picture.  When I called back I was also able to give the date when the animal had been found and this seemed to fit.  As she was currently at work she would let me know later whether it was her tortoise or not.  I asked her his name, saying that, of course the story would be blogged.  Now this allegedly slow-moving creature had travelled quite a distance, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to find that his name was Brendan, after Brendan Foster the 70s Olympic champion runner.  By coincidence, I had known Brendan’s wife’s sister who was married to my friend Tony, and Brendan had undertaken to look out for me and give me a mention when commentating my first London marathon.  Unfortunately he had been unable to pick me out in the crowd, which was actually just as well, because I was running in someone else’s place.

Jackie came home early this evening so we could visit Becky.  We decided on a takeaway from Deshi Spice.  Four people perusing the menu, making choices, then changing their minds; with one person, Jackie, writing down the orders took the usual age to organise.  Jackie rang to place the order.  No reply.  Becky had a look at the menu brochure.  Closed on Tuesdays.  Just like Paris where everything is ferme Mardi.  Not good for Jackie’s nerves.  As Becky felt up to it we decided to go out for a meal at The Raj in Mitcham.  We had been there before, but it had changed hands since our last visit.  It was empty but for one sole middle aged woman seated with a meal and one gentleman waiting for a takeaway.  None of the tables were set.  We were shown to a table, spread, like the others, with a paper tablecloth.  The adjacent table was similarly covered, except that the paper looked as if someone had eaten their meal straight off that, having dispensed with plates.  We certainly didn’t have any. Nor cutlery.  Nor napkins.  One of what we realised was the only two staff took our order.  Then we sat.  And we sat.  And watched Mitcham passing by or waiting at the bus stop across the road.

Whilst nothing was happening I received a call from Sue, Brendan’s owner.Missing tortoise! 6.12  Unfortunately the found tortoise was not Brendan.  Brendan was 70 years old and the foundling was a baby.  Great disappointment all round.  In fact this was the second  other tortoise found since Brendan’s disappearance.  So, if any of my readers come across a tortoise, exactly contemporary with me, answering to the name of Brendan, please telephone Sue on 07809095005.  She would love to hear from you.

Getting a little impatient after half an hour or so, I wandered into the kitchen and asked if we could have our drinks.  The man who had taken our order, now on kitchen duty, said he was making them.  Given that they all came out of bottles I returned to our table hoping that something had been lost in translation.

Eventually the popadoms appeared.  Now, it is my firm belief that popadoms are a clear indicator of the quality of Indian food.  These were excellent.  Maybe, just maybe, our patience could be rewarded.  Still no drinks, however, nor any napkins or cutlery.  Actually there was an item on the menu labelled Aloo Cutlery.  We were wondering whether we should have ordered that.  I went over to the cutlery rack and brought a container over to our table where we all helped ourselves.  Jackie and Becky had serviceable napkins in their handbags, and I helped myself to the half one under the popadoms. We could see a secondhand one left by the woman at the table opposite but Flo, ever resourceful, tore off the corner of the tablecloth for hers.

Finally the drinks arrived.  My Cobra was lukewarm, but no-one else complained about theirs, and it might have caused untold delay had I mentioned it.  Then came the surprise of the evening.  We were all served together with a perfectly presented and deliciously prepared array of excellent food.  When we’d almost finished our meals the napkins arrived.  If you are not seeking sophisticated ambience, don’t mind helping yourselves to cutlery, bring your own napkins, and can live with rather grubby surroundings, but want first class Bangladeshi food, then Mitcham’s The Raj is the place for you.

As we left we all stepped over the half-eaten fried chicken leg deposited in the doorway, presumably by a customer of Dallas Chicken on the opposite corner of the street.

And so to Links Avenue and bed.