Real Meals: tikka chance on ghee

I suppose I was looking for an archetype that no longer exists. A fusty realm of red flock wallpaper and piped sitar music. I was in search of that unreal establishment, the Indian restaurant - unreal because the vast majority are in fact run by Bangladeshis; but unreal also because, just as second- and third-generation British Asians no longer see any need to kowtow to ethnic indiscrimination (and so style their establishments "Bengali", or as offering "Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine"), so they have also hearkened to the foodyism of the past decade, vamped up their decor and even begun flirting with the unsafe sex of gastronomy: fusion.

From the outside, Mirchi ("Finest Bengali Cuisine"), just off Ladygate in the East Riding town of Beverley, seemed if not archetypal, innocuous, but once inside I found a minimalist cavern. There was no smelly Axminster carpet, no waiters with dahl-stained white jackets waggling their heads obsequiously. Instead, I was shown by a dapper man in black to a table opposite a large, wall-mounted, flat-screen monitor showing clips of Bollywood musicals.


OK, fair enough, but so long as the gaff served chicken tikka masala, I would still be in the right place. Britons eat a half-million curries a day, and one in seven of them is a CTM (as it's known in the trade). There is a plausible ­argument for claiming CTM as our national dish - after all, a Glasgow-based "Indian" chef says he invented it in the early 1970s when a local yokel asked for some gravy with his desiccated chicken tikka. This claim is mildly - if not hotly - disputed by Indian "Indian" chefs, who severally claim that the dish is Mughal or Punjabi, or else
of such Aryan antiquity that it's meaningless to conceive of its invention at all.

Miah, mein host at Mirchi, claimed a Bengali provenance for the dish, pointing out that "masala" referred to a mix of spices found in others of that regional origin. But I say: what does he know, having been born and bred in Leeds? I've given CTM a swerve for years now. Its puréed sauce is heavy on the ghee and I can feel my arteries occluding with every bite. There's this, and it's too mild for me. And, yes, there's also a definite snobbish revulsion: CTM is the preferred pre-binge stomach-liner of the masses, and as such the very taste has become a prolepsis, anticipating the acid bile of the vomiting to come.

Avant le déluge

Grouped beneath the monitor at Mirchi's was a distinctively northern last supper: a hefty bride-to-be in a joke veil with L-plates, and a dozen or so fat-chook disciples. As I chomped through my starter - a red pepper stuffed with minced lamb - I watched them coat their tummies for the coming deluge. When, inevitably, a large parcel was torn asunder off-screen to expose a helium balloon shaped like a cock and balls, and this floated up to hang beside the monitor, it seemed only right that the Mirchi logo should appear then on screen: an "M" whose uprights were formed by bulging red phallic chillies.

“That's what Mirchi means," said Miah, materialising by my elbow with three square white dishes. "Chilli. Here's your chicken tikka masala, sag paneer, and your pilau rice. Will there be anything more?"

More? What I'd have liked was much less. I couldn't fault Miah's fusion presentation. The CTM appeared as a gooey drumlin with a snail-trail of creamy jus, but I knew it was going to be incredibly filling. This wasn't helped by the arrival of a giant nan suspended from a sort of steel mast. "Our speciality," he said. "It's for four, but we wanted you to try it."

I confess I had flouted one of the first rules of restaurant reviewing and revealed my identity; ever since, the Mirchi staff had
been displaying a touching faith in the ability of small-circulation left-wing periodicals to drum up business. And what of the food? Well, I did have a cold so heavy, I couldn't have tasted it if I was eating plutonium, so all I can report is texture: the sag sagged, the paneer was rubbery, the chicken was worryingly ductile, and as for the dreaded masala sauce, yes, it was saucy. Still, you are what you eat, and I was feeling pretty saucy myself by the time I finished.

About ten hours later I came to, buck naked, lying in the lea of Eggborough power station at Goole. My pubic and chest hair had been shaved and the slogan "Just Nadgered" was scrawled across my belly in lipstick. I'm sure she'll make some robust Yorkshireman very happy.

Real Meals runs fortnightly

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis