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.
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