It all started as a bedtime conversation I was having with the children last week. We’d been talking food and flavours, and how exciting tastes from different regions and countries can be. The boys were intrigued by the story of my ex-flat mate at uni, her amazing curries made from traditional Pakistani recipes and her use of herbs and spices in cooking. Manjeeri loved to finish meals with plain yogurt sprinkled with salt and pepper; the boys found this especially interesting and wanted to try it there and then.
Throughout the conversation, we decided it was time to take a cullinery trip with an Asian flavour very soon. We’d holidayed in Greece, Spain, France and Italy trying the local delicacies, they’d picked at the odd Mandarin takeaway but they had never tasted traditional Indian food and really wanted to find out more. A table for Saturday night at the nearest authentic Indian restaurant was booked; this time it would provide specialities from Bengal, and we happily trotted along with the hope of introducing those little taste buds to something new.
Saturday 6.30pm arrived and off we went, armed with notepads and pens; half for recording purposes in case our 7 year old wanted to take notes for cookery at school and half to keep them quiet in between courses ( pre-empting any “bull-in –a- china- shop” scenarios).
As soon as we arrived we were ushered to our tables and it immediately struck me how many families with children were also there. Note to self; Saturday early evening is actually a good time to go out for food with the children (contrary to my better judgement in the past). After much procrastination and explaining of the menu, we finally arrived at the idea of testing out some papadams, chutneys and naan breads first. There was the most amazing smell of spices filling the air; so much so that boy #1 decided he just had to go on a wander and find out where it was coming from. Initially I was mortified to see him heading towards the kitchen and not the toilets as described. But to my surprise , the accommodating staff invited him in …shortly followed by the rest of us for a quick masterclass in bulk indian cooking. Amongst the many ovens, fridges, pots, pans and incredibly industrious looking hobs, there were numerous glass dishes with every colour of spice imaginable. Paprika, turmeric, cumin, cardamom seeds, saffron, rock salt and unrefined pepper, all lined up in an explosion of oranges, yellows and reds. It looked like a swatch sheet for a kitchen store cupboard. The numerous chefs flew around the kitchen knocking together amazing dishes with speed and skilful articulation. The boys stood amazed and listened carefully as the head chef explained a few points Bengali cookery is the only South Asian cuisine with a course- led structure, similar to that of France and Italy. With an emphasis on fish and lentils served with rice as a staple diet, Bengali cuisine also favours subtle (yet sometimes fiery) flavours. The mystery and intrigue was only broken when our youngest boy announced that the kitchen looked like ‘Ratatouille’ and why wasn’t Linguini working here tonight? Well I guess they did say there was Italian influence in there somewhere….
Just in time, the papadams were ready and we gratefully excused ourselves following the food to our table. Our intrepid youngest announced once more at top volume that the papadams looked like giant crisps and tasted like cheese and onion Pringles (oh dear, not a good start). Notes were taken as the boys discussed what ingredients they imagined had gone into the chutneys, the onion salad and the raita. At this point, I also pondered as to why the coconut appetizer is sometimes green and sometimes orange…?
Shortly afterwards, course one was finished and deemed a success all round. The boys decided already that they loved Indian cuisine more than many they had tried so far. The strength of the spices hadn’t disturbed their senses at all and not once had either stopped to ask for chips or coughed food out violently onto the table, begging for iced water.
Looking around me at the sheer volume of families on the other tables, casually picking away at various stages of their dinner and conversing with the children, it appeared that the phenomenon was more of a common place occurrence than I’d first imagined. At a carefully timed moment, I asked our designated waiter for the night on his opinion. He confirmed that yes, Friday and Saturday nights were the busiest for families, but in our area at least, it’s something they see more of on a week- nightly basis also. (“Phewee” I thought “ all those children going into school the next day fire-breathing during class!”- teachers must be paid well these days!).
Following a delightful evening of bhunas and kormas , newly successful pilau rice ( which sparked an interest in saffron for boys 1 and 2), we left the restaurant happy and delighted with the 10 out of 10 results from our very own X factor panel. We had taken in smells (all delightful herbs and spices, clearly representative of indian cuisine… apart from the guy sitting next to us wreaking of Ralgex). We’d listened to the chefs and waiters talk in Bengalese ( fascinating and with no Indo European language references to trace at any point). The boys had commented on the sitar music we’d heard whilst eating; again a new experience for them, they’d noticed the tables more tightly packed together than in larger commercial restaurants and we all agreed the food had been delicious.
A family member had previously commented that a visit to a local Indian restaurant was ‘hardly introducing them to the culture and we’d find nothing worthy there”.
After our evening together,I would hasten to disagree. Culture and atmosphere can be found in the most innocuous places sometimes; if you just care to look for them ….!
© Tess Egerton 2011