Lonely Planet

In 1972, Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled overland through Asia, all the way from England to Australia, arriving with just 27 cents in their pockets. On returning to England, people kept asking for the details of their journey, so much so that the Wheelers decided to make a guidebook. In 1973 they worked at their kitchen table to write, type and staple ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’. (A free editions is available on Kindle) They needed a company name, so took Lonely Planet from a song called ‘Space Captain’ by Matthew Moore – although later learned that the actual lyric was ‘Lovely Planet’.

The guide book was evangelical about the idea of making the overland journey, explaining that for the price of an airline ticket between England and Australia, one could travel overland for two or three months. Only a few guides were being written at the time and 1500 copies of their guidebook sold in the first week, launching an empire. Another, more complete guide followed, establishing the reputation of the company.

The first Lonely Planet guide took 94 pages to explain the months of travelling through Asia – still finding time to discuss each country’s history and offer a quirky guide to the religions that would be encountered. It explained how to navigate embassies, how to receive post on the way, and some of the organised tours that were available – although you could make the journey alone if you were brave. It even listed countries where you could sell blood if you ran out of money (“Price for Blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke”). The guidebook has a ramshackle charm, with just enough information to work with: “The most useful source of extra info will be your fellow travellers. People coming from the opposite direction will have all the latest on the hassles coming for you.

This first guidebook describes a very different experience for travellers. It suggests signing ‘passing-through’ books at embassies, to leave a trail in case one disappears. It advises carrying a good set of clothes for embassies and borders, even going as far as to recommend haircuts or ‘short-hair wigs’ for getting into Singapore without hassle. That book also has a troubling sense of ethics; talking about the Iranian carpet industry it says that “Strict child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry, so buy now while children are still exploited!”

At this point there were too few travellers to have much effect on Indian food, and Wheeler is disparaging about it. “Can be miserable. India is where you lose weight on this trip.” The Wheelers claim that street stalls and cafés might be unsanitary; the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place is described as ‘Delhi’s freak bottleneck’; The best food is said to be found on the railway stations. While the book is dismissive of Indian food, it does better than Pakistan’s, which is dismissed in three curt words – “As for India”.

Over the years, the Lonely Planet went from a scrappy publication, giving you just enough information to survive, to something comprehensive and authoritative. The latest editions of the guide to India are around 1200 pages, compared to the 94 which covered the whole route from England to Australia. The Lonely Planet is in the strange position of being by far the most successful tourist guide company in the world, worth $77 million in 2014, while also being denigrated for its effects on the world. Even the first guide was aware of the effect of travellers, complaining that “the charm of Bali shows every indication of being rapidlty eroded by tourists”.

For someone like myself, who is not a natural traveller, the Lonely Planet guides have proved invaluable. They gave me the confidence to explore places I would not have gone to otherwise. At times, they’ve mislead me in entertaining ways – some of the city maps have little value beyond showing you that there are locations within a city and they are in different places. But, while there is much debate over the problems caused by guidebooks, in my life own they have been a power of good.

More on politics and curry

I assumed I’d said everything I could about curry and politics following recent posts on May, Cameron and Brexit. But, according to Chris Parkinson, there is much more to say. Chris is something of an expert on politicians and food, maintaining a Facebook page on the Eating Habits of Politicians. He sent me a barrage of links:.

When the manager of his local north London curry house called in to ask if his curries were improving his speeches, Miliband laughed and said he thought they definitely were, before admitting that he doesn’t like his takeaways very spicy. “David Cameron takes his extra spicy,” the interviewer told him, to which Miliband replied sardonically that clearly that’s because Cameron “is a really tough guy”.

  • I knew that I’d left out Robin Cook’s chicken tikka masala speech. But that probably deserves a post all of its own.
  • An article in the Independent from 2008 uses the headline The Great Balti Bailout and discusses how “The biggest deal in British financial history was stitched together by a Treasury team working into the early hours fuelled by takeaway curries“. The food came from Gandhi’s in Kennington, which has some impressive customer comments, including two former Prime Ministers.
  • Chris went on to add: “Possibly my favourite curry in recent political history is Alastair Darlings £600 takeaway on the brink of the financial crisis, an evening that culminated in Sarah Brown mistaking him for one of her children and sending him to bed.” I’m now trying to track down a source for that story.

I assume this covers most of the stories about politicians and curry – or, at least, the ones from recent years. But I suspect there are more to be uncovered. As a related item, here is an excruciating video of an interview with Zac Goldsmith, who ran a horrendous campaign in the 2016 London Mayoral election. In this footage, he claims to love Bollywood, but is awkwardly reluctant to name any films or stars.

The worst Indian meal I ever had

Yesterday I posted about the worst curry I’ve had in the UK, and I mentioned the Mulai Kofta incident. I realised afterwards that I’d not told the story on this blog.

On my first trip to India I travelled to Khajuraho, a few hundred miles from Delhi. The town is famous for its erotic temple carvings, which draw travellers from around the world. Tourist businesses had grown up there but, when I visited, the town was quiet, shops and restaurants almost empty. There were so few visitors that touts would follow for hours, almost one per tourist. The tourists had begun to visit on coach tours, which didn’t stop long. The passengers would eat in resorts outside Khajuarho. It’s a lovely town, but you can do the main attractions in a couple of hours.

On that first, nervous trip to India I tended to follow the Lonely Planet closely and took their recommendation of a place for dinner one evening. “Nothing flash about this place with plastic chairs, but the food’s good – the mulai kofta (mashed potato balls with onion, spices and curry sauce) particularly so”. It sounded perfect. I took a seat on the roof, ordered the mulai kofta, and drank a beer. I was the only person in the restaurant but was prepared to risk it for a good meal.

Kofta is found across the middle east and Asia, and would have come to the Madhya Pradesh district when it was under Mughal rule in the early 16th century. The name of the dish translates literally as cream dumplings. As far as eating Mulai Kofta went, this was the place to do it.

The dish was terrible. The rice was weirdly crunchy, the dumplings bland and unappetising. I think the regular chef was off, and the food was reheated from the day before. As I ate a little of the sauce, I wrote up the day’s adventures in my notebook, and the waiter became convinced I must be working for a guidebook. I’m polite to a fault, and didn’t want to embarrass the man for the disastrous meal, and pretended it was all fine, having assured the man I had no connection to the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Years later, I was hiking in Essex with my friend Katharine and we ate at a Southend restaurant called Papadum. This place also looked a little odd, brightly lit, but the menu was interesting. It didn’t have familiar British curry dishes like chicken tikka masala or vindaloo. When Katharine ordered, she was firmly told that she should not have extra chilli with her butter chicken. I figured I would try the mulai kofta.

And it was perfect. The dumplings were soft and gingery, the sauce spicy and warm. We chatted with the owner afterwards, and he told us about his enthusiasm for proper Indian dishes, how he wanted to educate his customers away from Anglo-Indian curries. They were doing a great job, and the Essex mulai Kofta easily beat the one from India.

There’s a real irony there. The Khajuraho version of the dish should have been authentic, but the Essex version was much better. I’m all for authenticity in food, but edibility is the most important thing.

Slices of Balti

One of my favourite things about visiting a new place is trying their local curry house. Part of the fun is that it’s a gamble. The photo below was taken on a recent curry expedition with Rosy Carrick. It isn’t great quality, but it’s better than the food was.

Me, Rosy and her daughter were visiting a tiny English town. The place had two respected Thai restaurants and one of the best pizza restaurants in the country – but I insisted that we check out the local curry house. I’m going to call it Slices of Balti, which is not its real name but is almost its real name (*).

The restaurant was pretty much empty, but that means nothing. I’ve been to empty restaurants that were great. With my parents one night, I was turned away from Brighton’s Chilli Pickle when it was empty, and I hear the food there is pretty good. So, faced by an empty small-town curry house, I insisted we go in. I mean, Balti is one of Britain’s national dishes. I was even going to forgo my usual vindaloo to try the dish boasted about in the restaurant’s name.

We gave our orders to the waiter, who spent most of the meal hiding in the back of the restaurant, playing with his phone. I like to think he was searching for jobs in better restaurants. Two sad flies dragged themselves through our table’s airspace.

When the pappadums arrived, Rosy complained to use that they tasted of burnt oil. I didn’t think they tasted that bad, but Rosy’s daughter did. She didn’t say anything though, focusing instead on stopping her mum’s commentary being overheard by the waiter.

Soon, the main course arrived. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve ever eaten. Almost worse than the Malai Kofta I had in Khajuraho. It didn’t taste much of curry, being more of an English vegetable stew with a little curry powder. Sad potatoes, cauliflower and carrot floated in an anaemic sauce.

Thing is, every restaurant can have its bad days. I’ve had very good curry houses serve meat in my vegetarian dishes – hundreds of other people have had amazing experiences there, including me. Maybe this place was usually much better. But there was a flop-sweat feeling to this place, that melancholy of failing restaurants.

As we left the restaurant, a couple of other people came in. I wondered if we should warn them to save themselves, to turn around and head for one of the Thai places. But then, if I was going to save anyone, it should be the waiters, who’d be trapped there all night. We should clear the kitchen, take everyone to the pub, and get so drunk we ended the night singing.

We left quietly and disappeared into the night. But I wonder if I should reach out, make a call and ask Slices of Balti if everything is OK?

(*) That is totally not my joke, but was stolen from Shit Theatre. Sorry.

David Cameron’s Curry Curse

www.shaanrestaurant.co.uk

It turns out that Teresa May is not the only Conservative leader to have jinxed a curry house. While researching the ongoing problems between British curry restauranteurs and the leave campaign, I learned that David Cameron has also brought bad luck.

There are strong links between the British Curry industry and politicians. This has a formal committee in theBritish Curry Catering Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group. The industry has strong lobbying groups, and politicians are eager to woo them – as you’d expect for an industry worth about £4½ billion). And, back in 2006, as leader of the opposition, Cameron used curry as part of his “unprecedented bid to woo the ethnic vote“.

When asked his favourite restaurant, Cameron said “You cannot beat a curry at The Khas Tandoori in Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Green, or curried goat from one of the street vendors during the Notting Hill Carnival.”

Back in the day. Gordon Brown professed a love of pop band the Arctic Monkeys, but was unable to give the name of any of their songs. An Evening Standard investigation of Cameron’s favourite curry house found a similar deception:

David Cameron may name The Khas Tandoori Restaurant as his favourite ethnic eaterie — but the owners seemed a little bemused. When manager Jomshed Miah was asked if he knows who David Cameron is he replied ‘Yes, of course’. But when asked whether Mr Cameron has ever dined in his restaurant, Mr Miah paused before replying: ‘I don’t think so. I have not seen him in here — maybe he orders take-aways.’

A big fan of Indian food, David Cameron has stated “I like a pretty hot curry.” The night of the 2010 election, which saw him elected Prime Minister, Cameron was eating in the Shaan Restaurant in Witney, Oxfordshire. In October 2013,the Shaan was raided and three men arrested for working illegally.

This is similar to what happened to the Innovation restaurant in Maidenhead, which was opened by Theresa May. If I was running an Indian restaurant, I’d be nervous about any endorsement by a Conservative Leader.

Brexit Curry

An article on the BBC website today, Cars, curry and tortillas’ role in Brexit charm offensive, discusses the diplomacy underway between Britain and the EU:

Food has also been used by Conservative members of the European Parliament to woo their continental colleagues in Brussels, according to the Telegraph. The newspaper reported that they have hosted dinners at the city’s best curry house.

This is particularly appropriate because curry was David Cameron’s last supper, the night before he quit Number 10 Downing Street. The Guardian reported that the order “contained delights such as samosas, Kashmiri rogan josh, a mixed grill and saag aloo (spinach and potato)“. The restaurant that provided the meal, the Kennington Tandoori, is thought to be the first curry house mentioned by name in Parliament.

Curry was one of the battlegrounds in last year’s Brexit campaign. Restaurant owners could be found arguing on both sides. The Bangladesh Caterers Association was in favour of Brexit, whereas the Asian Catering Federation was in favour of remain. Both sides saw immigration rules as the cause of a shortage of curry chefs, but disagreed over whether the issue was the EU. Priti Patel, Employment Minister and leave campaigner, claimed that the EU was a barrier for trade between India and the UK, pointing to a recent ban on Indian mangoes.

In an article in the Evening Standard, published in May 2016, Patel explained how Brexit would save British curry houses:

Uncontrolled immigration from the EU has led to tougher controls on migrants from the rest of the world. This means that we cannot bring in the talents and the skills we need to support our economy. By voting to leave we can take back control of our immigration policies, save our curry houses and join the rest of the world.

She also gave a speech where she said:

It is manifestly unfair and unjust that curry houses and members of our diaspora communities face having to deal with a second-class immigration system while chefs from the EU can waltz into this country and straight into employment.

Patel was not the only politician to make grand promises. In 2016, Brexit minister David Davies hosted theBangladesh Caterers Association’s huge annual dinner, and he promised benefits for every community and that “there will be something for BCA.”

Post-Brexit, things don’t seem to be working out as promised. By January this year, May had refused to increase immigration to support Britain’s curry industry. Curry restaurants continue to close, squeezed by rising costs and staffing issues. In fact, it might have made things worse, with no change to non-EU visas while reducing the number of Eastern European staff, who were covering some of the shortfall (it is estimated 5-6,000 of 150,000 curry workers are Eastern European, and maybe as many as 10,000). The falling pound has also meant higher costs to import ingredients.

In contrast to Patel’s offers, this year’s General Election brought further promises from the Conservatives to reduce immigration, along with a levy of £2000 for every business employing foreign workers.

Restaurant owner Oli Khan felt ‘betrayed’: “It is very disappointing that Brexit campaigners such as Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, who said the curry industry would be better off the EU, have not kept their promises.” Pasha Khandaker, president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association said that, “My organisation supported Brexit for several reasons but the main reason was to bring people from abroad to help our industry to survive.”

It remains to be seen what the effects of this ‘betrayal’ is, but with the referendum won, there is less attempt to communicate with the curry-houses. According to Oli Khan ““We are angry as the Brexit ministers are not responding to our calls, they are not responding to our mails.””

My chilli plant is a dick

Right now, I’m not entirely sure where my chilli plant is. I’m not sure this is a bad thing.

Back in March, I planted about 20 chilli seeds from a batch that my friend Rosanna gave me. Only one of these sprouted. But it grew into a massive plant and, for a time, I felt smug at my skill.

Growing plants was a big deal for me. People sometimes told me a few green things would make my house seem warmer and more welcoming, but I didn’t want the responsibility of plants. The one time I was given one, by my friend Teresa, I had the sad duty of watching it die and wither, despite my efforts.

I almost killed this plant a couple of times. While I was away for 5 nights on the Pennine way, my house sitter cancelled. I arrived home just in time to find the plant almost dead. Looking after another living thing makes you aware of the true fragility of life.

IMG_20170517_101854

I almost killed the plant on one of the hottest days of the year, when it was between the window and the curtain, roasting in the trapped heat. In a few hours it had dried out precariously. But it survived and even flowered. Then the the flowers kept dropping off, littering the shelf around. But there was no sign of fruit.

I checked back on Rosanna’s instructions: Put it in a 9″ pot, if you haven’t done already, and keep it wet. If it’s dropping flowers (without leaving little chilli-nubs behind) then it’s unhappy. Either the pot is too small, or it’s too dry, underfed, or too wet (the latter is unlikely).

One problem was that I’d somehow bought a 7 inch plant-pot, not a nine inch one, so that was quickly fixed, but it didn’t help. Chillis are considered to be one of the easier things to grow. Growing what is, essentially, a garnish, is proving so tough that it amazes me that someone, somewhere is growing enough plants to keep me alive.

With all the travel I’ve been doing lately, I had to find someone else to look after the plant. The photo at the top of the page shows me carrying the plant across Hove. And, a few days after the plant left my house, I received a video from the friend looking after it. The blurry short piece of footage reveals something unexpected. Look close at the centre of the picture and you can just about make it out.

Among the leaves is a tiny green Scotch bonnet pepper. The minute my back is turned, a fruit appears. All this grief for a single pepper, when I could buy a fresh one for pennies. A whole pound would buy me a bottle of Encona. It seems a lot of work for little payback.

The friend who was caring for the plant is away for a few weeks, and I’m not sure if they’ve made arrangements. Maybe they’ve given the plant to someone else to look after.

My lounge does feel emptier without her though, and it would be easy to be reunited. I really should find out where my chilli plant has got to.

In the early days of the curry house

Around the time that the Guardian published Bee Wilson’s article Who Killed the Curry House, it also republished an article from 1957, Rising popularity of Indian restaurants in Britain. At that time, Indian food was still a novelty in the UK. The article is an interesting read, positioning curry as a new thing to the British while noting a very well-informed audience for the cuisine.

When you have missed the homeward bus… a Northern city can be an inhospitable place. Once there was nothing to do and nowhere to go: now there are Indian restaurants. In the middle of every night, Sunday or weekday, when the cafes and steak houses are shut and their waiters asleep, egg pilao and Madras chicken curry, Bhuna Gosht, Kofta, Jelabi, and Poppadum are coming to birth, filling and astonishing the mouths of those who always miss buses, all over Britain.

There were estimated to be a hundred Indian restaurants in London at that time, a dozen in Manchester, with more spreading over the country, including “towns as unlikely as Northampton“. A brief history is given, with Veeraswamy mentioned, as well as the Koh-i-noor, which opened in 1929. Indian restaurants from that period sound like strange places:

In those days the clientele was limited mostly to the homesick prince, or the lover of the exotic: at one time or another most of the Indian rulers called and fed, with their retinues. Running up accounts with these private armies of secretaries and musicians and doctors was a nervous business, for occasions arose when master and retinue would refuse to pay, both arguing that it was the other’s responsibility. At such moments the proprietor of the Koh-i-Noor would call upon the services of a solicitor in full morning dress, with silk hat.

Many of the 1957 customers were discerning: “The proprietors are at once troubled and delighted by a class of gourmets who raise an instant fuss if they are given Italian rice instead of Siamese first quality, who know and are angry if the spices have been added a minute too late in the frying stage.” It seems that many people had developed a taste for Indian food during the war.

The first person to open an Indian restaurant, Sake Dean Mahomed, is buried in Brighton. However, he had given up on catering before he moved down here, making his fortune by running a bathhouse. However, curry in Brighton was well established by the time the article above was written. According to Rose Collis’s New Encyclopedia of Brighton, the first Indian restaurant to open here was the Taj Mahal in 1948 in Ship Street. (She also notes the Agra Balti House, the ‘first authentic Balti house in Sussex’, opening in 1993).

Theresa May’s “Curry Curse”

Last week, at the Brighton Fringe, I went to see Chris Parkinson‘s new poetry show Unpopular Culture. Chris also appeared as the support act, with his talk on the Eating Habits of Politicians. It’s a great piece, featuring Thatcher’s obsession with eggs, how to eat a hotdog, and that bacon sandwich (which apparently gets several pages in Labour’s internal report on the 2015 election).

One thing I’d not heard about was the story of Teresa May’s local curry houses. Many Indian restaurants have ongoing problems with staffing and are restricted from hiring overseas experts because of Britain’s immigration laws.  This has become particularly controversial after last year’s Brexit campaign. One group of restaurateurs supported leave, partly in the hope of allowing more non-EU immigration. Pasha Kandaker, head of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, was reported as saying “My organisation supported Brexit for several reasons but the main reason was to bring people from abroad to help our industry to survive.”

Theresa May’s announcements after the referendum were the cause of much of this disappointment. But this is not the first time that Theresa May has been involved in curry-related controversy. Prior to being Prime Minister, from 2010 to 2016, May served as Home Secretary. She promised to bring net migration below 100,000 but despite this, migration continued to rise.

In May 2011, Theresa May opened a the Innovation Indian restaurant in her Maidenhead constituency. In March 2012, it was raided by immigration officers from the UK Borders Agency, part of the home office. Five suspected illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were detained. Innovation now appears to be closed and the website is down.

A report in the Daily Mirror goes on to say that eighteen months earlier “her ­favourite tandoori restaurant Malik’s in Cookham, near ­Maidenhead – where she signed the guestbook and was also pictured on their website – was raided and two suspected illegal workers caught. But the owner was not aware of their status.”

The Malik’s owners obviously bear no ill-will to May for what happened. She is still featured on the restaurant’s website of  as part of a gallery of stars who have eaten there – although she appears far below 80’s children’s TV stay Timmy Mallet.

The Perfect Vindaloo?

Wanting to make the perfect vindaloo might seem like a strange ambition.

It originates from my lack of confidence about food. I’ve eaten almost every day of my life, but I still somehow feel like I’m getting it wrong. I don’t know how I made it through university, as I struggled to make those first few dishes and resorted to things in tins. Somehow I’ve kept myself alive, but I’ve never felt good at feeding myself – despite doing it for many years.

Some food is genuinely like sorcery. When I read about places like Fäviken or the Fat Duck, I’m in awe of what they do with food. But even some simple dishes feel like they are out of my league. I can’t bake at all – even packets of pre-prepared pizza dough fail to solidify for me. And, for many years, curry felt like it was beyond my competence. It’s become my favourite food as I’ve grown older, but it always felt like a mystery, the blending of mundane ingredients into something magical.

Food shouldn’t feel like that much of an achievement. Cooking is one of those skills – like keeping a budget, driving or having a haircut – that most adults just seem able to do. Yet I’d never felt competent. And elsewhere, my life seemed to drag in so many other ways, as I lurched between hangovers, between jobs that never seemed to go anywhere. I never seemed to focus on anything (god knows, I’ve been distracted from this blog often enough). I’d imagined my life as something that would have felt bigger by now. This inability to cook seemed emblematic of all my other failures. Food still felt like magic, and by now I should have been good at that. I’m not as bad a cook as I used to be; but I’m also not as good as I could be (or should be, considering how often I invite people to eat at my flat). The horror at the first meals I cooked remains, just like the shame I feel as all the stupid things that I have done.

There’s an old saying that the way you do anything is the way you do everything. Most people interpret this as being about maintaining focus and attention in even the smallest act, seeing that as carrying through to the more important things. There’s another way to interpret it at the same time – that if we can do one thing perfectly, what we learn will influence all of the other things that we do.

So why not get good at making a curry? Get to the point where I can make an amazing vindaloo. Sure, it won’t change my life, but it’s a journey that can take me some interesting places. It’s not as if I am trying to meet 100 people with my name, or carry a domestic appliance round a small country. The things one learns about curry connect to other things: it’s about food & people & travel & life. But it’s also just a simple dish of curry.

Aleister Crowley described magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Which, loosely, also defines the act of cooking. It’s a form of alchemy, taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a dish. If you can do one bit of magick, well, you can do others. It’s getting one thing right, and knowing I can do that. And even if I don’t make a vindaloo that can change my world, I’ll still be able to make a pretty impressive curry.