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.