There are endless debates about which city is Britain’s curry capital: London, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Glasgow, Rusholme the league table keeps changing, but in 2011 Bradford was crowned once more Curry Capital of Great Britain.
With its myriad curry houses, restaurants, sweet centres and takeaways ranging from shocking dives to blingtastic palaces and with Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein sprinkling their gold dust on Prashad and Karachi, they have discovered what we have always known, that Bradford is our curry capital no matter what anyone else says.
After all they’ve been cooking curries in Bradford since the 50s, when the first wave of immigration to the city brought men from the Indian sub continent to work the new 12 hour nightshifts in the wool textile mills. Without their families, men lived a twilight existence, working all night six days a week, sleeping in the day and frequenting the primitive street corner curry houses that sprang up to give them a taste of home. Then the students caught on, scooping up a curry in a chapati for next to nothing, then the curious middle-classes and the party animals launching the infamous cocktail of a skinful of lager and a vindaloo. Rather surprisingly, Britain fell in love with curry.
When the textile industry collapsed, families turned to catering as an alternative source of income, and Indian restaurants mushroomed. Through the 1970s the hottest vindaloos often masked poor ingredients topped with oil slicks of ghee. Pre-boiled mutton, chicken or catering-pack prawns were added to an all-purpose sauce. Flavours became indistinguishable. No wonder British Asians stayed away when much better stuff could be had at home. You still see more ‘English’ eating out in Bradford restaurants than Asian, for whom home cooking is so culturally important.
It was the second generation Pakistanis and Indians that spearheaded the next advance in Bradford eating. The old tubular chairs and Pyrex plates were out and places like Aagrah, Akbars. Shimla and Mumtaz became the bold new faces of Indian dining. Proper restaurants replaced the worst of the cheapo corner curry houses.
Today, Bradford has both. Some of the city’s earliest curry houses, the Sweet Centre in Lumb Lane, the Kashmir in Morley Street and the Karachi in Neal Street are still there. The Aagrah has blossomed with 14 branches across West Yorkshire and the glitzy Mumtaz not only has restaurants but baby food and ready meals as well.
As for the food – many Indian restaurants are at heart more interchangeable than dedicated curry fans would have you believe. In Bradford and West Yorkshire it’s usually an anglicised version of meat-based Kashmiri and Punjabi dishes. Hansas in Leeds and Prashad serve hotter, vegetarian, rice-based menus from Gujarat western India. But much confusion still reigns. One street’s balti is the next’s karahi. There are tandooris without a tandoor and instant biryanis. International and regional boundaries cross over bewilderingly. The fun is in the exploration and discovery of an ever-changing scene, in learning from the staff and – when the bill comes – confirming that there’s still no better value on the market.
To learn how to cook Indian vegetarian food from Gujurat, you could not do better than enrol in one of Prashad’s popular cookery days at the Cooking School at Dean Clough in Halifax.