I was recently contacted by a new Indian restaurant in Saffron Walden (Essex / Cambridgeshire border), Red Onion, to try out their menu. This post is two things really, a review of the restaurant and some ponderings about Indian food in the UK.
First, the Red Onion. It is a curry house based just around the corner from Saffron Walden Common, which opened last year.
For starters we had onion bhaji and Aloo Chaat. The onion bhaji was pretty textbook, they were crispy and quite big and not too oily- and served with that random salad that no one ever eats. My aloo chaat, was just a plain potato curry – what I had hoped for is spicy potatoes with crispy sev (chickpea noodles) or fried chapati with yoghurt and tamarind, that is what chaat normally consists of – it’s about textures. This was unfortunately a potato curry with cucumber in it, bizarrely. It was good to see it on the menu but unfortunately it wasn’t an aloo chaat.
For mains I ordered a lamb achari – the lamb was nice and tender and the sauce was tomato based with good heat and a lemony kick. Mr had a vegetable bhuna – a nice tomatoey sauce with good heat, but the vegetables seemed to be from those frozen ‘vegetable mixes’ you get in big bags. We also ordered muttar paneer, usually cooked with onions and a little tomato with plenty of chilli, and peas of course, our dish was coconut based, which I like with paneer, but unfortunately it was cloyingly sweet. I wouldn’t have minded a little chilli powder!
We decided to try out some different breads – garlic naan, roti and chapati. The naan was really nice, fluffy inside and crispy on the bottom. The chapati was good, nice and soft and mopped up the curry well. The roti, I think it differs from the chapati as it is cooked on a tandoor, was nice too, possibly a bit too crispy.
To finish we decided not to go for the oddly presented kulfis (in coconut shells, plastic pineapple shells etc) that you always find in curry houses, but for a cup of masala chai each. Like the aloo chaat it was nice to see it on the menu, the tea was disappointing though as, I think, it was made from a spiced tea bag rather than brewed with a masala mix, meaning it wasn’t as strong as it should be.
Overall it was a nice meal, and if you’re after a ‘British Curry’ then that is what it will offer you. We really liked the breads and the sauces in each of our curries were good. The starters could use some work and the paneer was a little bizarre.
I think food in general has improved tenfold UK over the past 10 years, British food is better than ever, but I feel understanding about what Indian food, and probably that of other countries, is seriously lagging behind. A curry house will tell you that you are eating authentic Indian food when you’re tucking into a chicken korma, dipping plain poppadoms into mango chutney, and that strange thin yoghurt sauce. When you’re eating orange pilau rice and fighting your way through an oil soaked onion bhaji.
For me a curry house curry is a bit of a guilty pleasure, a bit like MacDonald’s or a fish finger sandwich. It’s mostly not authentic (a lot of Indian restaurants dishes are actually based on Bangladeshi cooking with Anglicised additions) but it is comforting in a way.
I think curry houses can give Indian food a bad rep. Indian food is different in each region you visit – and it is not always as unhealthy as it has a reputation for – yes we like our samosas and sugary snacks, and ghee is used – but everyday Indian food is fresh and nourishing. Lentils, fresh vegetables, wholewheat chapatis and pickles. It’s not just cubed meat in a sauce served with a naan or rice.
This article in the Guardian about ‘how to eat curry’ is great – it explains what to look out for (south Indian food, pure vegetarian food) and what to order. Searching out restaurants like this is nearly always a good idea – you’ll find plenty of them in Leicester, parts of Birmingham, Southall, Wembley and Ilford. South Indian restaurants will offer you a thali (plate) filled with different dishes, or a crispy dosa stuffed with homemade paneer or spicy potato. Pure vegetarian restaurants, which are often Gujarati (like me!) will serve chilli paneer, the best daal, chaat and sometimes gulab jamun for pudding.
Thanks to the Red Onion, Saffron Walden for inviting us for dinner. You can find out more about them here.