Restaurant: Lahore Karahi
By Boeing: 3442 miles
By Boris Bike:6.3 miles
The inspiration to write florid verse is usually found in love, passion and beauty. So I felt a little guilty when a sonnet emerged as I bit into a naan bread. Get a grip man, I thought. I did and feverishly took a second bite deep within the circumference of this divine dough. You shouldn’t eulogise about leavened flour, it suggests a loss of perspective. But then isn’t the richness of life found in the details? And afterall, on what the papers lauded as statistically the most depressing day of the year who wouldn’t welcome a ghee up?
Pakistan was the latest stop on my curry caravan that had already passed through Bangladesh, India and Nepal. They all come from the same cultural tradition but have a distinctiveness that is often lost on post pub purists. The Pakistani variant tends to be grittier and spicier than its counterparts. And it is generally found in no frills, canteen style restaurants. The Lahore Grill in Tooting was certainly a world away from the Bombay Brasserie. In place of booths and high backed chairs were formica, wipe clean tables and where an intricate chandelier would have hung a plasma screen showing cricket.
It felt authentic. Not that I’ve been to Pakistan but it was reminiscent of similar establishments in Dubai, where Pakistani’s outnumber locals by three to one. It was busy, bustling and abuzz. Enjoying “hidden gem” status it draws in a broad range of clientele. One young man near us had even brought a date, who looked distinctly unimpressed and overdressed.
The room is dominated by an enormous counter of food that shimmers with colours, from the earthy browns of curries, the golden glow of freshly fried pakora and the rich red of chicken thighs irridiscent in their Tandori glaze. From behind the counter an army of waiters weave in and out of tables ferrying dishes to distant tables. It is a dizzying spectacle.
Having explained to my friend that sundries can be bought, stacked and reordered for a matter of pounds I go bezerk ordering a platter of vegetable pakora and deep fried, aromatic paneer cheese. Ruefully seeing bring your own beer on neighbouring tables we cut through the spice with Seven Up. We then peruse the menu.
I order the staple, Chicken Tikka karhai. It usually comes on the bone, but I ask for conventional chunks. When my friend orders prawns i widen my eyes. “Brave,” I offer by way of wisdom. Then I order it. The thing that had forced all other thoughts out of my mind. The sundrie that makes a mockery of Jesus’s claim in Gallillee that man cannot live on bread alone.
We waited, impatiently. The Pakora was served, dipped in a chutney, eaten and replenished. People left, arrived, ordered and left in a ceaseless movement. Tables went no more than a minute unoccupied. My karhai was served in sizzling silver bowl, thick and bubbling and pungent. Then I saw it in the corner of my eye, held aloft on a silver platter as if an offering to the gods, spilling over the sides in coriander specked majesty. I was so disorientated by awe that I almost curtsied.
If you imagine sundries as the Serengeti then this nan was Simba, the Lion King, master of all it surveys. To describe it as a Keema naan is like saying a Twix is dessert for two. It does feature a seasoned layer of minced lamb but that is just a lone viola in a symphony of flavours. One of which, my friend soon discovered, are chillies laced into its fabric as delicately as a name in a primary school sweater. One bite and he was struggling and a second he was broken, more a surface over which sweat pours than human. We tore and dipped and savoured until our stomachs were full and the roof of our mouths were cursing us for refusing to yield to respite.
The last time I felt this sated I was virtually blind licking the vestiges of vanilla ice-cream from a moulded plastic penguin. Then it began: the retribution. We paid, traded reflections on the form of the Pakistani pace attack and opened the door to the real world. The real world where actions have consequences, where gluttony is a mortal sin not an inevitable state of bliss.
Walking to the pub it was clear that we were casualties of wanton greed, barely able to retain the faint memory of the ability to walk. We communicated through a series of nuanced sighs. And I, well I started to hallucinate, reaching out my hands and muttering a word. In truth it was more of an incantation. Grandmothers turned and expressed pity. “Naan.”