I never win anything. And to be honest, I secretly prefer it that way. Maybe it’s the raging Brit in me, but I’m always elated when it rains and my money’s on the underdog every time. Winning just seems like something vulgar competitive types might do. Not real people. Not real people like me.
So when I was selected to judge the Brick Lane Curry Competition I was fairly incredulous. I too was going to get my turn to be a little smug one. As the next few hours descended into a hyper real parallel celebriverse, I had a hasty sip of the frankly insane world of being papped and gawped at like a prize pakora. I was duly lined up with the other judges, Nina Wadia, Andy Varma and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets (A-listers every one of them) as we ploughed through 36 curries in what felt like no time at all. Nina suggested we pair up and it was interesting to note that our likes and dislikes were so obverse. I sensed that she hailed from a more Northern part of the sub continent as she seemed drawn to the more robustly spiced chicken and lamb dishes, but appeared to be less enamoured with my favourites the platters of vegetables and curried fish.
Despite living within gobbing distance, I’ve been put off most of the curry houses on Brick Lane in recent years. More often than not I’ve been served some generic tourist fodder, rudely spiced and adrift in its very own floatation tank of ghee. And of course, the entries included a fair representation of these pappy confections gilded with sugar or fruit, (pineapple?!?) and engineered to dulcify a timid and pusillanimous Western palate. I always find this bizarre, as most of my non-Asian friends can out-Scoville me under the table any day. Having said that, the authenticity of most of the dishes was truly “incroyable”.
Drop dead delicious plates included succulent bay and cardamom infused kofta spheres, sopping with stout, beefy gravy. The spices were almost charred and the subtlest touch of naga chilli muttered away in the background, just enough to form a deeply smoky flavour. I also swooned over a traditional fish curry, each delicately spiced steak of ruhi brimming with curried roe, the kind of grub I’ve only ever witnessed at big family get togethers. Overall the standard was up there, some of the seekh kebabs were chop and chop with the Tayyabs hallmark. However we also tasted a truly retch-inducing tandoori lamb dish. Squatly floating, Jabba-like in a lake of its own horrid juices, we both gagged simultaneously upon oral contact. It bore hardly any seasoning and tasted of nothing more than tepid, liquefied lamb fat. It was mystifyingly bad. My immediate reaction was to spit it out, but I realised the perpetual artifice that constitutes celebrity life as Nina insisted that we smile and look cheerful while desperately trying not to vomit as the cameras clicked away.
Nina was lovely, she advised me to try just a tiny morsel of everything – she’d clearly done this before. We marked each dish on presentation, texture and of course flavour. We talked and giggled our way through most of the dishes, but when I glanced up I was met with an ocean of jostling searching glances, all analyzing our every move, trying to decode the messages transmitted from our tastebuds to the scoreboards. It made me realise the gravity of the competition – for most of these entrants our decisions would make or ruin a livelihood.
The winning dish was a torso above the rest, masterfully roasted tandoori king prawns in a stunningly well-balanced masala sauce, speckled with the ivory and emerald of coconut and chillies, the creation of the brilliant Amir Uddin from the Eastern Eye Balti House.
Later, over dinner in the winning restaurant, the Somali Mayor tells me how he grew up in Bethnal Green. As a young boy in the seventies he would see hoardes of BNP members on a daily basis standing at the top of Brick Lane chanting about “whites first” while the police turned a blind eye. I glance out of the window and try to picture what the street must have looked like then. He’d never in a million years predicted the thriving, cosmopolitan guide-book destination it’s become today. He reminisces about stones and shit and petrol bombs through letterboxes. I notice a skinny blonde guy wearing lime green jeggings with a proper 80’s flick and a wedge; the sort I’d usually mock mercilessly, chatting away and laughing with one of the neighbouring restaurant owners. Perhaps those Nathan Barley types aren’t so bad after all.