One of the most curious culinary literary happenings of the past year has been the publication (as an e-book) of a collection of recipes under the title of Indian Restaurant (BIR) Style Meals. BIR stands for ‘British Indian Restaurant’. Originally Dan Toombs, the author, had intended to focus on ‘authentic’ Indian recipes but changed tack shortly after starting a blog, The Curry Guy, when he became inundated with demands for help with creating chicken korma, rogan josh, etc., tasting just like the ones from the local Indian restaurant or takeaway. The book’s methodology commences with the creation of a large batch of curry sauce as a base for the various dishes and indeed this is the method favoured by the majority of such restaurants.
In Ireland, as in Britain, the term ‘curry’ has come to mean any dish from the sub-continent. Most etymologists agree that the word stems from the Tamil, ‘kari’, meaning ‘a spicy sauce’ or from ‘karai’, the traditional cooking dish. However, ‘curry’, spelt ‘cury’, simply meaning ‘cookery’ was common parlance in Britain in medieval times. After the Crusades, spices such as aniseed, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cumin and cardamom became common in the kitchens of the better off.
London’s first Indian restaurant has strong Irish connections. A colourful character, Dean Mahomet blew into Cork in 1784 at the behest of his patron Godfrey Evan Baker, a prominent member of the Protestant ascendancy whom he had worked for in India. Mahomet became a person of substance as well as a scholar. In 17?? he eloped with and married a teenage student, Jane Daly. Around 1807, Dean Mahomet moved his family to London.
Two years later he founded The Hindostanee Coffee House, near Portman Square, W1. Today a Green Plaque marks the spot. Like many other nominal coffeehouses of the day coffee did not feature. Instead, Dean Mahomet created a restaurant, but one with a difference. Uniquely for London, the Hindostanee Coffee House provided what he and Jane intended their European patrons to recognise as exotic Indian cuisine and ambience, offering a range of meat and vegetable dishes with Indian spices. In addition, he constructed bamboo sofas and chairs on which diners would recline and adorned the walls with scenes of Indian life. Despite an initial enthusiastic reception the restaurant failed and in 1812 Dean Mahomet had to petition for bankruptcy.
Ireland’s first Indian restaurant, The India Restaurant and Tea Rooms, opened in O’Connell, then Sackville, Street near The Gresham, offering ‘real Indian curries’ served by ‘native waiters in costume’. Sadly, it only lasted a few months. It was a good many years before Indian cuisine would re-establish itself, based on the concept of flock wallpaper, late night opening and a signature dish, chicken tikka masala, invented in Birmingham. Most of the Indian dining on offer in the capital was of this ilk when I came to live in Dublin in 1987. From the 1990s onwards certain restaurants started to offer a dining experience contrasting starkly with the hitherto mediocrity. The ‘movement’, if it can be called such, based its appeal on authenticity, involving a concentration on freshness and flavour rather than slavish recreation of commonplace dishes. Some looked back, exploring regional cooking; others explored a wider horizon, marrying the tradition to modern techniques to create an Indian haute cuisine. Among these seekers of excellence I would instance Asheesh Dewan’s Jaipur group, plus Kinara, Clontarf and Rasam where I dined last Saturday.
Located above the Eagle House pub in Sandycove, Rasam’s dining room is opulent, cosseting, exuding warmth and style. There is not a flocked wall in sight and the artefacts bear no relationship with kitsch. Proprietor Niseeth Tak is an absolute gentleman and a natural meeter, greeter and organiser. Sibella and I were there with two friends from England, Viv and Bread Man, omnivores both. Seated, we all climbed into crisp popadoms and a range of accompanying chutneys. More were proffered and accepted. There were no less than nine ‘appetisers’ on the menu, the choosing of which was taking rather a time. Accordingly I did a pre-emptive strike and summoned two ‘Rasam platters’ to share, each of which contained a selection of five regional dishes. Every one had its admirer. Sibs favoured the singular palak patta – crispy baby spinach leaves with a honey and yoghurt dressing. Bread Man plumped for the semolina crusted squid, served with home-made tomato chutney; Viv, the chicken tikka (not ‘masala’) which she loved. Eclipsing all these, in my opinion, was the pork chatpata, described as ‘street food’, julienned strips of pork fillet, marinated with mango powder, red chilli and vinegar then ‘toss fried’ with bell peppers and onions, a vibrant combination. A larger portion would have served me nicely as a main course.
I had eaten the lal mas, another dish from Rasthejan, involving boneless, slow-cooked leg of lamb in a dark, rich sauce, on several previous occasions, so I left it to Viv. Both she and Sibella, who traded some for her chicken dish, raved about the rampant flavours. Bread Man and I chose Rasam’s current signature dish, the Lucknow dum pukht gosht, a bowl of soft and succulent lamb smothered in a lavish creamy sauce, with restrained but distinctive spicing – here is the key to this metier of cooking. The bowl was sealed with an edible, chapati-like ‘lid’. As a side, we took a portion of chick peas in a chilli-spiked sauce, a reminder, amid our meat-fest, that much of the essence of Indian cooking lies in doing imaginative things with vegetables.
In truth, we did not need dessert and Sibs said so. Still, I insisted on kulfi, that rich-but-granular Indian ice cream and was rewarded with a large plateful of which everyone partook. Pairing wine with Indian food is challenging. The task was facilitated by the girls not drinking red and Viv expressing a distaste for chardonnay, ah well, she’s young enough to see the light. The carte holds several interesting options, including a Sicilian grillo that had both the viscosity and the acidity to cope at a reasonable €26. All-in-all the four of us spent, €146.50 for food, service and atmosphere that would stand up and be counted in any genre of restaurant.
Rasam 18/19 Glasthule Road, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin Tel: 01 230 0600