Give me a food and I’ll give you a memory.
Arabic mezze: moutabl, smoky with burnt aubergine skins and sharp with tahini, labneh, thicker than normal yoghurt, tangy with mint and those glorious triangles of filo stuffed with pale goat’s cheese and spinach. Oh, the bread, the side-table sized discs of yeast-free bread, perfect for tearing and dipping.
One mention of moutabl and I’m back at the Dubai supermarket, the site of our first overseas posting. I’m parking our aged baby-poo-coloured Range Rover, unpinging and placing the windscreen sunshield behind the steering wheel, unpopping the baby from a car seat and bracing myself for the heat and the sense of burning sand beneath my flipflops as I place Sam on my hip and carry him to the entrance. This is where I buy the only shopbought moutabl I have ever-found-in-the-whole world that cuts the mustard.
Now I’m back inside the store and doing my weekly shops. I’m either at either the smart one, Spinneys, with its green and yellow leaf logo and vast green plastic trolleys, where I poke Sam’s chubby legs through the childseat’s holes and push up and down the brightly lit aisles, or the more downmarket Choithram, where the steel trolleys are smaller and more unwieldy and I snake past the piles of Nido powdered milk in tins the size of oil drums and towers of watermelons on my way to the cold cabinet.
And on goes the memory.
For most of our 30 years of marriage, ask us what our favourite food is and we’d say Arabic without pausing for thought. But this week it hit me. It’s time we changed our answer – to Indian curry even though we have never lived there. I have not even visited.
Curry has been a red thread through our lives abroad. In Dubai, our wonderful housekeeper and nanny, Julie, from Mangalore, was a fabulous cook. She introduced us to the joy of a home-cooked chicken biryani waiting for us in the oven when we returned from a weekend camping. Josh’s first birthday meal was fried fish, dahl and rice. Her butter chicken was the best and so good was her food that I helped her run a small takeaway service for other expatriates in our Oman compound. Yes, we were fortunate enough to take Julie with us when we moved to Oman.
So, in short, we were spoiled. So spoiled that no curry we have ever had in England has matched up. Not one. Not ever. Nor in Norway.
We left Oman in 1995 and for years the only curries that ‘worked’ for us were the ones I made myself, using Julie’s recipes. I never did master chapattis and christened my last attempt ‘crapattis’.
Fast forward to Malaysia and we were blessed beyond belief not only to have the best banana leaf and South Indian food on offer, but at eye-wateringly low prices. Real Indian food prepared by real Indian chefs. Our favourite holiday spot became the Taj Vivanta on Rebak island off Langkawi because of its ‘real Indian chefs’. Our choice for birthdays and other celebrations would always be a curry and, once we discovered Ganga, the vegetarian restaurant run by the wonderful Meeta, it became our choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Every time.
There is nowhere in the Hague that comes anywhere close. Not even the pricey and oft-hallowed Maharani on swanky Noordeinde. Actually, I need to correct the penultimate sentence – there WAS nowhere in the Hague that came anywhere close.
Earlier this week I received a WhatsApp from Josh:
“You free for lunch?”
“Guess so… why? ”
“I found a place that does dosa.”
Dosa, or thosai, the thin pancakes rolled into a tube like giant’s brandy snap s and served with chutneys, dahls and sauces.
I was there.
Krishna Vilas opened a month ago on one of the prettiest streets in The Hague, Hooikade. It’s right by the canal and five minutes’ cycle from our house.
Instead of a knife and fork at our settings we found a spoon and fork. Things were looking good.
The menu – vada, idli, dosa, uttapam, plain, stuffed, flavoured and served with three chutneys. The same three we knew from KL. The pink one (tomato), the white grainy one (coconut) and the bright green one (mint and coriander). It was hard to choose but in the end had to settle for our own ‘acid tests’. For Josh a rawa dosa, for me, an onion uttapam and palak paneer (spinach and cheese curry).
“I must prepare myself to be disappointed,” I said, scarcely hopeful that this time, things would be different.
It wasn’t rubbish! It was heaven. Heaven. Heaven. Eye-wateringly expensive for a place that serves food on steel ‘children’s starter plates’ with dips in them to put things in. Ten times the price we paid in KL, but then, this was Hooikade.
We went home with grins wide enough to slot in chapatti and eat it whole. We couldn’t wait to taunt Ian with our story.
We managed to resist a return visit for just 48 hours. This time with Ian, who got home from work earlier than ever in the history of Ian. We sat down just after six o’clock and the place was full of Indians. People who ate with their fingers and hunched over their plates as they made a porridge of the thali sauces and gently flavoured rice they squeezed into mouthfuls and popped right in.
Ian’s ‘acid test’ was mushroom and pea curry and it did not disappoint. It had Josh going in with his idli, me with my naan and all three of us crooning in delight. It was thick, it was unctuous, there was a nutty quality to it and the mushrooms were chunky and soft.
Suddenly, I spotted a chap nearby was knowingly ripping the soft bread on his tray into stringy fingerfuls ready to dip into his pea curry.
“That looks like roti canai!” I whispered to the others, thrilled to see something that looked remarkably like the dish created by Indian Malaysians that had become our breakfast of choice while we were over there.
“Go and ask him!” they insisted.
So, buoyed up by joy, I headed over.
It was not roti canai, it was paratha, but it was close enough.
“I’m from Chennai,” the chap said, grinning from ear to ear. “I have found my home food.”
“I just came back from KL,” said his table-mate. “Good, eh?”
And so, dear readers. If perchance you discover I am not answering my emails, head down to Krishna Vilas. I think you may find me there.