A tale of two curries

23:10, Aug 07 2012

A curry's a curry really, isn't it? I mean, I appreciate that there are vast differences between, say, Thai and Malaysian and Indian curries, of course, but Indian curries - you would think that they would fall into broadly similar types, wouldn't you?

As I explained a couple of weeks back, I have been enjoying a renaissance with Indian food - with cooking it, and, primarily, eating it. I want rich curries, light curries, naan, dhal, roti, raita, biryani - I want it all. I sometimes feel that the Vietnamese pho is the one meal that I could eat morning, noon, and night - indeed, when you are actually in Vietnam, sometimes you do, such is its ubiquity. At the moment I am still feeling as though I could just eat Indian food - all the time.

In my last love note in praise of Indian cuisine, I vowed to revisit a place where I had eaten some of the best Indian food I have ever eaten - Great India, in Wellington's Manners Street. And guess what - I did. But was it as good as I remembered? Or would I be disappointed, as you sometimes are when you revisit the scene of a great, great meal - in my case, a stag do for one my oldest and dearest friends at which I met another of my best ever friends (and which ended up at the now extinct Castros at 5 in the morning, via a strip club).

Given that I went at lunchtime on a Monday, a similar chain of events was reasonably unlikely.

For lunchtime on a Monday, the place was well patronised - maybe half a dozen tables of diners, partaking in what is an extremely good value for money lunch special - any curry, plus one of three rices and one of three breads for $12 - bargain. But is it achieved by cutting corners, or compromising on flavour, or ingredients?

Well, it would seem to me no, not at all. I ordered a Shahi paneer, which is like a house-made firm cottage cheese in a rich, creamy, honey-sweetened gravy. Plenty of paneer, plenty of sauce, plus chunks of green capsicum (which I'm often not so much of a fan of, compared to red capsicum, which I adore), whose flavour really cuts through the cheese and rich sauce. I go for a garlic naan, which is buttery and has tonnes of garlic, and a pilau rice which is delicate, light and flavourful.


After I have finished eating, a waiter (no sign of robo-maitre 'd Rakesh, alas) comes and clears my plate, and offers me a hot towel on which to wipe my hands - dead classy, like. Given that I am pretty big on the "value proposition" (i.e. what things cost, relative to what you get), I reckon $12 in a stylishly appointed Indian dining room for a delicious, rich, tasty, luxurious curry, with a choice of sides, followed by a hot towel, is pretty well off the chart.

When I then started thinking about the best Indian food I had eaten, the other place that came to mind was another former inhabitant of my favorite ever food market - the Wakefield Street food market - a place called Roti Chenai. Back then it was a tough call for me to choose Indian over Mexican (Viva Mexico), Singaporean (Lion City) or Asian BBQ (Tams), which may have been partly because I knew they had a restaurant in Victoria Street in town.  They made amazing murtabak and dosai, but their most amazing bite, for me, was their roti. Light, airy, beautifully textured, stretched and freshly made on the spot, it was always a bit of a fave.

So I headed round there for a bite, by way of comparison to the excellent lunch menu at Great India. Their style is Southern Indian, or Tamil, and they too have a lunch menu, which starts at just $8. They also serve a fair smattering of Malaysian dishes - I gather there is crossover. I go with their "lunch meal" (or Tamil thali) special at $9.50, which I feel honour-bound to augment with an extra piece of their heavenly roti (because it is so delicious) and a Bundaberg ginger beer, which I reckon matches their food perfectly (even if opening it means risking life and limb, etc).

It really couldn't be any more different from the food from Great India. For starters, I am alone in the restaurant at 2pm on a Friday afternoon - weird. Second, rather than on a flash plate and bowl, the food is served in a plain metal partitioned tray, which makes it look like institutional food (think hospital canteen, prison lunchroom). But oh, dear Lord, if the food in institutions tastes this good, lock me up and gouge out my spleen as soon as is humanly possible, cos this stuff's sensational!

It is amazingly different food from Great India's offerings - almost like the difference between Bollywood dance music and Indian folksongs, or restaurant food and street food. Their chicken curry is thin and light, but strongly flavoured with cardamom and coriander seeds, while the accompanying dhal, potato varuval, rice and rassam (a light, spicy tomatoey soup, which is great to dip the roti into) are amazingly tasty, and all manage to taste profoundly different. The great thing is that they all work together, and as I am finishing up, I scoop a little of each taste up into the bread with the remaining rice - and it still tastes great.

I would be hard pushed to say which of these two phenomenally different bargainious lunch curries I prefer. I love them both. I think it is fantastic that you can get both, at these prices, for a lunch meal.

And - I still love Indian food.

Great India vs Roti Chenai - if you have visited them both, which is your fave? Or, which is your preferred type of Indian food - rich, restaurant-style dishes, or lighter street-type fare? And - perhaps a reader could enlighten us on the distinct differences between the varieties of Indian regional cuisine?

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