Prawn tak-a-tak; a dish with a name that you want to repeat over and over again because it’s pleasing on the tongue. Tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak. Like a choo-choo train. The waiter who’d recommended this dish appeared laden with treats to make one’s stomach rumble: shikampuri kebab – finely minced lamb patties flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and spiced yoghurt – dakshni crab cakes and the splendid papri chat, an Indian snack consisting of yoghurt, chick peas, tamarind chutney, served with crunchy semolina and wheat biscuits.
While I gorged indulgently on the papri chat and the lamb patties, Sophie was the first to sample a mouthful of the prawn tak-a-tak. “How is it?” I asked, somewhat concerned. Sophie had stopped chewing almost immediately. She had frozen completely, as if someone had flicked her ‘off’ switch. Then her eyes widened, she gripped the table and made the briefest of whimpering noises, resumed chewing the tak-a-tak while focussing with glazed eyes on a point somewhere in the middle-distance, and then, once swallowed, very quickly took a large gulp of water followed by an urgent slurp of wine. “Oh-my-God,” she whispered hoarsely, “that is hot.”
Intrigued by this innocent looking dish that provoked such an extreme reaction in Miss McLean, I rather foolhardily took a big spoonful of prawns, wrapped them into a roti and popped the lot into la bouche de Jonséy.
Mild spices, a tomato tang and the pleasing oceanic flavour of the prawns were all that I could taste. Ha! Spicy schmicey. I couldn’t help but scowl at Sophie who had proved herself a complete curry cop-out. “It’s not that hot,” I said to her in the most condescending tone I could muster. In fact I was embarrassed to be with someone who couldn’t handle what was the tiniest tingle of heat from what was clearly a Westernised dish. “In fact it’s not really hot at all, just tangy,” I said, shaking my head, wondering how to break the news that I would no longer allow her to write restaurant reviews for us.
And then it hit me. Oh good God, it hit me.
To say that it was like having your mouth cut to pieces by a red hot chainsaw doesn’t begin to do it justice. To say that it was like popping a few hot coals into one’s gob with a chaser of molten laver, doesn’t quite describe the curious experience that followed. As the spices entered my bloodstream, I began to sweat profusely, the product in my hair started to melt and run across my face, and my shirt became damp and uncomfortable as if I had just clambered through the undergrowth of the Ranthambore jungle. Sophie watched in horror as I shovelled more of the prawn coals into my mouth. “Oh my God! Stop!” she pleaded, but the masochist in me was enjoying this. “No, no,” I croaked, my face crumpled like a used dishcloth, “I’ll finish it. I won’t be defeated!”
As plumes of steam began to puff from my ears and nose just like that choo-choo train, I could no longer feel the inside of my mouth, and glancing down at my fork laden with this concoction made in the very bowels of the sun, I noticed that it was flecked with dried chilli, in addition to the curry paste and the curry leaves also in the mix. It occurred to me that it was a rather odd dish to have as a starter, being so powerful that it surely rendered the taste buds completely redundant for the rest of the meal.
Sitting back and staring at the empty bowl in front of me, I felt proud, and a tad foolish. “My entire mouth is numb,” I said to Sophie. “You’ll have to review this one. I won’t be able to taste anything else.”
But I was wrong. A gap of several minutes between starters and mains, and slowly but very surely, my taste buds picked themselves up from the desert floor of my parched mouth, and put themselves to good use. Succulent tandoori lamb chops and king prawns, deep fried crispy okra (kurkuri bhindi) with a satisfying crunch, cosseting black lentils (dal makhni), aromatic chicken chettinad with pepper, aniseed and curry leaves, and the luxurious kesar elaichi gosht – lamb with a spiced cashew nut sauce – were among the treats we sampled, all uniformly impressive and stacked with many levels of flavour.
While I sipped from a rather bold Indian wine that our waiter had recommended (fortunately not a chilli-flecked wine), I observed the restaurant with pleasure and amusement. It’s decorated like the bazaar that it takes its name from, with an eclectic mix of furniture and objets d’art from the East. It’s a cosy venue and vibrant even on a week night, with friendly and efficient staff and an interesting array of dishes to please everyone from spice wimps like Sophie to spice masochists like me.
By the end of the feast we had eaten so much that we could hardly breathe. I muttered a farewell to Sophie and proceeded to shuffle through Mayfair using my umbrella as a walking stick, bent double in an attempt to find a position whereby my lungs could inhale some air without my expanded stomach getting in the way. And all the while I kept thinking about that tak-a-tak. I felt superior for having eaten it, like a knight returning from battle. I now understood why the waiter had recommended the dish. It was a passage of rights and it had returned to the kitchen empty, to a chef and a brigade whom, I imagine, would have stood to attention, perhaps saluted, adding my name to the inner-circle of customers who can handle such a truly Indian spicefest. Yes, I am the chosen one. And while I didn’t win a t-shirt, from now on you may call me Mahatma Jonesy.