Brits have a curiously macho relationship with Indian food; an unfortunate side effect of its re-appropriation as the cuisine of stag nights and rugby dinners the country over. Over the years I’ve been ridiculed for my inability to eat spicy food. I’m that person in the Indian restaurant who asks the waiter for ‘something really, really mild, so mild you could dab it on your eyes or feed it to a newborn’ as my fellow diners pelt me with balls of naan.
Yet I won’t be swayed. Eating very hot food strikes me as a curiously masochistic practise – surely you can’t experience the delicate, complex flavours of a dish if a mob of chillies is busy soldering your taste buds. In Newcastle there’s a restaurant that claims to cook the hottest curry in the world. So hot is it, that if you manage to eat the whole thing you don’t have to pay the bill. This hasn’t dented the restaurant’s finances much; in six years only 12 men have completed the so-called ‘Curry Hell’ challenge, and hundreds more have turned up to order a Tikka Masala and laugh at the person attempting it.
My friend Tom became one of the distinguished 12 a couple of years ago, as ten of us watched in horrific fascination while he scooped the oily, fiery dish into his mouth with the grit and determination of Ranulph Fiennes on his last push to the summit of Everest. When his empty plate was finally whisked away, a waiter quietly slipped him the number for NHS Direct and advised him to drink plenty of milk.
I had forgotten about that evening until the other day, when I was invited to visit Indian Zing. The red-faced image of Tom sprang from my memory, holding the empty dish above his head like a Wimbledon runner up, swiftly followed by the realisation that it would be hugely pathetic of me to pitch up and order a Korma – after all, what would Tom say? Instead, I decided I would place myself in the knowledgeable hands of the waiters. Whatever they suggested, I would eat:
“If you want a suggestion, our Saffron Korma is excellent.”
After a brief internal struggle, I gave in. After all, he was the expert. And I shouldn’t shun his superior advice on a weak principle, now should I?
“Ok. I’ll have the Korma please.”
Indian Zing has generated an unusual amount of attention for a small, unassuming restaurant in Hammersmith. Why this has happened becomes clearer when you know that the head chef is Manoj Vaisaikar, whose CV includes Veeraswamy and Chutney Mary – voted Best UK Indian Restaurant by the Good Curry Guide and Indian Restaurant of the Year. The menu at Zing incorporates dishes from all over India, served up by a charming and quietly knowledgeable team of staff, who are more than happy to help you distinguish your Makhani from your Miravna. Once I had shrugged off my collection of outer layers (this was during recent Siberian temperatures) I was given a small shot of hot pumpkin and mint soup “to help you warm up”. What a lovely, simple idea, my companion Rachel and I remarked to each other, the sort of quiet attention to detail that marks a good restaurant from an average one.
We started with a stylishly presented square platter of Vegetable Bhanavla, Green Peppercorn Malai Tikka, Lamb Salli and Prawn Kharphatia. The Bhanavla was light and crispy rather than greasy, the Prawn Kharpahtia a deliciously squidgy combination of prawn and aubergine and the chicken in the Malai Tikka was tender with a subtle lemony tang. Though mixed platters always have a front-runner: for us this was the Lamb Salli, lean minced lamb with fenugreek, mint, coriander, and spices, stuffed with home made cottage cheese, served with spicy tomato and onion relish.
The lingering embarrassment of ordering a Korma for my main course evaporated with the first taste. Kormas can be overbearingly sweet; this was light but creamy with a delicate infusion of saffron that elevated it far above the standard curry house offering. Rachel had the Jumbo Prawns in pomegranate seeds and dill, which were served – again, stylishly – dotted across a banana leaf.
I was excited to see the desert menu included Mango Kulfi. An Indian friend introduced me to this classic pudding when I visited her in Delhi, and on return I searched for it in vain at my local Tesco. Kulfi is a frozen milk-based desert, a little like ice cream but denser as the mixture isn’t whipped, which enables it to be served in triangular slices stacked up on one another, rather than in rapidly melting scoops like ice cream. After a perfect storm of flavours, it made for the perfect, simple finish. Needless to say, we were reluctant to head back into the cold from the warm, friendly confines of this superb Indian restaurant. A friend rang me on my way home:
“How was it?”
“What did you eat?”
“Um…Kor- can’t remember…”
Indian Zing, 236 King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 ORF. Tel: 0208 748 5959. Website.