02 Jun Eat like a Glaswegian? Try the curry!
Visitors to Scotland usually want to sample the country’s most iconic foods: haggis, salmon and whisky. Yes, whisky is a foodstuff. Of course, there is much more to our cuisine than those three products but, understandably, these are the ingredients that many visitors want to try.
And while those of us who live here eat our fair share of haggis we are also fond of a type of food that visitors might not expect: curry. In fact, Glasgow has won the UK’s Curry Capital competition several times and, according to a 2016 poll, Indian food is the most commonly ordered takeaway in Glasgow beating both Chinese dishes and Italian choices.
There can’t be too many other cities where a chicken Madras is a more popular takeaway than a Margherita pizza. It perhaps helps that Indian restaurants quickly realised the importance of adapting dishes to local tastes. If you haven’t tried a haggis pakora then you should.
Glasgow even had its own line of Curry Kings. Sure, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce changed the course of Scotland’s history but people like Balbir Singh Sumal, Bhopinder Purewal and Charan Gill helped change Glasgow’s perception of what Indian cuisine could be. During the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, they vied with each other to open the most popular and fashionable Indian restaurants.
The Scottish newspapers, especially the tabloids, encouraged the competition by crowning the various businessmen as Glasgow’s latest Curry King. Magazine covers showing the latest incumbent wearing a crown and ermine robes were not uncommon. Well aware of the value of free publicity, the restaurateurs went along with the game.
The beginnings of the Indian restaurant trade in Glasgow were rather more humble but not as well documented. There is mention of a Dr Deb operating an Indian restaurant in Glasgow – possibly on Sauchiehall Street – before 1939 but info is scarce. Given that Glasgow had been one of the UK’s major ports for over two hundred years by then, it would be a surprise if there had not been some businesses catering to the culinary preferences of sailors from India before then.
Some people maintain that the Green Gates Asian Restaurant in Bank Street was Glasgow’s first dedicated Indian in 1959. In 1964, some of the family behind the Green Gates went on to launch the Shish Mahal, originally on Gibson Street and now on Park Road. Back in the day, Gibson Street was home to numerous Indian restaurants including the Maharajah and the Himalaya, hence its nickname of Vindaloo Valley.
All hail the chicken tikka masala!
As well as being one of Glasgow’s oldest, surviving, Indian restaurants, possibly the oldest (?), the Shish can also lay claim to having invented the UK’s most popular Indian dish: the chicken tikka masala. The claim is hotly disputed by other restaurants around the UK and further afield but the story goes that a customer complained that his chicken was too dry. The then owner, Ali Ahmed Aslam, improvised with a handful of spices and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup. That was back in 1972 and the chicken tikka masala has never looked back.
It is still on the menu along with more contemporary dishes such as the pictured Sidr honey and shallot chutney-glazed smoked Ayrshire lamb with lavender and toasted almond cream and chilli gravy. Pic taken from Shish Mahal Facebook.
As we emerge blinking from the current situation, the after effects of Covid-19 will reshape all of Glasgow’s restaurant scene including its Indian restaurants. Due to changes in immigration rules, some Indian restaurants were already struggling to attract new culinary talent and, in addition, there was a lot more competition from increasing numbers of new cuisines.
The era of Glasgow’s Curry Kings may be over but there are still plenty of great Indian restaurants where you can eat like a real Glaswegian. This is a highly personal selection but this scribbler thinks these are among the more innovative Indian restaurants in Glasgow: Mother India, Swadish, The Dakhin and The Dhabba, Ranjit’s Kitchen and Madha.