Bradford has been crowned Curry Capital of Britain for six consecutive years. With over 200 Asian restaurants to choose from, Nick Ahad goes on the hunt for the perfect curry and how to make it.
A billion pound industry, a workforce numbering 100,000, a vital part of the chain of business for the region – and it all begins with magic. I say magic and you imagine a top hat, white rabbits and a deck of cards. I’m not talking about sleight of hand but about real, actual magic.
It’s the kind of magic that happens when creative people take a handful of spices, add it to meat and vegetables and turn it into something that satiates your appetite, that slakes your thirst, that transports you in space and time and in ways you had hitherto never imagined food was able.
Take a mouthful of this magic and you could be in the markets of Kashmir, or the bazaars of Bangladesh. An explosion in the mouth and bang, you’re in a different place. Bradford, curries. Curries, Bradford. Just as wool was once synonymous with the proud Northern city and its great fortunes, now you can’t imagine the city without immediately the senses conjuring up the unique aroma of curry.
It’s fascinating to take a stroll around Bradford and see how the city has embraced its title of Curry Capital of Britain, unofficial for years, now a literal badge of honour. Stand in the centre of the city, these days pinpointed so beautifully by City Park, the water feature that the naysayers told us would never work, and you are faced with a fascinating dilemma.
North, South, East or West?
You go in any direction, literally, and you will very soon come upon award winning, mouth-watering, tastebud tingling curries. South: you’ll go up past the Alhambra and be faced with the decision of left or right at the fork in the road. Go left you go to the sophisticated Omar Khan’s or the Kashmir with its formica tables and reputation for the best value curry in the city. Go right you go to the young pretenders Lahore or the old hands Mumtaz.
Back to City Park and head North you go to the ones that began it all, the internationally renowned Sweet Centre on Lumb Lane, onto a third generation of owners now and the oldest curry house in the city. Keep heading North and you hit the one that took the whole business of curry to a new and professional level, Aagrah.
Head East, in the direction of Bradford’s brother city, Leeds, and you go up Leeds Road. Jinnah, Akbar’s, Aagrah’s Midpoint venue, all with reputations that precede them. Head West and it is towards Thornton you go, passing…you get the picture.
The question of why Bradford became this Mecca of curry is often asked and surprisingly easily answered. When the wool industry was booming, the factories needed to be staffed.
Adverts were taken out in former British colonies, asking for (cheap) labour to head to London and turn North. Men came to work in those factories from present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and when they arrived, quickly discerned that the meat and two veg diet of 1960s Britain would simply not suffice. Fast forward half a century and the warp and weft of the city is indelibly woven with exotic spices and the curries made with them.
The Sweet Centre sits on Lumb Lane, one of the less salubrious parts of the city. It is here where I first tasted curry on my father’s knee, at the city’s oldest curry house. Many will remember the long lines of Asian men who sat at the counter eating chana puri, a breakfast of chickpea curry with fried sweet chapati. Downstairs, in the basement, was the main event. These days Ainsley Harriot and Len Goodman are among the celebrity friends of the restaurant – they filmed there for a BBC TV show about great food in 2016. The Sweet Centre has moved out of the basement.
While the Sweet Centre, in situ for over fifty years, is the progenitor, in 1977 when Aagrah opened was the moment that something shifted. In the line of duty, I visited the man who now runs the empire, Mohammed Aslam. The business was begun by his father Mohammed Sabir MBE, and Mr Aslam readily admits that he was not the man to take over the business. Not at first.
In the kitchen of the Shipley Aagrah, where it all began, he walks me through the cooking of a monkfish and a chicken curry.
“You can give this recipe to someone who isn’t a chef, they can do the exact same thing with the ingredients, and it won’t be the same,” he laughs. Mr Aslam appears to have been created in a kitchen himself, the perfect balance of ingredients to make him both chef and showman. If the secret to Bradford’s curry success is that the city brings the people food that’s just like mama used to make, then I needed to find someone who could help me with that authentic taste.
Rahila Hussain, the Bradford former teacher who emerged triumphant from TV series Food Glorious Food, is currently working on a book featuring some of her recipes. She learnt to cook at home, winning the TV show meant her recipes went on the shelves of M&S, she was the perfect person to show me some home cooking.
I had a chef who could do some home cooking, now I just needed a home kitchen. Step forward Zulfi Karim. He is the mastermind behind Bradford’s World Curry Festival, bringing the world’s best curry to the city which is home to the UK’s best curries. The annual event is a huge success for the city in bringing people in, in celebrating what is already here and in helping remind people that Bradford is a city with vibrance and spice. Zulfi was bound to find us a kitchen in which Rahila could show me some home cooked food. He did. His own.
A bright September afternoon and we’re in the kitchen of Zulfi’s Saltaire home. Okra (bindi, lady fingers, however you might know them) are being washed, wiped, sliced and fried and in half an hour’s time are being eaten. There is genuine confusion. How can something so quick, easy and surprisingly healthy taste so good.
“This is the message people need to hear and it’s why we brought the World Curry Festival to Bradford,” says Zulfi. “There was a time when curry was the thing that you shovelled down after drinking several pints with your mates, but it just isn’t like that anymore. We have genuine world class food in this city and that’s why the World Curry Festival attracts such big names.” It’s also something that the lucky among us have in our backyard. Maybe we should make a little more of that fact.
“I was given a second chance to come into the business. The first time I ruined it because I didn’t have the right attitude, the right spirit. But the second time I made it work.”
You can say that again.
A turnover that runs into millions from the family run empire of 14 restaurants is where Aagrah stands today. As Mr Aslam guides me through the steps of making a perfect curry what’s striking is the simplicity. A pinch of salt, a tablespoon of turmeric, a good handful of coriander. I’m allowed to stir the onions. The addition of the spices is, entirely correctly, the domain of Chef Aslam. He doesn’t appear to be measuring things. Heston Blumenthal would be horrified.
“You have to have fire in your belly. You measure things, but it’s not like we say 100 grams of this or an exact teaspoon of that. You have to feel it,” he says. And that’s when I finally find the key, the secret. Why there are so many curry houses in Bradford is an easy one to answer. Why they are so good is a little more complicated.
“Home cooking. We make it just like home food. That is the secret, we give people a taste of proper, true home cooking,” says Aslam.
I’ve heard that somewhere before. In fact, it’s the whole brilliant marketing notion that has exported the idea of Italian food as one of the world’s great cuisines around the world: it’s just like mama used to make. Turns out that is the reason Bradford is the UK’s Curry Capital – officially now – of the past six years. Nobody does it better.
This article was taken from This is Y 2017