Ask a British person living in Germany what they most miss about the UK and there is a fair chance that the reply will be: “a good curry”.
“You just can’t get a decent curry in Germany”, is how the argument goes. It’s a hypothesis which has much in the way of merit: Indian restaurants exist here but they are expensive, serve miniscule portions and — because German taste buds are inclined towards the mild — you will quite simply never get one that’s hot enough.
People who think like this have my sympathy because nobody loves a good curry more than I do. They are wrong nonetheless: You can actually get very good curry in Germany if you know where to look. I should know because I have put more effort into finding one than most.
Trust me: My love of Indian food is a Class A addiction and some of the lengths I have gone to in order to cure my fix have bordered on madness. When I am in Britain I will happily eat curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or at least this is the case after the first couple of days when my hankering for cooked breakfasts has died down.
My cravings are pathetic. Last December I spent five hours walking around Darlington, the jewel in northeast England’s crown, in the rain and snow waiting for one of the Indian restaurants to open on the stroke of five o’ clock.
When the door finally opened, I brushed my way past a waiter who was still lifting chairs down from tables and ordered to my heart’s content. It was one of those places where the menu was a sumptuous feast of lusciously excessive adjectives, decadently strewn with superfluous verbiage — and inappropriately high numbers after the pound signs.
No matter: It got me out of the north-east wind and it’s not every day that I get a “proper” curry.
Predictably enough perhaps, it was an underwhelming disappointment. Underseasoned and overdone tandoori was followed by half-dozen pieces of chicken swimming in fat, naan bread curling at the edges and the faint feeling of discomfort that comes from dining alone in an empty restaurant. At least it saved me the effort of changing thirty pounds into euros at the airport on the way back to Germany.
I shouldn’t have been surprised really. When it comes to curry, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Some restaurants are excellent, many are less so –and it is not always the fault of the owners that the experience is so unpredictable.
No culinary experience is ever quite as volatile as a British curry house. There is, so goes the saying, no accounting for taste — and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the phrase “fairly hot”.
There is also no accounting for the taste of your fellow diners, particularly when it comes to the number of aperitifs they have consumed or the levels of cross cultural badinage one can engage in with the Bangladeshi waiter.
The waiters are patient because they know that when the time is right they will get their revenge. I remember when I used to live in Sheffield the waiters used to just serve you the hottest thing on the menu if they thought you were being cheeky to them. He who laughs behind another’s back laughs longest.
Or else they offered you “the special” — so hot that if you ate it all then you got it for free. I tried that once, got through half of it then brought it back up into the water carafe. I paid the bill, then paid again for about a week afterwards. It is not always good that comes out of curry houses. I’m pretty sure the waiters kept the change.
In Germany the mediocrity of Indian food is more uniform. Most major cities have an Indian restaurant, serving dishes that are expensive, bland and microscopic. Lack of competition drives the quality down.
But you can get good Indian food in Germany if you know where to look, I swear this on my life. It’s not like Chinese food, which is universally inferior to its relation in the United Kingdom.
With Turkish food you should also be careful. There may be one-and-a half million Turks living here but they are not all chefs. Many Turkish restaurants and takeaways are run by former Gastarbeiter who have sunk their severance payouts from years working in heavy industry into gastronomy without the necessary training. Think army pensions and British pub landlords and you get the picture. Make sure you get a recommendation first.
But curry, now curry you can find if you know where to go. The fact that I’ve said this three times now is, as you might have guessed, a subtle prelude to today’s adventure. We’re going in search of a taste of home.
I’ve travelled to the city of Hamm, some thirty miles east of Dortmund. On the face of it, this isn’t the best place to start. Hamm is the sort of place that will put you off your appetite. You’ve probably never heard of Hamm — and you haven’t missed much. Within the region it is best known for its drunks and its art museum, but mostly for its drunks.
As I sit on the bus ready to leave for our first stop, I gaze out of the window at a heavily intoxicated pair, entwined in each other and ensnared in ill-advised leather hot pants. Immersed in the throes of passion, they feed each other kebab meet then follow it down the respective digestive tract with tongues. A cigarette butt appears out of nowhere and falls to the floor. Art it is not, but it provides compelling street theatre. That’s Hamm.
For all its grottiness, the town has a star attraction which is well worth the half-hour bus journey out into the countryside to see. Hamm is home to the second biggest Hindu temple in Europe or –for those of you who deal in superlatives — Europe’s biggest southern Indian temple. Either way, it’s also the biggest temple devoted to the goddess Kamakshi — better known to the world as Parvati — on our continent.
You can see statue her up there on a seventeen meter high pyramid, surrounded by around two hundred other deities for company. She is sitting patiently in the lotus position, lightly clad in a red sari, apparently oblivious to the rain. Together, the gods are a shock of colour that light up an otherwise grey and nondescript industrial estate. Kamakshi and her partner Shiva gaze out across a landscape dominated by the majestic silhouette of the local power station.
The temple community would not have it any other way. There is flowing fresh water nearby, essential for ritual cleansing. Germany’s answer to the Ganges is the Datteln-Hamm Canal.
There are around sixty thousand Tamils living in Germany, a result of the decades-long conflict in Sri Lanka. The temple is the fruit of their donations, plus the hard work of a German architect who readily admitted that he was a novice at this kind of thing — and presumably spent a lot of time scratching his head while looking at the plans.
I take my shoes off and go inside. Kamakshi’s shrine is the polychromatic centrepiece of a room which is an explosion of colour and illustration. The smell of incense mixes with the frying butter wafting from the kitchen. Plastic bottles of cooking oil wait in readiness by lamps. There is not a speck of dust in the entire place.
I walk round the shrines, statues screened from view to all but the priests. Lord Shiva’s is at the back — as far away from his wife as possible. The two have always had a rocky relationship. In one legend she sneaks up behind him and covers his eyes with her hands, blacking out the universe as she does so. Now Shiva has a third eye just in case.
For all that, they thrive off each other. The two are famous for their tricks for their temperaments — and they love each other when they least deserve to be loved. Hindu deities are multifaceted. They cannot be idolised as icons of perfection like the monotheists’ gods can.
Parvati is the earth mother, and in the form of Kamakshi she’s a symbol of love and devotion. In another aspect she’s Kali, goddess of death to Phileas Fogg, goddess of time to everyone else — the wild and bloodthirsty destroyer of demons whose anger even Shiva can’t control.
One time, her rage was so fierce that he appeared to her as a crying baby, in order to bring out her mothering instincts so that she would reassume the form of Parvati. Nothing is ever black and white with the pair. It couldn’t ever be amid all this colour.
A single worshipper sits in meditation and a priest tends the shrines. They leave the room for a few minutes and I am alone in a Hindu temple, a guest among the gods.
It doesn’t last long. The worshipper came here on the same bus as I did so I figure it’s time to go. I have been in there for nearly an hour, lost in meditation. The smell of frying butter is a gentle reminder that it’s time for dinner.
I’m pretty sure you can get curry in Hamm but I know you can get it in Dortmund. Most Tamil refugees were housed between the two towns and many have drifted westwards. I catch the train and then take two stops on the subway, re-emerging onto a street of shops selling saris and spices.
I can take my pick from three or four restaurants serving Sri Lankan food but I have a favourite. The owners know me and we have agreed a code word.
Because you’re here I’ll go through the highlights of the menu. Sri Lankan curries come with either rotti, a fluffy white fried bread that tastes just a little bit like pastry; chappati; dosai, pancakes made of lentils or idiyappam, a little bit like shredded spaghetti.
The clientelle consists of Sri Lankans and their descendants eating with their hands, a few German hipsters and myself. Talk switches between Tamil and German. Nobody is drunk, nobody has referred to the waiter as “Sabbu” or “Gunga-Din” and everybody is cheerful.
I order a lamb curry, a couple of vegetable curries on the side, rotti and a large bottle of Lion Stout: double-digit-strength Sri Lankan beer that sticks to the side of the glass when you pour it. I am served by the owner. This is good because she knows the code word.
“Scharf?” she asks.
Scharf means “hot”.
This is the code word. Scharf on its own means “deutsch scharf “– hot by German standards, undetectable by any other. Tamil scharf is code for “do your worst”.
It is excellent, far better than the one I had in Darlington. Real meat covered in a sauce which is fiery yet flavoursome. The rotti is fluffy and the vegetable curries provide a perfect contrast. And the beer. Oh the beer. My bill comes to fifteen euros.
It has been an excellent dining experience. I knew it would be. I must be really happy right now eh?
No, of course not. Obviously not.
Nothing is ever that simple. I’ve just had a meal which was better than I’m used to in the UK, cheaper than I’m used to in the UK and the atmosphere was more pleasant and authentic than I’m used to in the UK but that’s not the point. It wasn’t the same as I’m used to in the UK. I have my standards and tonight’s meal failed to meet them. That’s the way nostalgia works I’m afraid.
I think we all know this feeling. If you live abroad then you feel like this a lot. No matter how much we protest to the contrary, we don’t want things to be better –we just want them to be as we remember them. Part of the mystery of nostalgia is loving things that don’t deserve to be loved.
I walk back to the station. The British shop is still open so I pop in for dessert. They don’t half sell some rubbish in there — Fray Bentos pies, Walnut Whips, Pot Noodles, Newcastle Brown Ale — but it proves my point entirely. Rubbish it may be — and most people living here know that it’s rubbish — but it tastes as rubbish now as it did back then all those years ago.
Brand loyalty is a powerful testament to the stubbornness of the human psyche and you can see the full effect here on the shelves. People come in here to buy Dettol disinfectant and Tampax tampons for twice the price they would cost in Sainsbury’s. The fact that you can get similar items in any German supermarket is of no consequence: People want what they know, especially when it comes to creature comforts.
I buy a slab of raw Rowntrees jelly and chew at it as I walk. I know you’re supposed to cook it and serve it on a plate but I always did it like this when I was a kid and it’s too late to change now. It’s a disgusting habit and I wouldn’t recommend it.
It has been a good day, in spite of the food that was too good. Every experience has a flip side, nothing is ever black and white. Over in Hamm, Parvati and Shiva smile knowingly.
I’m in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, Scotland next week — it has the finest curry house in the whole United Kingdom. I think it does anyway. I’ll let you know how I get on.