The airy, high beams and well-manicured lawn of the clubhouse and the sultry heat of the post-monsoon evening might evoke an India of times past, but the setting is truly British – and tonight’s crowd is thoroughly modern.
We are in Walthamstow, after all; a town every bit as cosmopolitan as Calcutta. But these East London folks have not come to the Bowls Club to eat East India. No, they’re all wild for the West, preparing to be bowled over by curry. Damn Good Curry.
Tonight’s supperclub marks a year in the business for Nilanjani Pai, and indeed her faithful DGC crew. We are two; the girl who dishes out the delights, and the chap who stirs the pots and gets us giggling. They might say three’s a crowd, but I’m proud to say we rub along just fine.
We’ve learned some lessons along the way – if you can’t stand the heat, literally get out of the kitchen. There are few woes that won’t be solved after a quick gaze over that pancake-flat lawn and a breath of air. Always air your grievances; don’t stand there stewing like the Sindhi sai bhaji.
Nel, Tim and I have resolutely NOT cried over spilt milk or any other substances, powered through power cuts, and improvised equipment so ingeniously we should file for patents. It’s patently obvious that in our team, teamwork works.
And the curry, needless to say, never fails to live up to the supperclub’s somewhat hyperbolic, very tongue-in-cheek moniker. Happily for all involved parties, the humour of Damn Good Curry remains with the name. Nel might be a right laff, but when it comes to khana she’s dead serious.
Damn Good Curry is a stealth alias. It lures fans of the Friday night takeaway in with the familiar phrase, then allows Nel to blow them away with her unending arsenal of authentic regional Indian dishes, forever altering their expectations of subcontinental spicing for the better.
One of the very best parts of Damn Good Curry is overhearing exclaimations of. ‘I never knew Indian food could be like this’ as you gather plates scraped so spotless they look unused. I’ve learned never to be fooled by the shining china – it’s just that no-one can bear to leave even a single smear of those gorgeous gravies.
And of course it’s not just curry. Although, of course, it features. As honest as the day is long and as forthright as Arabella Weir’s cosmetics counter lady, Nel ensures Damn Good Curry does indeed serve what it says on the tin.
But Nel’s multi-masala’d, complex sauces are as far from their curryhouse counterparts as Britain is from Bombay. Take, for instance, mutton xacuti. The true Goanese dish is nothing less than a labour of love, and both she and Cyrus Todiwala make a point of making it with nigh-on thirty ingredients.
Something else Nel shares with that Incredible Spiceman is the drive to source and celebrate the very best British produce, even in the most inimitably Indian preparations. Meat from Turner & George means Damn Good’s curries are packed with damn good protein.
Often, chicken is paltry; poultry for those who don’t really want to eat meat. But these posh birds dressed in the herbal green masala of the Goan cafrael, or the silky golden gravy of the Vizag curry are advised eating for even the most committed carnivore.
That’s not to say veggies get short shrift. Those in the know have even taken to vocalising their ‘vegetarianism’ so as to sample alternative options like Nel’s paneer bhurji. Their kitchen codename is ‘feggies’ – ‘fake vegetarians’ – but it’s a fond moniker. We understand their need to feed.
And Nel just plain needs to feed others. Seconds is a given, thirds is usual, and fourths are not uncommon. Not long after I’ve taken the first round around, I know I’ll be instructed to ‘Go forth and refill’.
You can tell a newbie at ten paces from the expression of mixed glee and disbelief on their faces when mains make their way to the table and the poor vada-, ragda pattice- or sev puri-stuffed lamb realises that starters were only that.
But no matter how many mirchi bhajias or samosas one stuffs for starters, I have never seen someone stop until they almost or actually pop a trouser button (purposefully or accidentally). Stangely, as soon as pudding is plopped down, fullness is fast forgotten.
And when you’ve just faced a feast featuring dishes like the soupy potato-based Cafe Bhosle bhaji, amti dal, bhuna keema, kadhi, Kolhapuri tambda rassa and dhansak, stomach space is at a premium. But, you see, Nel is known for cracking cakes as well as Damn Good Curry.
It’s not unusual to overhear someone complain that Nel hasn’t given them a bath in ages – but it’s nothing nefarious. They’re referring to the Goan semolina and coconut cake, not an overdue cleansing. No – the only drenching she’s involved with is soaking the sponge in rose syrup.
Even without my rose-tinted specs, being part of Team Damn Good Curry is bloody ruddy brilliant. Nel, Tim and I both give each other strength and, like the thorns on a particularly prickly rose bush, needle each other mercilessly until one or all is moved to declare, ‘gor blimey, give me strength!’
To surmise, we have a damn good time doing Damn Good Curry. Our diners have a damn good time eating Damn Good Curry. In her first year, Nel’s made a damn good go of her supperclub, and Tim and I are damn proud of her.