The recent cold snap sends us scurrying for the cockle-warming comforts of Masala Zone. We’d have visited long ago, but for the fact one of us is a recent (albeit keen) covert to the joys of Indian cuisine, and the other’s more often found way out East, enjoying a dosa or a samosa chaat in one of the myriad home-style restaurants of East Ham or Ilford Lane.
Under the gaze of hundreds of Rajasthani folk puppets suspended from the ceiling, my companion steps firmly out of her korma comfort zone, and, confronted with a green masala chicken, tucks in with aplomb. So, ‘Thums (sic) Up’- or rather, masala Coke- although the subcontinent’s best-loved branded beverage is missing from the menu, this is Masala Zone’s intriguing home-spun variation- flavoured up with cumin, mint and lime.
The Grand Thali provides a banquet more than adequate for this pair of Memsahibs. Dishes change daily, and come with the diner’s own selection of one curry from the main menu. My Undhiyo Khitchdi is a celebratory Gujerati dish- an awesome collision of purple yam, lentils, aubergine, green banana, sweet potato and snow peas. A procession of katoris- little silver bowls- punctuate our trays with raita, dahl, masala potatoes and a creamy mushroom-based curry. Rounding out the meal are bhajias, chutney and pickle, papadum, salad, tender chappatis and rice.
Rice is the only contentious point. In India, rice is served bountifully and constantly replenished throughout the meal. A good curry dish is known colloquially as a ‘rice-puller’- meaning that just a small amount of the saucy dish is needed to render a whole mound of rice tasty- almost like a condiment. Here in the UK, it seems a universal rule that those proportions are reversed- if I were to tip the contents of just one katori over the rice, those wonderfully fluffy grains would be drowned.
Complaining over the generosity of those lovely dishes is a personal and minor gripe, though. I’m certainly glad for every mouthful. Restaurant co-founder Camelia Panjabi’s book, ’50 Great Curries of India’, is a deserved best-seller, and all the flavours and vibrancy of those recipes have been authentically re-created on the menu. No mean feat for a wallet-friendly, central London venue catering to a fast and furious customer turnover.
We’re offered dessert and, possibly for one of the first times in my life, I have to decline for reasons of comfort. The bill’s a shade over a tenner each. We leave thoroughly sated, relaxed, well-warmed from the spicy fodder and maybe even a touch more cultured- and how often can you say the same for the standard lunchtime fast-food free-for-all?