Howard Jacobson: ‘Hyderabadi lobster jhinga? No thanks. Give me chicken balti any day’

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No matter how sophisticated Indian food has become, what every proper curry-lover really longs for is the old stuff

The other day, at an Indian restaurant of the sort you wear a jacket to, a waiter dressed like Aladdin’s genie positioned himself salaciously at my ear and in a low voice asked me to confide my secret longings. Jealousy swept the table. Why, my fellow diners wondered, weren’t they being offered a scented suite at the Oberoi Udaivilas, the pick of gemstones mined in Channapatna or, because jealousy once started cannot be contained, a job reading the news at the BBC?

This was not the first time the genie of contemporary Indian cuisine had whispered hotly in my neck. It’s happening to me more and more in the best Indian restaurants in London. And it isn’t riches, favours or indulgence beyond aromatic daydreaming they’re offering; it’s something plainer, but also more enticing: an alternative to what’s on the menu. As a rule, they give me 15 minutes to read the dishes of the day – gobi kempu bezule, hariyali macchi, rose bhapa doi – another five to fail to hide my befuddlement, then move in: “Would sir, perhaps, prefer…?”

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