Bradford in northern England has been voted “Curry Capital of Britain” for six years running. Our very own spice-obsessed editor, Helen Abramson, went to find out what the fuss is about.
At 9am on a grey, blustery Saturday morning, I’m on the outskirts of Bradford city centre, in West Yorkshire. In front of me is a plate of steaming chana (chick pea curry), a seemingly unending pile of freshly cooked puri (puffed deep-fried unleavened bread), a tray of homemade chutneys and pickles, and chunks of halwa (semolina-based sweet).
I’m embarking on a 24-hour exploration of Bradford’s curry houses to get a literal taste of why this city is so renowned for its Indian and Pakistani food. Three meals in three restaurants – all family run and started from similarly humble beginnings, but all diverged into very different establishments.
Bradford may not be overrun with tourists – but this handful of restaurants really does draw the crowds. I want to find out if this northern city is worth the journey.
The heavenly traditional Kashmiri breakfast I’m wolfing down has been served up here, at The Sweet Centre Restaurant – a Bradford institution – for over half a century.
It’s a bargain at under a fiver, including a cup of masala chai or coffee.
The faded-grandeur dining room is simply furnished, the floor carpeted. By the entrance, brightly coloured cakes and Indian sweets line the shelves of a sparklingly clean glass cabinet. Deliverymen walk in and out carrying sacks of minced meat, bags of flour and boxes of vegetables.
From my all-too brief taster, Bradford easily lived up to its crowning of Curry Capital of Britain
Regulars drop in, order takeaways and chat with Dr Zulficar Ali, who manages the place with his son, Wakar. Dr Ali calls out orders in Urdu down a flight of stairs to an unseen chef on the floor below. I feel like I’m on the Subcontinent.
A Londoner my whole life, I’ve been blessed to live in a city with an enviable array of Indian restaurants. But there's nowhere like this. The Sweet Centre is where the curry revolution began in Bradford, and the city is now home to more than 50 Indian restaurants.
Dr Ali’s father and uncle came to the UK from Kashmir in the 1950s, when there was a high demand for jobs in the mills, which were suffering from a diminished male workforce after the end of World War II.
Another wave of workers came in the 1960s from Mirpur, on the border of India Dropdown content and Pakistan in western Kashmir, after the river there was dammed and thousands of residents were forced to evacuate.
For the most part, the Kashmiri men emigrating to Bradford around this time weren’t used to cooking, and there were no Pakistani or Indian restaurants around.
Now, as in the early days, this place is as much about community as it is about food
Dr Ali’s family pounced on the gap in the market – the brothers quit their jobs in a textiles factory, selected some Pakistani and Indian cooks, and opened The Sweet Centre. One of the chefs still works there today, a mere 53 years on.
“There was nowhere for those young men to go – not just to eat, but to spend time together outside of work. We wanted to create that space for them. Now, as in the early days, this place is as much about community as it is about food.”
The restaurant originally served up sweets, savoury snacks and breakfasts – their first dish was the chana puri I had – and was an immediate hit. They recruited more chefs to make speciality regional curries, which still grace the menu, such as sheep’s brain balti (which, needless to say, my breakfast stomach wasn’t bold enough to face).
It’s at this point I realise I’m supposed to be curried-out, but I’m just left wanting more
Dr Ali, justifiably, is very proud not only of the heritage of this family establishment, but how it has attracted always a steady stream of multicultural customers; from the very beginning, both Pakistani and Indian families dined alongside British-born customers.
“We’ve always been supported by people of all backgrounds and faiths, with a mix of customers from the UK and Asia,” he says.
I feel so welcome here, I find it hard to leave. But the curry trail calls. After a brief diversion at the National Media Museum – the city’s main non-food based attraction – next stop is Prashad, another family-run establishment specialising in high quality, vegetarian dishes from the states of Gujarat and Punjab.
A few miles out of the city in the sleepy village of Drighlington, Prashad has come a long way since owner Bobby Patel’s parents, Kaushy and Mohan, opened it as a deli in 1992 in what had been a laundrette.
In 2010, the restaurant beat a mere 12,000 others to come runner up in Ramsay’s Best Restaurant. There’s even a Prashad recipe book, giving away the secrets to some of Kaushy’s lip-smacking dishes, handed down from generation to generation.
Goan machli (monkfish) is the highlight, fresh mint and curry leaves enriching the coconut-infused sauce
The setting is starkly different from The Sweet Centre; it’s elegant and professional, yet still intimate. The menu gladly proclaims that no base sauce is used – each dish is unique, and has been carefully thought through.
The starter tasting platter is an assortment of delicately crafted items, such as kopra pethis (garlic-infused coconut dough ball) and khuli kachori (mashed lentils with garam masala and cloves), plus the more familiar khanda bhajia – the lightest and most appetizing onion bhaji I’ve ever eaten.
Samosa chaat is added to the mix: smashed samosas with raita and chickpeas, drizzled in a tamarind dressing and sprinkled with coriander.
Paneer masala (marinated Indian cheese in an onion and tomato curry) and methi renghan (fenugreek leaves and aubergine) for main course are both masterfully rich and filled with blends of complex, well-balanced flavours.
Dessert is a surprise. Two flavours of homemade ice creams: date and ginger, and chocolate and orange, sprinkled in honeycomb and with a splashed strip of dark-chocolate sauce. This is certainly a divergence from classic Indian sweets, but I am not complaining.
Dinner is at Aagrah, another Kashmiri family-run business, founded in 1977 and now hugely successful, with numerous branches throughout Yorkshire.
The branch in Pudsey, a couple of miles east of Bradford centre, is a vast affair, set in a huge, high-ceilinged modern building, all metal and glass. On this typical Saturday evening, it’s heaving with families, groups and couples of all ages, race and nationality.
The bar serves neon cocktails while people wait for tables. Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday song plays no less than five times during the two hours I’m there; each time, an enormous multi-layered cake is brought out, complete with an alarmingly large flaming rocket-like candle. While The Sweet Centre has barely changed over the years and Prashad has honed and refined, Aagrah has rocketed. Literally.
The grilled raavi (seabass) starter is perfectly cooked, with a hint of nutmeg, and topped with Kashmiri sauce. A mixed grill follows (which I tell myself is to make up for the lack of meat earlier on), all beautifully marinated. However, Goan machli (monkfish) is the highlight, fresh mint and curry leaves enriching the coconut-infused sauce.
Unsurprisingly, I feel full well into the next day. It’s at this point I realise I’m supposed to be curried-out, but I’m just left wanting more.
From my all-too brief taster, Bradford easily lived up to its crowning of Curry Capital of Britain – and I only scratched the surface. I’ll be back.
Header image: © Rodney Hutchinson/Shutterstock .Body images, top to bottom (left–right): Sweet Centre; Sweet Centre; Tupungato/Shutterstock; Prashad; Prashad; Prashad; Aagrah; Aagrah; Aagrah.