The adage of location, location and location does apply to curry houses not. Of the thousands of curries I have ordered with which to incinerate my frail insides, only a handful were eaten in environs that could be described as aesthetically pleasing.
Dingy converted garages in Birmingham. Goa gambling dens on the shady outskirts of Detroit. An on-off whore-house in downtown Durban… the look and feel of the venue just does not count if the curry is fragrant, exotic and gum-scalding spicy-hot.
The Maharajah in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town may not be as run-down and seedy as some of the aforementioned rat-holes, but I can’t quite see the place making it onto the pages of House&Garden or being selected for a Bollywood actress’s kitchen tea. Filling one part of a ground-floor flat on the corner of Woodside and Kloof Nek Roads, the location is more suited to housing a soup kitchen, Nigerian hair-salon or Pakistani cell-phone repair-shop than a restaurant.
But this is the same Maharajah that has been a part of the Cape dining scene for over four decades, having formerly currified a Victorian building in Long Street, now arguably the most ghastly stretch of dirty, lurid and morally-decayed part of Cape Town outside of the UCT Campus.
Once entering the building, however, all disinclinations are left on the grimy outside pavement. The aroma of real homely Indian cooking lures you to one of the tables, a smiling Indian waiter ushering you along with one hand as the other bears a tray of steaming, olfactory engaging food inspired by that once great colony on the sub-continent.
The menu is simple, containing none of those pretentiously poncy literary waxings once exclusively the domain of wine scribes but recently having been taken-over by menu-writers trying to outdo each other by making a roast piece of pork-belly sound like a combination of a Christ-sighting, a John Keats poem and a multiple orgasm – the latter for once not self-induced.
For starters, Maharajah presents samoosas and chilli bites, or prawn tikka, chicken tikka and soup for those wishing more substance before the main-meal.
I order a plate of mince samoosas and chilli bites to accompany an icy pint of Castle Draught beer. The samoosas are perfect, wafer-thin triangles of crispy deep-fried pastry generously stuffed with mildly spiced beef. The meat is correctly textured, none of those dry, coarse and crumbly tooth-clogging bits one tends to find in samoosas from supermarkets and take-way joints. Chilli-bites are doughy and warm with a slight spicy hit. Fun to eat between slugs of cold beer.
Main courses are simple and to the point. Chicken and lamb curries, on or off the bone. Breyani containing the same two meats. There’s Lamb Rogan Josh, too. And vegetarians can find a few types of cheesy paneer and lentils.
Rejoice at these simple selections as opposed to the recent foray into restaurants offering confusing tapas-style Indian (apparently) eating experiences for which you need to have watched at least three episodes of National Geographic India to understand and negotiate.
Safely ensconced in Maharajah, two dishes were ordered, namely my lamb-on-the-bone curry requested extra hot. The wine-buyer from Delhi I was entertaining made a bee-line for the chicken breyani. He had ordered a bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc and wanted a lighter dish to enhance his experience of South African Sauvignon Blanc.
I also ordered a plate of paratha, those smaller and slightly denser kind of roti pancakes which are freshly-fried just before coming to the table and would turn even a buffet-dinner in the Cape Town International Convention Centre into a passable eating experience.
The Diemersdal was cold and crisp. And knowing what lay ahead once my hot curry arrived, I ordered another bottle.
The breyani was first to the table, a rice and chicken dish emitting fragrances so foreign, far-flung and exotic that I thought I was going to need a visa and yellow-fever injection before asking if I could have some of that.
But before I could make such plans, my curry was delivered in a bowl and I stopped. Yes, one eats with your eyes, which is damn hard to do if your contact lenses are melting onto your eye-ball. The glistening sauce covering the pieces of roughly-cut lamb was the dark ochre found in the works of Andrew Wyeth, with a vivid bloody redness lying below the surface which a presumed to have something to do with chillies, and lots of them.
The food smelt like Indian cooking of the homely kind, the kind I had known since the age of seven when I had to go and apologise to Aarav Sai’s mother for dunking her dark pony-tail into an ink-well at primary school.
I spooned mounds of ivory-coloured steamed rice on my plate before covering it with the thick red sauce and a few chunks of lamb. Steam rose and I gave my dining companion an excuse-me look.
The lamb yielded to the edge of my fork. A wisp of steam rose from the meat, perfectly cooked. I dabbed the flesh into the curry sauce it had been lovingly prepared in and placed the morsel delicately into my eating cavity.
First there is the delightful primal flavour of lamb, a slightly sweet edge from all the peaceful pre-slaughter grazing on new meadow grasses. Then, just as the meat has seduced you, comes the power.
First the curry tingles your palate, urging the taste-buds to waken, rub their eyes and prepare to be struck by the full might of Indian cooking. Then the spices take over, and you taste the cardamom, the curry-leaves, the pickled lime, the star anise, the garlic. A window opens to the mind, and you see visions of Indian maidens clothed in brightly coloured saris with those cute little dot-things on their foreheads resembling oversized flat moles. You see dark-skinned men in white and with waist-coats on the back of straining elephants hunting tigers on the edge of a flat, broad forest. Then, as the true might of the curry spice hits you, you are witness to a tsunami obliterating a seaside village, hordes….masses of fishermen and freaked-out women and children running for hills, shouting.
The curry has struck you hard, just the way you like it. The flavour is aggressive yet respectful. The burn is bright and hard, fierce. Yet it is comforting, ensuring you that while the pain has to be taken, it is worth enduring with grace as the rewards are great and honest. For the better.
Cold Sauvignon Blanc clears the palate of the main burn, leaving a rush of flavour and real Indian curry presence in the mouth. A sliver of the paratha pancake provides doughy respite from the burn, the pain that you are now missing as your scalp begins to sweat and ears sing the songs of jasmine-scented Mumbai nights.
The next mouth of lamb is all meaty deliciousness, with a fat-covered potato providing a different texture. You now own the sauce, you embrace that fiery attack of hot curry like a long-lost friend, the flavours becoming brighter, more satisfying, giving greater pleasure.
It is a wonderful thing, a simple thing. A mound of rice and a plate of true curry, washed down with a curative white wine that adds in making the world a better place. And just one all-round fine location.