My mother is a very good cook. When I was growing up, of course, I took this for granted, which was one reason why in my pre-pubescent years polite adults would refer to me as 'well-built', and other children...well, I'm sure you can imagine. It was not until my first year at university that I realised that there was one area to which her culinary expertise does not stretch: apart from judicious additions of ginger and a touch of chilli powder to casseroles and gravy, she never cooks anything really spicy.
It was doubtless a visit to an Indian restaurant, probably as part of the 'organised fun' (I can think of few worse oxymorons) of Freshers' Week, which brought me to this realisation. Now, I don't want to speculate here about why I had never eaten a proper curry before the age of 19, although I'd like to make it clear that my family is not imprisoned in a mid-twentieth century timewarp, waiting for Elizabeth David to come and tell them that olive oil isn't just for clearing out blocked ears. Suffice it to say that I hadn't. And although I have consumed many fairly spicy oriental dishes since then, when I do so I always feel a certain regret alongside the physical effects that other people seem to relish.
I know that I am in a minority. Most of my close friends seem to love this kind of food. The great food bloggers of our time scour London for establishments serving the most mouth-igniting, gut-searingly hot food. I suspect the difference is the fact with which I began: I just haven't grown up eating properly spicy cuisine. Is it too late to change?
Despite what these reflections might imply, this is not going to be a blog solely about spicy food, although every so often I intend to document my attempts to see if I can enjoy it. I am going to write about restaurants - and other sources of food - in Oxford. It happens, however, that the last restaurant I visited was an Indian one.
The number of student inhabitants and generally diverse Oxonian population make for a reasonably good range of places to eat. Both these factors were in evidence last week when I visited Rajasthan on the Cowley Road, which has replaced the cheap and fairly cheerful Kashmir (better known as 'the Kashi'). At that point, I hadn't decided to become a food blogger, so this post will sadly be text-only. Rajasthan serves, according to its website, 'the finest Indian cuisine in Oxford'. It is still cheap (starters generally £3-4, mains £5-7) and the staff were markedly cheerful, which was quite an achievement given that they were also serving a party of about twenty five students. It's not that this group was especially rowdy - not by the time we left, at least - but I've noticed before how people at such gatherings tend to address their nearest neighbour and the person at the other end of the table in the same deafening tones. This did not make for a quiet meal but, as my companion remarked, 'it is a bring your own alcohol place, after all'. Be warned. That said, the service was very attentive, and the food came quickly.
At last, the food (to which, in future posts, much more attention will be devoted - I promise). Not feeling in the mood for two servings of grilled protein in one meal, I eschewed the various starters for a Keema Naan (£2.15). It was nicely puffy, although the filling was a little stingy. After eating it I also decided that it is profoundly unadventurous to order a side dish as a starter and that I shall never do so again. My wiser companion went for the Sheek Kebab (£3.25), which was served on a rather cute bed of chopped onion, although it was apparently a little dry. Not surprisingly, as someone whose favourite addition to most dishes is a dose of chilli sauce, he chose the Chicken Jalfrezi (£5.95). I inferred that it was good, although not the best he'd had.
For my part, I made up my mind to try one of the 'Chef's Recommendations', and the Dumpak Chicken (£7.95) looked suitably wholesome: 'spicy tender chicken breast stuffed with spinach, Indian cheese, onions and aromatic spices, medium hot, served over spinach leaves'. Note the 'medium hot'. For me, that's probably the equivalent of 'extra hot'.
The spinach leaves seemed to have been cooked in such a way that they were both dry and buttery. I liked them. They were accompanied by large chunks of chicken in a thick sauce, in which all of the ingredients above were indeed appetisingly present, although I'd have appreciated some more Indian cheese in order to determine what makes it different from cheese of other nationalities. I scooped up a generous mouthful, and tasted chicken and onions and spices...and heat. Fear not, I ate it all, but as ever the oral discomfort felt like a hindrance to enjoying the food, rather than something to be savoured. I still have some way to go, although I'm willing to try again.
Rajasthan, 64 Cowley Road
Rajasthan, 64 Cowley Road