For the love of curry

Paul Clifford has nearly cracked eating out etiquette, but it was not always this way

Since joining Time Out Dubai six months ago, I like to think I’ve learned a lot about eating in restaurants. Between our team of writers and editors here we visited more than 500 in 2014, many more than once, to make sure that we picked the most deserving winners at last week’s Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards. During that process I ate anonymously at dozens of places in the Indian & Pakistani category – from roadside canteens to Michelin-starred venues. Almost every one of those meals was great, some were out of this world. But at every one of them I felt a bit awkward, because I always seem to commit some kind of dining faux pas. Although, whenever I worry, I think back and realise I’ve come a long way since my first meal out.

In my hometown (South Shields, I’m sure you all know it) there is a street with about 30 Indian restaurants on it. They attract the crowds after a night out, host family celebrations and have loyal customers who have been going back for decades. My first trip to one of them was as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. Not only was it my first meal without my parents and my first visit to one of the many restaurants on that street, it was also my first curry. And there the love affair began.

I was wowed by the flavour of the spices that I’d never tasted before, like cumin, turmeric and ginger. The heat from the chillis was overwhelming, but exciting, too. The slivers of onion were like no-other I’d had before and the tender chicken was succulent and tasty. So the curry was a success, and so too were the chips (I was taking baby steps towards proper curry etiquette, okay), but the real revelation was the naan.

The bread was a taste sensation (that’ll be the ghee). It was fluffy in the middle and a little crispy on the outer edges. I was in love and I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t finish the curry – those portions were huge – but I was going to make sure I had every last crumb of the naan. So when my friends asked the waiter for the bill, I seized my opportunity before he started clearing the table and when his back was turned, I took the bread and tried to hide it, down my trousers. I can still see the waiter’s face when he returned and caught me with half a naan sticking out of my waistband. I know now that I could have asked to take all the leftovers home, but I was a novice back then. These days my table manners are a lot more refined. Just ask the waiters in Indian restaurants across Dubai.

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