Cork: The spice of life

Haveli, Morris House, Douglas West, Cork; tel: 021-4894482;

I’VE NEVER understood why so many Irish people enthusiastically embrace food they are assured is authentic Chinese cuisine — and the myriad variations thereof — but are so very reluctant to embrace the far richer, warmer pleasures of Indian food.

Maybe the sweet, the heavily-seasoned, unchallenging Hiberno dilutions of Chinese food, are not so terribly far removed from the high-fat, high-sugar diet we are used to.

It may be more spectacularly coloured, the smells a whiff or two more exotic and the sizzling a bit more in-your-face than we are used to but the common threads are undeniable.

Sliced beef with vegetables and noodles or rice is not so very far removed from many of the ways beef and vegetables are brought together in our own culture.

Spare ribs in a sticky barbecue sauce may be considered different to slow-roasted belly of pork with a punchy apple sauce but the dishes are closer than first cousins.

Maybe it’s that dishes that mostly pass for Chinese food in Ireland are a slightly dressed up, unthreatening version of what we’re used to at home. Maybe it’s like bungee jumping — safe danger, spiced with a dash of adrenaline but with the risk removed — safe sex.

Indian food, with its bird’s eye chillies, turmeric, mustard, fennel and fenugreek seeds, fresh ginger and curry leaves, and of course cinnamon sticks, is a course of an entirely differ colour, complexity and depth. The danger lurks but it is mostly subdued, subsumed and complemented.

How could the culture that gave us the Karma Sutra, a millennium before we gave the world the Book of Kells — and more or less two millennia before Playboy — be satisfied with anything less sensuous or enriching?

Haveli is like many of the hundreds of thousands of Indian restaurants in the suburbs of the western world. It offers a menu with a huge range of options and provides take-away meals. It is though, and it is a great pleasure to report this, one of the better ones. So many Indian, and ethnic, restaurants are inconsistent and flatter to deceive but this first visit was such a pleasure that the next visit cannot be far away.

We, AV and I, shared the restaurant with just one other diner on the night of our visit — a Thursday — and though this did little enough to create an atmosphere for us it must have been more than disheartening for the staff.

AV opened with aloo bonda — potatoes and peas cooked with lentil, mustard seeds, fresh herbs, crisply fried and served with a sweet and sour chutney. I had galouti kebab, which was described as cardamom-flavoured lamb mince kebab but was really a spiced lamb pattie and none the worse for that. Both dishes came with ample raw vegetables and dips, so ample in fact that the plates were too small.

Our main courses came with the same generous serving of the same raw vegetables and dips and this lack of variety was a disappointment, especially as there seems so much choice on the menu.

AV chose Peshawari kebab — lamb pieces steeped in pineapple, Indian spices, Greek yoghurt and cooked in the tandoor. It was just that, lamb pieces marinated and cooked at a high heat, entirely satisfactory.

My main course tandoori murgh — half a baby chicken marinated in yoghurt, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, fresh herbs and spices cooked over a charcoal fire. The meat was succulent and very well flavoured and I must admit very enjoyable. We shared a dish of baingan ka bharta — aubergine roasted and hashed, tempered with tomatoes, onion, chillies and fresh herbs, some condiments, sauces and naan bread.

Haveli will never win a Michelin star but it deserves a following. Though nothing spectacular it is one of the better Indian restaurants I’ve eaten at in Ireland.

* And a bit of missionary work... I’m a huge fan of what is loosely called Indian food and if you’d like to try it for yourself all you need is Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible, a wonderful cookery book.


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