As the candles fade after this year’s Diwali, it’s a good time to shine a bright light on The Spice Club in Manchester, one of the best open secrets in the North West’s food landscape. It’s Manchester’s longest running secret supper club, and comes with a sterling reputation. A fortnight ago my regular dining partner and I made it down to the first of two pop-up events in the city centre’s Spinningfields: the second was held this weekend past, and part of me wishes I could’ve been there two weeks running to enjoy the superlative authentic flavours again.
We didn’t have many reference points for Indian cuisine when growing up in Northern Ireland during the 80s. Sure, the family got the occasional takeaway; I had a few good meals round at south Asian friends’ houses; and I remember some home sessions where we made meals with Sharwoods’ finest pre-packed ingredients. Apart from that, our dad’s biryani became a running family joke, largely because it was never served with any sauce so was dry as straw (we think he was missing one half of the recipe and never realised). At the time south Asian food just wasn’t as ubiquitous in Belfast as it was in most English towns, so my first experience of the wider world of Indian food was when I moved to the northwest of England to study.
Hanging out with a couple of beery lads from the Midlands, for whom curry competed with a full Sunday roast when it came to the best choice for a shared house meal, I quickly learned about key ingredient and basic techniques. I got in the habit of easting out at cheap and cheerful curry houses, and when I moved to Manchester (home of the infamous Curry Mile in Rusholme, as well as some great little joints in the Northern Quarter) my education broadened further. I’ve eaten out a lot over the years in Manchester, but two restaurants really made an impression on me for a range of dishes which they offered up; Gaylord, and the sadly-missed Shimla Pinks. Both contradicted the usual restaurant fare by serving fresh dishes with incredibly distinctive flavours. This was the kind of Indian cooking which I could really connect with, but I was more likely to get it cooked by knowledgable friends than when I ate out. Garishly bright sauces, suspiciously-similar looking curries, oil slicks spreading across balti dishes, sickly-sweet dessert options… I knew there was more to Indian food than this, but even in a city with so many choices for eating, it was surprisingly uncommon to find oneself tasting fresh ingredients in the way one would take for granted with, say, Thai food. Surely something was wrong here?
This brings me, in a roundabout way, back to The Spice Club. I’d met Monica Sawhney, the prime force behind Manchester’s first secret supper club, at a couple of events early this year. Her obvious ability to combine advocacy and enthusiasm for quality Indian food was apparent… and infectious… so I was determined to check out The Spice Club when I could. Over the next couple of months I heard more glowing first-hand reports, which cranked up the anticipation, but I always seemed to have something already in the diary. As a result, when I decided to go to the South Indian food special at the beginning of July, my dining companion was most miffed,as she already had plans and couldn’t make it. I smacked my lips with anticipation and signed myself up anyway, keen to check out some Keralan cuisine. After booking through their website and receiving a confirmation email, the next stage was getting a text messgae on the day, revealing the location. As I was going alone I decided to drive – public transport from the depths of the Pennines to the balmy suburbs of north Manchester is a convoluted option – so I was one of the few sets of guests who didn’t BYO.
After a drive over th’hills on a beautiful summer’s evening I arrived at what was very obviously a family home: perfectly appointed but with an atmosphere which thankfully said relaxed dinner party, not mini-restaurant. This vibe, plus the warm and friendly greetings from Monica and her mum Anita at the door, was a perfect statement of intentions. Escorted to my place, I joined a dozen or so other people at one of two large tables. Chatting around before food was served, the diners seemed to come from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of food interest. There’s alway a good frisson at a supper club: a range of dining companions, united by a common interest and shared anticipation of what’s to come. The buzz around the table grew over glasses of fruit juice, before Monica came out to welcome us and introduce the meal. The Spice Club’s manifesto is to let their guests experience and enjoy fantastic, authentic home-made Indian food, and to be as open and welcoming as possible. Including, rather bravely I thought, inviting anyone who wanted to pop into the kitchen to see behind the scenes.
Our first course was Masala Dosa, a wonderfully light dosa (a thin pancake), rolled into a cone and filled with delicately spiced potato. This was wonderful in its own right, but was taken to another level by the wondrous coconut chutney on the side. On a warm summer’s evening this was such a perfectly cool, soothing and fresh condiment, and I made sure to take advantage of it. Not that the food that night needed a cool touch to temper savage spices: if you’re looking to carry out any random acts of chilli masochism, this isn’t the venue for you, it’s all about balancing the distinct fresh flavours of the spices and ingredients in harmony.
After this, our plates were cleared away, and a series of entrées made their way onto the table. Each plate had an individual bowl for the sambar, and plenty of space for the accompaniments. Glancing at my menu, I couldn’t help think the next course had a touch of the Julian & Sandy‘s about it – “ooh, did you vada those steamy idlis down the sambar?” but that says as much about my humour as my relative ignorance of south Indian food…
I’d never had idli before: delightfully cute steamed rice and lentil cakes; nor vada, light crispy rice and lentil fritters, delicately spiced and perfect for scooping up sauce. Or beer snacking, I’d warrant. There was a toor dal sambar, piquant and fresh with spiced onion, garlic and ginger; and Pau Bhaji, a selection of veg in a rich tomato-y masala. Little vegetable bhajiis and plenty of chapattis completed this main course.
The presentation is uniformly excellent too… each serving is delicately detailed without being overly fussy. However they obvious know their audience: neatly plated dishes empty quickly but a succession of refills, top-ups and temptations ensure that no-one leaves the table hungry in any way. There’s a touch of that Scots-Irish “Ahh, go on and eat up, you’re at yer Grannys” about the smiling countenances which pleasantly persuade you to have just one more thing…
Curious about the dishes we’d enjoyed, I took up Monica’s opening offer and went for a nosey in the kitchen. Anita was more than happy to show off the ingredients, talk about exactly how to cook them, and how much they all enjoyed hosting Spice Club. All in a kitchen which looked spotless… you get the impression this operation hums and ticks like a well-oiled machine (and that’d be olive oil, not ghee as you might expect… Spice Club aren’t afraid to update traditional elements with healthier alternatives… so no worries about unhealthy greasy curries).
Thankfully after the generosity of the previous courses, dessert was light and fresh – a strawberry and mango sorbet – just right for a warm summer’s eve to cleanse the palate. Then we were offered cardamon tea or a coffee (I went for the cardamon tea) and a selection of cake and biscuits. Despite feeling a little like one of those cartoon characters, when my eyes should’ve registered ‘Full’ signs, I still managed to enjoy more of the biccies than good sense would allow. They’re naan kithai, a kind of cardamom-y shortbread, and boy, they’re seriously good, which I why I’ve linked straight to Monica’s recipe for them.
Many things made the evening special, but more than anything else I took away the impression that this was something which Monica and her family really loved to do: bringing together people for an insight into great regional home-cooking, with wonderfully warm hospitality. Which, I may say, they did with ease. My better half was even more jealous after she’d heard about the evening, so when we heard The Spice Club was branching out to a pop-up restaurant in central Manchester for two weekends, she quickly determined we’d go. I needed little persuasion…
After wandering around the shiny glass canyons in Manchester’s gauche new quarter, getting slightly confused by the multiplicity of RBS banks (which threw us, based on the directions we had) we found a corner unit, twinkling with hundreds of candles to set the mood for Diwali. The location was a unit which I believe had been a sandwich bar (the decals on the windows still advertised wraps and salads). As before, the table decorations were beautiful, and they’d managed to inject some homely personality into the space. I popped open one of the bottles of the ever-delightful Meantime IPA which we brought along (a big, strong, fruity, hoppy beer which is absolutely perfect for a spicy meal) and we talked to our dining companions. It turned out to be a small world – I was sitting next to a lady I’d last met at the Spice Club during the summer – so obviously we’d both rated it highly enough to plan a return visit, this time with our partners.
After Monica came out of the kitchen and introduced the evening, we were presented with a lovely appetiser: Aloo Tikka Chaat. A dinky potato patty, topped with chutney, yoghurt and a tangy sweet tamarind sauce, together with chickpeas and tomato. Small, but perfectly formed, this set the pace for the rest of the evening with its fresh flavours and perky presentation. Really good. It was only after I’d left the July Spice Club I’d realised the whole evening was vegetarian. This time our entrées had a more meaty bent, but as with so much good Indian cuisine, veg and pulses played a critical role. Roasted chicken Masala was a million miles from its namesake in most restaurants, being melting succulent and thrilling warming; the Shahi Keema Mattar paired the classic minced lamb with peas and spices perfectly. The dal, made from moong and channa, and lobia (black-eyed beans) was as good as anything I’ve ever had before, and the Gajjar ka Raita, a carrot raita added a dash of sweet coolness. How come I’ve never had a carrot raita before… it’s genius!
However the real revelation of the night for me was the Paneer Bhindi. I’ve had okra (aka the slightly creepily-named ladies fingers) before, but was not impressed by its somewhat slimy texture. Likewise, though I’ve had paneer in dishes before, when I’ve tried to cook with it at home, it’s left me thinking it’s like a blander cheese cousin of tofu. That’s aching bland. So I was tentative in trying out the paneer bhindi when it appeared, but I had seconds, and even thirds (yes, that policy of death by kindness and generosity was in full effect again, with all the diners plied with multiple helpings of everything from chapattis and rice to main dishes). When I confided that I really didn’t like okra beforehand, I given the tip that it’s often best to overcook it to reduce the mouthfeel which I’d been so unenamoured by. I’m going to be following their recipe for Paneer-stuffed Okra soon…
In between courses, despite there being more diners than usual, service was swift and good-natured, and we even had time to take tips and advice from Anita and Monica as they talked to everyone. We needed a little time to let the main course settle, so easy conversation and good banter was in order. Dessert was Kheer, a sort of grown-up rice pudding, with enough sweetness to lift it without being cloying, and just enough bite to the rice to elevate it above a mousse or blancmange-like consistency. All with a glowing hint of cardamom and a drizzle of mango. Lush.
Cardamom tea was then served alongside those cracking Naan Kithai again, and a slice of the Diwali cake which I think Monica mentioned had been brought along by one of the guests. We also each had a barfi, which again confounded my expectations by being much less sickly-sweet than the versions I’ve had before in sweet houses. The whole evening was a delight: wonderful food, of course, but also a great atmosphere.
This is very much a family affair: Monica fronting the whole operation, with full culinary direction from mum Anita, assistance from brother AJ and dad Jee, and close support from Vik. They’re so obviously proud of their culinary heritage, and determined to reclaim that food background from the identikit coloured curries most of us have been all-too-familiar with.
The Spice Club run a series of events every month: having experienced two I’d have no hesitation in urging you to sign up for one of their forthcoming nights. The location might be a mystery, but the authentic tastes, and true deliciousness is guaranteed!