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At Manchester's first secret supper club, I found myself seated next to Hannah and her husband Jonny. «Everybody is here to interact,» she told me. «You wouldn't come if you were shy.»
But that was a problem, because I am shy. Infact I avoid conversations with strangers at all costs. So to walk into a stranger's house, sit at a stranger's table and eat a meal with 16 other strangers, was daunting to say the least. But, like the gang of friendly faces around the table, I had heard great things about The Spice Club on Twitter. So I was willing to put my worries aside and as it turned out, this was an excellent decision.
The Spice Club, as it's called, was created by 20-something business graduate, Monica Sawney. And Monica clearly has the power of persuasion. First, she managed to convince her Mum to use the family home, located somewhere on the outskirts of Bury. Then she managed to rope poor old Mum, Anita, into helping with the cooking.
The cuisine is traditional, authentic, home cooked Indian food. That's all you know before you arrive, as the menu and venue location are kept secret until the night. But to be honest, the quality of the food was never in doubt. I had read plenty of good things about The Spice Club before attending. What was in doubt, however, was how I would feel being in uncharted dining territory. Surely it was going to be a bit weird. I mean - it's somebody's home!
As I walked up to the front door there was laughter coming from inside and the smell of herbs and spices drifting out. So far, so good, I thought. And then the door opened and I was greeted by Monica and her amazing smile. Feeling more at ease than I expected, I was invited in and through the doorway into the family kitchen, I saw mum cooking in the kitchen and guests seated at the dining table ready to eat. The main difference between this and a professional kitchen, I think, was that the chef was smiling. As Monica's brother made sure everyone had a drink - he was smiling. And the guests were also smiling. In fact, after reflecting on the evening, I realised everyone was smiling - even me.
Around the table in the family’s homely dining room, I was sitting next to Hannah and Jonny who had come with their friends Glenn and Hayley. Nervous about my shyness, I'd prepared one of my best anecdotes for the occasion. But I needn't have gone to all that effort. You see, the beauty of supper clubs is that everybody there has one thing in common: a love of food. Everyone can relate to the story of the best meal they've had or the time they were served by the worst waiter ever. And after tonight's dinner, we'd all have a story we could tell, involving each other.
Before I knew it, the conversation was flowing and I was chatting to the group as if we were old friends. I think the Shiraz was helping with that, but the atmosphere definitely played its part. And then the food came out, and you can quote me on this: It was the best Indian food I have ever had. Ever!
The starter was stuffed okra with paneer cheese and for anyone that hadn't yet engaged in conversation, this acted as an icebreaker. Or, as my new friend Hannah put it, a 'spice breaker'. Brilliant. The jokes were flying. I loved my new friends…and I have a suspicion the Shiraz helped with that too.
Monica's mum eventually appeared from the kitchen and the centre of the table was filled with dishes. There were about five main courses, all of North Indian origin - Kashmiri lamb, Shahi chicken, dhal, basmati rice and home made chapattis.
And there was lots of it. Almost too much - but that’s hardly grounds for concern. I went straight for the kashmiri lamb, which practically melted in my mouth. The sauce had a nice hint of chili - but not enough to have you reaching for the water. I had tried Shahi chicken once before, and it had tasted like a watered-down Korma. So I wasn't overly keen to try this one. But take my word – I’m glad I did. The chicken was succulent, the sauce mild and creamy and with a hint of cashew. I needed these people to open a take-away next to my house.
We were served jaipuri stuffed bread rolls and one of the diners said it was the best jaipuri stuffed bread roll he had ever eaten. I said it was the only jaipuri bread roll I'd ever had. The table laughed. HA! I was on fire.
In all the Indian restaurants I've eaten in over the years, I have yet to find one that is serves food as simple and flavoursomel as this. Real home-cooked food, prepared to a fine dining standard. And another thing The Spice Club has in its favour, as if it needed anything else, is the service. These people want you in their home. They want you to have an enjoyable time and they want you to love the food. All they ask for in return is a suggested minimum donation of £25. I gave £26. «Why not,» I thought, «let’s go mad.»
By the end of the night I forgot that I was paying for the experience at all. I felt like I was with friends, and wanted to hug the hosts. Perhaps, again, the Shiraz played its part in that too, but the sentiment has stayed with me. And you can't say that about many traditional restaurant meals, can you?
For more information on the Spice Club visit their website