The Holy Cow spoils us. They aren’t just a take-away-service. They deliver tandooris of comfort and joy that have got us all hooked like smack fuelled mackerel. Whenever our moods are low the HC lifts us up like a whack of valium.
But we’ve begun to worry that we might be exhibiting signs of addiction such as “borrowing curry money” and having our supplier on speed dial. So we decided to go cold turkey on the Holy Cow for a week or so and experiment with some of the local curry dealers in Balham.
No sooner than we ditched the good stuff than we found ourselves in the Punjab House. If Holy Cow is Selfridges, then Punjab House is a cash and carry on the outskirts of Watford. Their imaginative tinsel decorations stay up all year round, the restaurant is typically empty and the lighting would make a prison look like an artist’s studio. But the main selling point is their dramatic closure for a "rodent infestation" at the beginning of last year.
Alex and I were oblivious to the health inspector’s damning report when we visited. (This could explain the owner’s deep suspicion of a posh chap taking photos in his deserted restaurant!)
The food is served from a small canteen by a very quiet lady. We thought it would have been rude not to sample all of the dishes, so we smiled at the lovely lady with ladle and got stuck in.
The food was surprisingly good. Richly spiced. Distinctly flavoured. And deliberately simple. They all looked muddy and boring, but tasted fresh and alive. We particularly liked the thought that had gone into the names of the dishes.
“Chicken with ginger” was light, boisterously spiced and generously chickened.
“Lamb with ginger” was identical, but for the tender chunks of meat that studded the sauce. It was one of the better lamb curries I’ve had for some time in a frugal, authentic sort of way.
“Chicken on the bone” was impressive. My lips smarted from a burst of chilli heat, almost before the sauce had made contact. But the heat was as transient as the chicken was tender. It brought back a painful memory of a friend’s mother who always asked the Nepalese takeaway for her chicken Madras to be made with breast meat only. (No. No. No.)
“Mixed vegetable curry with chickpeas” was a rich and filling spicy vegetable stew that puts most vegetable curries to shame. It was almost identical to the tin foil tub of veggie curry we bought on the train from Ernakulam to Goa and brought back a flood of memories that revolved around dodgy massages, tea plantations and awesome food.
“Lamb with spinach” looked like the slimy green moss you get on the rocks that pop their heads up above the tide on the beech. Luckily, it tasted great. Mildly spiced, but deeply flavoured.
But the best was still to come. As we chatted to the owner about the fact that he doesn’t care where his produce comes from and thanked him for a memorable supper he asked us to clear our plates away with an aggressive waft of the hand. Feeling stumped, we diligently scuttled back to our table, stacked our plates, wiped the table with a napkin and delivered the plates back to the counter. We then left in a fit of giggles with a bizarre new addiction to Punjab House.
Punjab House isn’t for the faint hearted. Their hygiene track record is far from squeaky clean and their manners are hilariously bad. But they make a very decent curry for hardly any money at all. So if you are looking for a back alley curry fix in Balham, Punjab House is the den for you.