Curry Mile’s reputation has taken some hard knocks in recent years – here are our picks of the places that deserve to be celebrated.
Haz Arshad has a lot of uncles. They’re not really his uncles, though that’s what he calls them. They’re the gaffers of Manchester’s famous Curry Mile, where Arshad grew up playing street cricket with the children of the liquor store and greengrocers next to his parents’ restaurant. He’s the second-generation of Arshads to take charge of Mughli, the place currently spearheading the revival of the entire neighbourhood; it’d be hard to find a better person to show you around here. So when we at Creative Tourist came up with the idea of a series of insiders’ guides to foodie enclaves around Manchester, he was my first phone call.
I turn up on an uncooperatively rainy morning, willing to eat whatever Haz puts in front of me. First we discuss the neighbourhood’s changing fortunes. In the 1970s and 80s the place was a boomtown, full of enterprising immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh catering to the nation’s bottomless hunger for chicken tikka masala. Now, he says, it’s fractured into three unofficial areas: the traditional curry mile, closest to town; what he calls the “shisha mile,” full of middle eastern cafes; and a leftover nether-here-nor-there bit catering mainly to students.
Some of the restaurants are still on the classic curry mile schedule – busy 7-10pm and quiet until 1 am, when buses full of liquored up, hungry students on their way back from the city centre start pulling in, and frantic until 3 am. But the economic decline of the last few years has ushered in a time of transition on Wilmslow Road. Basically, Haz explains, traders are realising that serving up the same old grub in the same old way isn’t enough to make it in 2014, and they have to change with the times, or go under.
Traders are realising that serving up the same old grub in the same old way isn’t enough to make it in 2014
Our first stop is workers’ caff Al Madina (open until late), where we’re after the lamb balti they make fresh every morning. “Always ask for it ‘Apna style’; it means, ‘our way’. It’s generally cooked slightly longer, with more spices,” Haz says. First we sample the house-made gol-gappa: light-as-air semolina fritters you fill up you fill up with a potato and chickpea chaat as well as a tangy tamarind ‘khatta pani’ sauce – and then try to fit in your mouth without making a mess. It’s worth the embarrassment, honestly. And then we eat their lamb balti, which is every bit as good as he’d promised, tender and deeply spiced. I’m sold.
We pass Lahori Ice Bar, which is shut but apparently there’s no better place to go for frothy, intense Kashmiri tea, if you’re a fan. And then it’s on to Atlas Shawarma, which Haz says serves up the best shawarma around. We watch as a man makes naan by hand, shaping it over a paddle instead of rolling it out, so it stays fluffy. At three naan for £1, you can’t beat the price.
Anand’s Indian Deli boasts the biggest selection of Indian snacks around – most made in-house, and all strictly vegetarian. It’s presided over by the friendly Dipak, who’s justifiably proud of their Indian soda pop selection. It’s one of the few places in Rusholme you can buy ThumsUP (India’s Coke), Limca (a form of lemonade) and Maaza (a more flat version of Fanta). I tried some dhokra, a sort of gujarati cornbread with spicy dipping sauces. Ace.
Atlas has a slight edge for shawarma, in Haz’s opinion, but nipping at its heels is Jaffa, the first stop on our tour that I’d actually eaten at before. Jaffa’s always busy, and it’s easy to see why. Inexpensive, high quality food in a pleasant setting. Their fattayer, hummous and fresh dips are beyond compare – but go early if you want shawarma as they typically sell out.
Sanam is both a restaurant and a sweet shop, but the sweets are why everyone comes here, according to Haz. We try some Ras-Malai, sweet dumplings in a milky broth, which was interesting. But I preferred Delhi Sweet Centre, where brightly coloured sweets are stacked up in the window in a display that’d give a passing dentist the sweats. It’s been run by the same family for 40 years, and “when you want jalebi, all day, this is the place,” Haz insists. We watch Irfan make it. He swirls batter into hot oil, and when it turns brown it’s soaked in sugar syrup. Haz tells me that jalebi soaked in milk is meant to be an aphrodisiac. I’m not convinced that ingesting this much sugar would have the desired effect on me, but suspect it’s a cultural thing.
Our last stop is Pastry House, a Lebanese bakery tucked away off Wilmslow Road. Pastry House started out catering mainly to restaurants, but its popularity necessitated the addition of an eat-in cafe. This is the place to come for sweet stuff like baklava, konafa with cream (my favourite), cashew fingers and the like as well as fresh, house-made labneh (an intensely sharp soft cheese) and savoury snacks. We try some moreish flatbreads: one flecked with za’tar and cheese, and the minced-lamb topped lahm belajin – like pizza but more interesting. On the way back we pass Caspian, where I am urged to try the lamb chops but plead defeat. Haz takes pity on me.
I depart the curry mile laden down with 17 carrier bags of leftovers and a sticky notebook (that jalebi), full of places to visit another time. If you’ve ever been tempted to come for a taste of the Curry Mile, but don’t trust your mates’ tips, now you know where to go. See you there.