Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Masala Cheddar

If you are looking for great Indian food outside the subcontinent, look no farther than. . . . Well, actually, you have to look pretty far. Not as far as India, but to a place that's nevertheless remote, in the northernmost part of Britain. I am not talking about John o' Groats in Scotland (which isn't, by the way, the most northerly spot on mainland Britain; it's nearby Dunnet Head), but Shetland, a group of islands over a hundred miles away. Traveling by ferry to Lerwick, the island's administrative center, from Aberdeen in Scotland or Kirkwall on Orkney takes almost as long as flying to India, about twelve hours.

The meals that Deidre and I shared (on the same evening) at Ghurka Kitchen and Raba, both in Lerwick, were some of the best South Asian dishes we've eaten. The veggies were fresh, not frozen; the spices, too, were fresh and well-balanced. Each bite was delightful and delicious, as well as surprising. Who would have thought that Asian food could be this good on an island in Scotland?

We started off the evening at Ghurka Kitchen, after a long day of taking three buses and two ferries to reach a nature reserve and its charming puffins on the island of Unst, nearly the northernmost point in Britain. Our plan was to share one dish there and another at Raba so that we could sample the food of both restaurants on our last night on Shetland. After a steady diet of oatcakes and Scottish cheddar for breakfast and lunch and chips, with fish or in a white roll (hmmmm...chip butty), for dinner, we needed variation and vegetables. Ghurka Kitchen, as its name suggests, specializes in Nepali cuisine. There we shared a thick curry of lamb and turnips, scooped up with nan bread and washed down with Old Scatness, a bitter made with an ancient type of barley, bere. It's from the island's brewery, Valhalla, located in Unst, making it Britain's most northerly brewery.

From there we returned to our hostel to plan the next leg of our trip, touring the distilleries on Islay, and then went out again, to Raba, where we greedily ordered an appetizer (chickpeas with puri, a combo I used to eat for breakfast in Varanasi) and two main dishes with chili nan (saag paneer and a mixed vegetable curry). As at Ghurka Kitchen, the food was delicious, but we couldn't finish it. Our young waiter, whose family is from Asaam and who had a charming Shetland accent, obligingly packed up the leftovers for us. The next night Deidre and I ate them on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen (see photo above). We savored the dishes almost as much as at the restaurant, proving that the food was indeed good and that our appreciation for it wasn't influenced by its novelty.

Two nights later we were on Islay. In Port Ellen was another Indian restaurant. Could it be as exceptional as the ones on Shetland? The answer is no. The food was oily; the vegetables frozen; the spices rough. On top of that, the kitchen lacked authentic ingredients. Instead of real paneer, which is difficult to get on Islay (but it was available on Shetland), it had to resort to Cheddar. As curious as I was to try this, we steered clear of the saag paneer, with the waiter's guidance, and ordered saag aloo instead.

So, what does this all have to do with Cheddar? Just a wee bit. It shows that woman can't live by Cheddar alone and that Cheddar can be, in a pinch, Indian.

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