HARARE must be the worldâ€™s worst capital city for curry houses, in terms of numbers.
Indeed Zimbabwe itself isnâ€™t exactly well served in outlets offering the sub-continentâ€™s spicy cuisine; off-hand canâ€™t think of one outside Harare.
Iâ€™m at that age when policemen, judges, politicians, look younger daily and time flies inexorably faster. It seems only yesterday I met the bubbling vivacious Deena Magan, learning her trade, winning spurs at Meikles, doing practicals at the world-famous five star hotel, under redoubtable roly-poly Irishman Mike Farrellâ€™s guidance.
Out of the blue she sent me an invitation (copied to other foodies) to a chefâ€™s table at Jaipur, an Indian restaurant of which I am very fond, at Sunrise Sports Club, Belvedere South.
That sounds to hell and gone, but itâ€™s quite close to Harare showgrounds: about five or six minutesâ€™ drive from ZimIndâ€™s Kopje offices. I always allow a bit more as the cityâ€™s original Asian suburb, with its mainly duplex Bollywood-style mansions, takes some getting used to and Iâ€™m usually briefly lost driving there.
No other hack made itâ€¦their fault. An attractively laid table awaited us on a roof top dining area overlooking Sunriseâ€™s parched sports field, where we could catch a breath of air on a heat-shimmering dayÂ I suspect wouldnâ€™t been unusual in Jaipur itself.
Known as The Pink City, due to its coral-hued stucco architecture, rather than citizensâ€™ sexuality, Jaipur, a Princely State in the days of the Raj, is now home to Rajasthan Royals (captain Shane Warne) in the exciting Indian Premier League. Â
Jaipur was Indiaâ€™s first planned city: founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727, when his original capital Amber, 11km away, ran out of water for a burgeoning populace.
Deena has definitely added a womanâ€™s touch. Linen was that little bit crisper, colours considerably more coordinated, crystal, cutlery and china had a touch more sparkle, menu descriptions were more adjectival.
A welcoming, but rather â€œwoosyâ€, chilled cocktail â€“â€“ all pastel shades in retro â€œBabychamâ€ style bowl-on-stem champagne glass â€“â€“ was served. This would have been fine for the distaff female foodies, who didnâ€™t come: but Iâ€™m an unreformed lager lout!
Wines were buried deep inÂ ice-filled silver buckets. (Greg MacDonald of importers Big 5 Wines was another no show.) Wonderful Indian snacks were served almost immediately as an amuse-geule: deep-fried onion rings, mixed pakodas, a spicy dip, in advance of other guestsâ€™ arrival, munched, now with a more quotidian pre-prandial aperitif of a moderately intoxicating nature.
Vaysan Nayee runs the place and it was pleasant to have him join us at the head of the table; business partner Arun Muljee (a vegetarian like so many Hindus) drove in later.
Actually, these days, Iâ€™m also a part-time vegetarian myself: not by personal choice, though: blame my dietary change on Zanu PF, â€œGiddyâ€ Gono and the â€œMother of all Agricultural Seasonsâ€
Deena, business-like in black trouser suit and sparkling white blouse, did the Mother Hen bit and service was superb. (Mind you, there were two other puntersâ€¦blame that on â€œGiddyâ€ too, how can you eat out, having to queue at a bank for hours for $500 (revalued) which wonâ€™t buy a cola or a loaf?
Set menu starters included more pakodas, enhanced with spicy exotic (and delicious) prawns in a secret house sauce.
EntrÃ©e (for the carnivores among us) was a tantalising trio of curries: butter chicken, chicken tikka and â€œlambâ€ curry (probably mutton, but no train smashâ€¦as long as its cooked properly as this was), the selection being encircled with more curry sauce and served with vegetable biriyani (mixed veg with rice and spices folded in) and saffron rice, freshly baked naan and chapatis.
This dish was perhaps a tad hotter than Iâ€™d have liked, but then Iâ€™m not into the macho red-necked: â€œServe me a vindaloo as incandescent as you can make itâ€ scene. Mouthwatering subtle flavours, especially of cumin and coriander, came through succinctly, even if unaccustomed heat opened the sinuses.
I am hardly uninitiated, having relished good curries for over half a century, but must build up resistance to fiery flavours after a lay-off.
It would take maybe two or three months of three or four curries a week to regain the peak of appreciation (and heat resistance) honed as a student and cub reporter, when I almost lived on the stuff… because it was (then) cheap!
I ended with a typical rather sweet Asian pudding:Â duo of milk balls in saffron syrup, with vanilla ice-cream, which helped get taste buds and palate back on an even keel. (Plain yoghurt spooned liberally over curry also helps; bitterly cold Pilsener doesnâ€™t: but is lovely!)
This function was on Wednesday, not the best day for weekend paper hacks and, sadly, Iâ€™d to decline coffee or Assam tea with Indian-style infused petit-fours. (Definitely a Deena touch. She says sheâ€™s consulting on catering to some embassies, apart from bossing up Jaipurâ€™s staff.)
Jaipur opens lunch and supper Tuesday-to-Saturday; Sundays lunch only. Tel 740919/740714.