“How did I get here?” It’s a question people often find yourselves asking, either in wonderment or slight apprehension. For the Tramps, sat at opposite ends of a large T-shaped arrangement of tables, surrounded by good curry and even better pals, it certainly felt like the former. But how exactly did Glasgow’s self-appointed curry ambassadors find themselves at the wrong end of the M8? What was the chain of events that had led them to convene at Assam’s Café on Leith Walk on a notably rainy Sunday afternoon and essentially hijack the whole joint? At one point, they couldn’t even conceive it happening. But experiencing it in the moment, it was hard to imagine how it might have turned out any other way ...
Assam's Cafe, Leith Walk
Now, for two people who have been banging on for what seems like months about investigating Edinburgh’s curry culture – even appearing on Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe to drum up interest in their unusual August adventure – the fact that TATTGOC’s hyped and historic capital outing ended up at the relatively-new eastern outpost of a long-standing Glasgow curryhouse might seem like a clerical mix-up, a clanging error or even a sly dig at the whole idea. Charitably, you might concede that the Tramps, while giving it all bluster and fire in public, were privately too timid to leave their self-constructed comfort zone of Glasgowness, like foreign nationals in an unstable country fleeing to the sovereign soil of their embassy.
The real story, however, is a little more prosaic.
First of all, even those goofus Tramps were wise enough to realise that the only way to truly become immersed in Edinburgh’s curry culture would be to move there and go out for curry every day, which was a little impractical. And so, they turned to crowdsourcing, asking notable capital foodies and faces to share their hard-won local curry knowledge – part one was posted last week, with part two to follow next Thursday. Though nominally recommendations of a particular curryhouse, everyone who took part also just chatted about their experiences over the years, which painted a personal, pointillist portrait of the city. If the Tramps had decided to choose their curryhouse by these recommendations alone, they would have had to go to Kebab Mahal, which was hymned to the rafters. Easy. Done. Sorted!
Except for a few things. This historic TATTGOC outing would involve a fair few people, so it needed to be a big place. There would also most likely be a little person there, so a high chair was required. And the Tramps wanted to eat on a Sunday afternoon, allowing for a leisurely lunch but also ensuring there would be little chance of them being stranded in Edinburgh overnight. The Kebab Mahal might have been the most-storied recommendation, but it’s also a legandarily informal place that can get crammed quickly – probably not the best place to take ten folk out for a curry. The Tramps also asked the guestlist of Edinburgh TATTGOCers to offer up suggestions, which they did in their droves.
An early idea was to stick with Kebab Mahal, but if the weather was nice get takeaway food to eat in the Meadows. A lovely idea, but even the Tramps aren’t foolish enough to taunt the weather gods. There was a lot of love for the nearby Mosque Kitchen, and both outposts of Suruchi – one on Nicolson St, one down on Leith – although the proposed Sunday afternoon timeslot appeared to be problematic. One brave soul even suggested the Kismot, home of the legendary Killer, but again it didn’t open til later on the Sunday. The Tramps had an eye on Ignite, possibly because it was right next to Haymarket Station, allowing a quick getaway if things went sideways, but again it was closed on Sunday afternoons.
And so, after weighing up the pros and cons, the Tramps landed on Assam’s Café – kid-friendly, opens at 4pm on Sunday, does a decent-looking pre-theatre and handy for those that live in Leith, which turned out to be almost all of the Edinburgh contingent. The booking was made, and the Tramps could relax. But if they’d gleaned a lot of info about how and where people in Edinburgh enjoy their curry, there was one more lesson to learn: if you invite Edinburghers, they actually turn up. After years of enthusiastic but sometimes slack attendance from Glasgow-based Curry Clubbers, the Tramps and Mumbai Me A Pony got a bit of a fright when every single invitee turned up. What had been guesstimated as a table of ten turned out to be a table of 13 (and a half, if you include a gorgeous Curry Cub) and so the very first point of business was to rearrange some tables to fit everyone in.
A corner restaurant with large windows, Assam’s Café is just that – a café and deli upstairs, with a larger restaurant area downstairs. Instead of sticking the team downstairs, the manager allowed the score of currnynauts to take over practically all of the street-level, which allowed us access to sunlight and also a good view of the open kitchen. If the plan had to be to dazzle Edinburgh first-timers with a demonstration of smooth logistics honed over almost four-years of wrangling curry outings, this was not perhaps the best start. Luckily, a faint air of cheerful shambolicity is one of TATTGOC’s core brand values, so it was all “on-message” when the Tramps belatedly discovered that Assam’s Café was also BYOB. A small scavenging party was sent off to find some beer and wine.
The assembled company was a mix of TATTGOCers old and new. Some, like The Poppadominator to All Tomorrow’s Bhajis, were old hands while the delightful wee Gracie was experiencing it all for the first time. If not all Curry Club veterans, this loyal crew had at least enough of a passing familiarity with the blog to understand the rough outline of how things work, but by sticking to the pre-theatre menu, many of the usual ordering roadbumps were ironed out – with a starter for everyone, there was no need for the Tramps to impose their will. Of the selection of starters, the aubergine fritters appeared to edge out the usual pakora, while many souls opted for a poori with either chicken or prawn. Even the traditional rice/naan equation didn’t need to be worked out, as the manager assured the table that he would find the optimum amount of each: “sundries to suit”, indeed. No-one, it seemed, would go hungry. And from the T-shaped table – arranged that way through happenstance rather than to promote TATTGOC – everyone could see into the open kitchen to watch their dishes cooked from scratch.
In time, delicious sizzling smells drifted over, accompanied by the slightly incongruous but not unpleasant sound of mid-1990s R&B from a radio. With the ordering out of the way, the Tramps could relax and just enjoy catching up with their Edinburgh pals, who seemed sanguine at the prospect of the world arriving on their doorstep for the Fringe. The Poppadominator had already taken in a few preview shows. All Tomorrow’s Bhajis filled everyone in on the history of the Assam’s Café building, a former, long-standing, perhaps even slightly suspicious independent video and DVD rental store that had survived for rather a long time. The restaurant refit had been taken a while but was clearly comprehensive – a nice café feel helped immeasurably by large windows. Another couple arrived for food and managed to find a table in the corner; another chap wandered in for some takeaway. Meanwhile, the year-round street theatre festival of Leith Walk continued outside.
As the starters arrived, the Tramp invoked the famous Futterman rule – “once two are served, all may eat” – and the first ever proper TATTGOC Edinburgh outing began in earnest. The pooris were basic but tasty, and there was a buoyant secondary market in exchanging fritters and pakora (the dipping sauce was particularly piquant). The general discussion was mostly, but not exclusively, about curry and how Edinburgh and Glasgow compared – most of the 13 at the table had spicy experience of both cities. Taking it back to the founding principles of TATTGOC – the idea of forgoing the familiar to seek out hidden gems – it felt, at least to the Tramps, that there lots of places to discover in Edinburgh, in keeping with the labyrinthine, dual-nature of the city itself. Whether this was a productive delusion or not remained unclear. Someone asked if there was an equivalent of the Mosque Kitchen in Glasgow, and Trampy was stumped to answer.
By then, it was time for the main courses. From the pre-theatre choice, the table had separated into two distinct blocs – one end seemed particularly keen on chilli garlic chicken while a similarly proportioned group opted for lamb karahi. There were a few other stragglers dotted about – the odd chicken saag and chicken tikka chasni – but it looked like first two dishes were going to duke it out for popularity. As promised, an effective array of rice and naans were included so no-one felt the need to be too greedy or grabby-grabby. This was traditional cooking, with none of the soupiness still associated with Glasgow curry, and a pleasing freshness. Debate about the relative merits of Scotland’s largest two cities subsided while the food was enjoyed, and there was a generally appreciate chorus of “oohs” and “aahs”. The Tramps couldn’t reliably compare it to their own experience of the originalAssam’s back west – the restaurant has moved to street level since they were last there for lunch a few years back – but on its own merits, it was impressive stuff.
Plates emptied, the (very reasonable) bill settled, a lazy afternoon stretching into evening. But was there a slight air of disappointment around the table? Maube so, although it turned out to have nothing to do with food. For those that had not experienced the glory of TATTGOC before, there seemed to be expectation for a slightly more ritualistic experience – a speech at the start, perhaps, or some sort of half-whispered article of faith before the main course. Blindfolds? Special hats?
The Tramp did make a short, heartfelt speech right at the end, thanking everyone for being part of such a historic day. But as ever, that rarefied air of archaic mysteriousness and slight sexual menace that the Tramps work so hard to project was somewhat shattered by the workaday reality. For when you boil it down to the core, stripping away the banter, the podcasts, the endless puns, the heart of TATTGOC – whether it’s in Glasgow, or Edinburgh, or anywhere – lies in the curry. But vitally, it’s never just curry for it’s own sake. It has to be curry with good friends. And on that score, Edinburgh did the Tramps proud.
(Glasgow is still the best, tho.)
NEXT WEEK ON TATTGOC'S AUGUST EDINBURGH EXTRAVAGANZA: Part 2 of Edinburgh Foodies Recommend Their Favourite Curryhouse, feat. Richard Bath, Jonathan Trew, The Poppadominator and more. Join us on August 23
SOME OTHER RECENT TATTGOC OUTINGS
Shezan, Cathcart Road
Charcoals, City Centre
Cafe Darna, St George's Road
Kama Sutra, Sauchiehall Street
The Khyber, nr Shields Road