What better way to detox after the degustatory rigours of the festive season than to head for, um, a Scottish island notoriously famous for its amazing whisky? That was the escape plan of our veteran foreign curryspondents Lord Of The Dansak and Thali Ho – who have previously reported from Barcelona and Bath and were looking for another "B" – and they were kind enough to invite me along for the adventure. It involved not just staying in Bowmore, the Islay town, but also in Bowmore, the famous distillery, in a cottage abutting the facility itself. While the weather may have been dramatically overcast and mostly raining, what better way to encourage visitors to sample as many peaty malt whiskies as possible?
And so it was, after an early morning tasting at the Bowmore distillery itself – also admiring one of the world's most expensive whiskies, the Bowmore 1957, which comes in a bottle that looks like it's been touched by the hand of Dr Victor Fries – our slightly light-headed and malty-breathed squad witnessed a historic FA Cup win by the Seagulls over Newcastle, and then chose to celebrate further by visiting one of the two curryhouses on the island. The closest one. The one literally metres from our door. The Taj Mahal Tandoori!
Early on a Saturday night, the Taj Mahal was hardly bustling, but there seemed to be a regular takeaway trade. The fishtank in the window helped draw attention to the seafood options on the menu, although the bar was a little more deceptive – being unlicensed, it fell upon me to bring a bottle of booze. Not of whisky, I should point out; instead, a deceptively muscular Aussie white to compete with the hopefully spicy curry.
While perusing the menus, we chowed down on poppadoms that came with superior dips, including a tamarind sauce that was lip-smackingly good and a lime pickle that was pretty bracing. Our waiter talked a little about the authenticity of the dishes and revealed that he was just passin' through on Bowmore – his real plan was to open a restaurant in Glasgow. I assured him another curryhouse would be most welcome. We placed our orders, popped the cork on the wine and settled in for dynamite chat and lively eating.
|Thali Ho and Lord Of The Dansak get stuck in|
While there were no lamb chops on the menu, I managed to talk the guys into going for some lamb tikka to start, although when it arrived it seemed a little obscured by salad. Lord Of The Dansak is a sort of vegetarian, so we rounded out the starters with mushroom pakora, although the kitchen had foregone the Glasgow fast food approach of battering entire mushrooms, opting for a more nuanced minced version. The starters were pretty good, and provided another excuse to spoon into the tamarind and pickle.
Lord Of The Dansak resisted the urge to go for a dansak, and opted for a vegetable bhuna. I was tempted to try some sort of crazy seafood curry, after assuming that an island would have access to some sort of crazy fish that I hadn't even heard of, but the description of the lamb achari won me over – after fighting a cold or perhaps incipient hangover, I was looking for something hot to help unblock my blanketed head and, ideally, my partial deafness in one ear. Ever the adventurer, Thali Ho opted for duck chilli masala and boy oh boy were we keen to see what that was like.
Along with a peshwari naan, some rice and a wee daal on the side, it was starting to look like quite a serious feast. My lamb achari was chewy but had a decent spice kick, and the duck chilli masala worked remarkably well, and allowed me to crack some jokes about the bill. Talk turned to whether whisky would be a good accompaniment for eating curry, which allowed me to wheel out my story about having a whisky-laced curry at the Koh-i-noor which was tasty although it was rather difficult to detect the spirit. Using an Islay malt like Laphroaig or one of the insanely peaty experimental Bruichladdichs would certainly leave its mark on a dish, but perhaps peat and spice should be kept separate. Certainly, some of the several dozen whiskies were sampled during my time on Islay felt like they would work well as a digestif.
Polishing off the feast was a little beyond our abilities, but the extra stuff was doggy-bagged, the bill was settled and the general consensus was that this was a little gem on an amazing island. Sadly, there wasn't time to try the opposition, but in a place that routinely has to endure some full-on weather, having spicy options must feel like a godsend. And thanks to Lord Of The Dansak and Thali Ho for having me a long for a couple of days – frankly, I'm amazed they survived the experience. When I saw them at the end of the week, I asked, a little incredulously, whether they'd had a full-on whisky tasting every day for a week. "Oh no," replied Thali Ho. "We had one day off."
"So what did you do that day?"
"Oh, there's a brewery on the island ..."
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