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The spice of life is safe

 
IT WAS a simple plan. I was going to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen at one of the country's finest Indian restaurants to take the pulse of our national cuisine. On a Friday night. Perfect planning.
"Er, are you sure?" said Balbir, the sainted sage of Weegie curry houses and the owner of the eponymous restaurant just off the Byres Road. "Sure am," I assured him. I'm acknowledged throughout the length and breadth of my street as the man who rustles up the best balti in, well, in my house. Of course I was ready. What could possibly go wrong?

The step through those double doors was like a descent into Hades. From the palliative calm outside, I entered a super-heated world where the flames on the gas hob were so high Red Adair would struggle to cap them. It was high-octane bedlam, with men in chef's whites dodging to and fro clutching a hot pan in one hand while wielding a giant ladle with the other. Apparently preparing food for 130 hungry punters requires a perpetual state of organised chaos.

Watching the chefs was an education. The inestimable Gurmeet was bent over a hot stove, adding spices to dishes like some medieval alchemist. Tony Singh kept several bubbling pans moving with deft movements, like a culinary version of Cozy Powell. The station in front of the tandoor oven, comfortably the hottest square yard in Scotland, belongs to Mohammad Gaffar. Keeping them all ticking over was sergeant-major Neki, Balbir's son and the current gaffer of the team.

Neki is the man who kept the whole show marching in time. He'd convey instructions to the three main chefs and they'd bark at the footsoldiers. And there was a lot of barking going on. Balbir told me that Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Kashmiri and Urdu ring around the kitchen. There's even a smattering of Latvian, Polish and plenty of pure dead brilliant Glaswegian patter, lots of it with a distinct Asian lilt. It's less a Tower of Babel, more the fortress's flaming underbelly.

I realised that Balbir's list didn't include Bengali, the language spoken by Bangladeshis. This is when I remembered my mission. The nation's curry lovers � including some of this paper's high heidyins � are in a state of panic at the Home Office's decision to stop doling out work permits to Bangladeshi chefs and waiters. Apparently, no Bangladeshis equals no curry, an apocalyptic scenario which on Thursday prompted a demonstration at Holyrood against the Home Office decision.

Balbir looked as bemused at my inquiries about the Bangladeshis as he had at the prospect of me donning my chef's whites. About 90% of Indian restaurants in Britain are owned and staffed by Sylhetis from Bangladesh, he said, but Glasgow was � predictably enough � different. The number of curry houses owned by Bangladeshis here was, he revealed, precisely none.

"If you go to the sorts of towns that have a small population then you'll find Bangladeshis running the show, but in Glasgow virtually all of the Indian restaurants are run by Punjabis from both sides of the border. It wasn't like that in the beginning: when I started off washing dishes back in the late Seventies most of the restaurants were owned by Pakistanis and Bengalis.

"Most of the restaurants were on Gibson Street, which was known as Vindaloo Valley. We still had the old licensing laws and you'd get guys coming in after the pub. The ones who'd hit the brew too hard would order something crazy hot, and a few would try to do a runner without paying at the end of the night.

"The quality of the food often wasn't brilliant because a lot of the Bangladeshis weren't cooks, they just wanted to make a living. So they'd get chicken breasts and smother a creamy sauce full of ghee on top of it � the Indian equivalent of meat and gravy. Most of the dishes were made-up for the Scottish market, with lots of fruit or even sugar added to them to make them sweeter. Lots of the customers didn't know better back then, but some would ask for the staff curry, which was always far better than whatever was on the menu."

Restaurants like Jamils started getting away from the 10-pints-and-a-curry culture by staging candlelit nights, while the Shish Mahal was the benchmark. But it was only when Balbir launched Ashoka that quality ghee-free Punjabi cuisine took over. Not that it was easy: he literally had to give food away, putting little taster dishes of his "Balbir's specials" on the table while punters whose palates were conditioned by Irn-Bru and tablet chose the sweet creations until the penny dropped. Once it did, the Ashoka formula spread quickly.

Nowadays, Balbir has a reputation for the sort of Anglo-Indian fusion food found in top restaurants such as London's Bombay Brasserie and is packed out. I've had his tandoori versions of swordfish, salmon, scallops, monkfish and guinea fowl, and there's more to come: his new restaurant on Sauchiehall Street will specialise in the new Indian-style tapas "haldiram" taking Delhi by storm, and will have a nod to Bombay's popular dosa diners. Glasgow, he says proudly, is second only to London when it comes to serious Indian food.

"Yeah, yeah, that's all very well," I say, determined to cut to the chase. "But what about the Bangladeshis? How are you gonna function without the Bang-la-desh-eeees?"

"We've only got one Bangladeshi here, and even if he disappeared tomorrow we'd still be okay. Most of our staff are local Asians, and lots of my son's non-Asian friends work here too � if Gordon Ramsay can cook French, Scots can cook Indian. The best pakora man in Scotland works for the Ashoka and is called James Oakley. We'll still be here tomorrow and the day after."

That is what I wanted to hear. I could go home happy. The curry world is falling around our ears, but Glasgow's okay and the gaffers can still get their curry fix. Mission accomplished.

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