The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Curry @ South East Asia

Curry has to be the greatest food ever created. I could eat it everyday. But curry varies so much worldwide, even in India where I have travelled extensively there are obviously good and not so good curries but they are very rarely bad and never ugly. In Europe you yet again get a cross section but most of the time in most restaurants in most countries you will end up with a good if not great curry.

I was actually taught to cook authentic North Indian curries by one of my uncles who grew up in India and was himself taught to cook by his Indian nanny. So I do think that I know a good curry, so why is it so difficult to find a decent curry in Thailand and in South East Asia generally? We are only a few countries away from the ancestral home of curry and yet so many places deliver terrible Indian food.

Korat now has it sorted with a number of very good curries being available as reviewed on the site - Korat Chef, The Walrus, Save One Food Court and Staffords in Prasat to name but a few. But when you travel outside the city you are often throwing caution to the wind when stepping into an Indian restaurant. 

So here are two recent curry experiences as an example of a theory I have. I'll start with the Indian Hut in Whitesands on Koh Chang. 

I recently visited the island with the extended family and had a great time and enjoyed some fantastic food. I decided that I would take everyone for an Indian one evening and asked around, the place that kept on being mentioned was the Indian Hut so off we all went. 

The restaurant had nice decor, inside air-conditioned and outdoor seating and a good vibe about it. It is situated on the main street that runs through the town on the first corner as the road starts to rise out of Whitesands towards Chetti. But...

...the food was absolutely terrible, it was the 'Ugly' of this feature's title, but that might even be considered a compliment for the dishes that were delivered to he table. We ordered three curries - chicken, lamb and prawn, with three different flavours and spice strengths. When delivered they all looked exactly the same - clearly the same basic sauce was used for all three curries. Worst than that they actually tasted the same, how on earth a vindaloo can taste like a jalfrezi is beyond me considering the basic ingredients necessary and the differing amount of spices involved, but the Indian Hut managed it. The curries were just about edible but no thought, care, skill or passion had gone into making them.

Unfortunately the rice dishes ordered were even worse. The first, a pilau rice was so damp, sticky and bland that it wasn't touched apart from a tentative initial tasting. The second, a Lemon rice (at nearly twice the price of the pilau), which is normally a wonderfully fragrant and fresh rice dish made from pilau rice with small cubes of fresh lemon mixed in and lots of fresh lemon juice was actually the same sticky mess I just described but with three thinly cut lime slices on top? WTF, a complete con! The third and only semi-edible rice was a onion rice which at least wasn't quite as damp.

Moving on to the two Nan's that were ordered which weren't even Nan's - they were parathas, why would an Indian restaurant bother building a tandoor oven to make proper Nan's when it couldn't even be bothered to cook the rice properly??? But that said the parathas were easily the best part of the meal but no disrespect, making and cooking a flatbread that contains three basic ingredients isn't exactly rocket science.

I can't actually think of any Indian restaurant I would actually recommend less than the Indian Hut - terrible, ugly food - don't eat there!

So to my theory. I don't think the Indian Hut gets return visitors, and I don't think it cares if it does or not. Most visitors to Koh Chang only go once, if they are there for a week they will try a different place every night so why bother delivering quality food? A terrible attitude and it stinks, but that's how I think they look at their business.

So let's leave the Ugly and the Bad and move on to the Good. Many of us travel to Vientiane in Laos quite often for a variety of new visas or just for a change of scenery, when I go I always try to get a curry in. But I have experienced the same problem as on Koh Chang, in that most of the Indian restaurants in the main tourists areas along the Mekong overlooking the river aren't that good, they are not in the Ugly category but are definitely hovering around the Bad classification.

But then I heard about a small restaurant called Jamil Zahid Punjabi Restaurant. Finding it is an absolute nightmare, it's just off Khun Bu Lom road which is one of the main roads through the city, but it's a good 100 meters up a small dimly lit side street, the kind of street that could have been used to film parts of Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

When I found the restaurant which is actually best described as a shack - complete with corrugated iron roof, open badly painted wood panelled walls and low quality garden furniture as seating I got the menu. It was as basic as the venue but at least it was authentic. I ordered a Mutton Punjabi Curry (40,000 Kip (170 odd Baht)), a Tarkka Dhal (12,000 Kip (50 odd Baht)), Zeera Rice (rice with onions and cumin seeds (7,000 Kip (30 Baht))) and a Garlic Butter Nan (6,000 Kip (25 Baht)). Plus a large bottle of Beer Laos at 10,000 Kip (40 Baht) to wash it all down.

The food was absolutely fantastic, some of the best Indian food I have eaten outside the sub-continent - mega highly recommended!

So in conclusion, Indian Hut on Koh Chang doesn't have to work to get or keep customers so can afford to deliver Ugly food. Jamil Zahid in Vientiane has to deliver good food in order to keep locals, tourists and returning visa applicants coming back. 

Next time your on Koh Chang please avoid Indian Hut like the plague, and the next time your in Vientiane make sure you take the time to find Jamil Zahid's little shack of a 'restaurant' - it's well worth the effort.

Jamil Zahid Punjabi Restaurant

Address: Ban Haysok, Khounboulom Road, Vientiane, Laos

Tel: (856-20) 588 711 33

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