Norwich: Spice Paradise
A curry is a just curry, right? Wrong. The sub-continent is in fact home to a vividly diverse array of cooking styles and dishes. SARAH BREALEY visits an Indian restaurant with the flavour of the South.
Spice Paradise bills itself as 'the only South Indian restaurant in Norfolk'.
I can't say for certain that this is true, but if you fancy trying some dishes that you wouldn't find in your typical Indian restaurant, it is certainly a good bet. South Indian food makes heavy use of ingredients like coconut, lentils, plantains and tamarind.
Spice Paradise leans towards the food of Kerala in particular, with lots of seafood one of its most distinctive qualities.
The chef's signature dish is crab in its shell flavoured with ginger, curry leaves, chilli and mushroom, while the menu also features tapioca with fish curry - another Kerala speciality, as is the fish mollie, fried fish pieces in a sauce of coconut, onions and spices.
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On the other hand, if you are looking for the usual favourites such as korma, madras, or biryani, Spice Paradise offers those too.
The decor is reasonably modern, with white tablecloths, high-backed white leather chairs, and a few modern art prints on the cream walls.
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When it comes to drinks there are Cobra and Kingfisher lagers, a selection of wines, plus lassi, a traditional Indian yogurt drink. The Real Ale Drinker was thrilled to find bottles of Adnams, which were not too badly priced at �3.20.
We passed up on the offer of poppadoms — virtually sacrilege I know, but we wanted to do justice to the starters. There were plenty of tempting and unusual options, including seafood soup, a three-lentil soup, aubergine fritters or crab stir-fried with ginger, coconut and mustard seeds.
In the event we ordered mysore bonda, which were a pair of potato balls laced with ginger, curry leaves, coriander and black mustard seeds, coated in chickpea flour batter, deep-fried and served with coconut chutney. They could have been bland or stodgy but they were neither, the coating deliciously light and the creamy a nice accompani-ment. Gobi pakora are essentially cauliflower fritters.
Again it sounds pedestrian, but with batter pepped up with some chillies, turmeric and coriander, it was nothing of the sort, and the texture was just right — firm without being too crunchy. The tomato chutney did not excite me as much as the coconut chutney, but was still a nice fresh, light accompaniment to the fritters, its slight acidity help-ing to cut through the batter. Each starter was a very reasonable �2.75.
The Real Ale Drinker had perhaps one of the most famous south Indian dishes, a Kerala fish curry. It was king fish, cooked in a sauce of onion, tomato, fried chillies, turmeric, ginger and kokum, which is a sour spice similar to tamarind. I cannot tell you exactly what king fish is – there are several types of fish which go by that name – but it was a dense, meaty white fish which stood up well to the flavours of the curry.
I had bhaigan bharta, a north Indian dish of whole smoked aubergines, served mashed and seasoned with herbs and spices. Like the fish curry, it packed quite a chilli punch, but not so much that it hid the complex spicy flavours underneath.
We also tried kaalan, another Keralan speciality of plantain (green bananas) cooked with coconut, yoghurt and mustard seeds. It was quite subtle but really delicious. Despite being of the same family, plantains taste nothing like bananas — they are starchy rather than sweet, and with a firmer texture.
We had some plain rice and a pair of chapattis, but could also have had poori (deep-fried flat-breads), naan or parathas, available plain or stuffed. Pancakes are a popular alternative to bread in both South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, and here you can get appam (known as hoppers in Sri Lanka), a type of pancake made in a curved wok-shaped pan, or dosas, which are a large rolled pancake served with chutney or more substantial fillings.
We were too full for anything else, but there are two or three traditional desserts. It was a blessed relief not to see one of those mass-produced ice-cream menus that Indian restaurants seem to love – you know, the kind offering 'orange sorbet in the skin of the fruit' and that sort of thing.
It was not the first way in which Spice Paradise had shown itself to be a bit different – a bit more authentic, maybe? — and all in all, a refreshing change.
Opening times: Tues-Sun 5.30pm-11.30pm
Prices: Starters from �2.75, mains �5.95, Indian sweets from �2.50
Vegetarian options: Loads, including dedicated vegetarian menu and vegetarian feast (�16.95)
Wheelchair access: Yes