Who ordered the phaal?

tikka-masala-2244667_1920Who doesn’t enjoy a good curry? Family life is made by and full of traditions – many are passed on from generation to generation, perhaps tweaked along the way to make them even better (such as Christmas). One of ours is birthday celebrations, which include decorating the kitchen with balloons, banners and confetti before breakfast (how that one started I’ll never know, but it’s a right pain in the arse having to get up early – worth it to see the joy though!).

The other big tradition is going out for a birthday meal. Almost without exception, this ends up being the firm family favourite – a curry (although the occasional Chinese has been thrown in to keep things interesting and us on our toes – when are we never?!).

We’re lucky to have one of the best curry houses I’ve ever been to just down the road. Trust me when I say I’ve eaten a LOT of curry over the last 30 years – everything from Brick Lane to the legendary table naans of Leicester (and even a Michelin starred one, once) – so I think I’ve carried out a reasonable sample during my lifetime and our local IS one of the best. It’s also probably one of the closest Indian restaurants to sea, with spectacular sunsets on those rare clear days….

I was a late curry starter, having my first introduction at university, but I’ve really made up for it since then. My cherry was broken was courtesy of a second year student who insisted that my first curry HAD to be a madras. Being a fresh-faced first year and out to make a good impression with the ‘bigger boys’, I put up no argument…let’s just say I lived to tell the tale, but had at least two days where my body didn’t forgive me and I became far too familiar with the university toilets and their ‘John Wayne’ toilet paper (Google it!).

As a result of that ring baptism of fire, my tastebuds have matured and I have no problem venturing up the heat scale (Scoville for the purists out there) when in the mood, and no, it doesn’t need to be lager induced.

Since the children arrived, we have made sure to introduce them to a wide and varied diet, and this has included sharing my passion for hot food. Don’t worry, I’ve been gentle with them and E, as the youngest, has decided that spicy food is not for her (although to keep up with siblings, she will have the occasional drop of Tabasco on her pizza) – her curry pleasure comes from a tikka masala and Peshwari naan.

I’ve created a monster….

Not sure how it’s happened, but C has fully embraced all and everything spicy – he asks for some form of chilli sauce with everything, and gets most grumpy when I explain that chilli sauce does not go with a roast! Approaching his 10th birthday, we asked where he would like to go for his birthday meal, and, unsurprisingly, a curry was first on the list. We then had a conversation about what was the hottest curry and a whole discussion about the Scoville scale and where korma, madras, vindaloo and phaal featured – all I can say is thank goodness for the internet!

I should mention that we had a go at growing some chillis last year (a most welcome and successful Father’s Day present), including cayenne, habanero and scotch bonnet. The latter became a firm favourite and C was most disappointed when supplies ran out – it seems that he shares my passion for all things hot!

The birthday meal

You’ve probably guessed where this is going….


[Pause] “Yes?”

“Can I order a phaal on my birthday?”

[Double pause] “Of course – as long as I can have some too. Tell you what, we’ll order a vindaloo too and then you can see which you prefer…”. My thinking, of course, was that he would like neither and I would get double curry….my naivety knows no bounds, clearly!

As is also traditional in our family, the birthday boy/girl orders for the whole table (that rule also applies to the grown ups on their birthdays!). Now C is not the most confident of boys – he’s come on leaps and bounds since becoming part of our family, but it takes constant encouragement and reminders to use his ‘outdoor voice’. However, on this particular occasion, there was no stopping him – he was like a man possessed, reeling of Indian food orders like there was no tomorrow….

And then he ordered the phaal….

The world entered slow motion, the waiter looked at me, I looked at the waiter, “a phaal sir?”, I shrugged my shoulders and gave him one of those ‘what can you do?’ looks. Very kindly, they offered to do a child’s portion (effectively a starter size and half the price – now why have they never mentioned this before – genius????). We also ordered a child’s vindaloo….just in case.

And then the anticipation…..

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long. The food was delivered by the owner, who asked “who ordered the phaal?”. C dutifully put his hand up and the owner delivered it, with a “this is so hot, even we don’t eat it…”. The smile on C’s face alone could have made grown men cry (and very nearly did!) – I don’t remember him looking so happy!.

We had an audience. Two other waiters joined the owners to see just how a 10 year old was going to cope with one of the hottest foodstuffs known to man. I managed one small spoonful and didn’t get a look in on the rest – he demolished it (it was damned good…. and damned hot). Admittedly a couple of litres of water was consumed (bad idea, as every aficionado knows), much nose blowing, steam from ears and almost a whole naan to himself, but he loved it. The vindaloo wasn’t too shabby, so I was happy too!

He got a free ice cream, so it really was the BEST birthday.

Funnily enough, every time we go back, C is treated like royalty – and continues to order the phaal.

This year, we’re trying to grow the world’s hottest chilli, just for giggles – let’s see how that one goes!



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