Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting OXFORD NEWS to 80360 or email us
Review: Aziz, Cowley Road, Oxford... Pilgrimage to the very top
TIM HUGHES drops in to try a curry institution that’s still leading the way Aziz, in Oxford
INDIA has the Taj Mahal, Egypt its Pyramids and China its Great Wall. The curry world, meanwhile, has Aziz.
Far fetched? Well, okay, perhaps a little, but in the world of Asian cuisine this restaurant at the top end of Oxford’s Cowley Road reigns supreme. For a curry reviewer, a meal at Aziz-ur Rahman’s award-winning restaurant is the culinary equivalent of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem or Varanasi. So it was with butterflies in our stomachs that my brother in curry Ed and I met Aziz late one Friday night. We were hungry, having been at a lovely concert round the corner at St Alban’s Church; Aziz was even hungrier, being well into Ramadan, and was eager to break his fast with us.
It’s safe to say Aziz, the man, is as legendary as his restaurant (consistently listed among the UK’s top 10). Running restaurants since the age of 19, he is founding chairman of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs, regional president of the British Bangladeshi Chamber of Commerce, and a strong figure in the East Oxford community.
He pioneered the use of locally-sourced and organic produce more than 20 years ago, was the first to ban artificial colours and flavourings and led the way in the drive towards serving authentic Bangladeshi dishes, rather than the Anglicised concoctions which still dominate so many menus. That said, Aziz has another claim to fame, helping to introduce the nation to it’s favourite dish – chicken tikka masala, which Aziz first started serving in 1978 (though he secretly admits he is not a fan).
Out of tradition we piled into a basket of popadoms. Despite appearances, not all popadoms are created equal, and these crunchy folded parcels were excellent, and served with fresh pickles.
Then it was time for starters. Feeling adventurous, we asked Aziz to show us what he does best. This came in the shape of a twist on an old Bengali favourite – chot poti. A cheap and popular snack on the streets of Dhaka, Aziz have elevated the humble chot poti to high art – all firm chickpeas, soft chunks of boiled egg, and crunchy fried onion, topped with tangy tamarind sauce and fresh coriander.
This came with a paneer tikka – divine chunks of firm cheese marinated in spices and grilled in the tandoor oven, and served with battered aubergine and grilled green peppers.
The main courses were greeted with gasps – not just from Ed and I, but from a neighbouring table of jealous diners. And they showed why it always serves to leave the choosing to the cook (in this case Nurel Amin, a former head chef for the Bangladeshi government). A king prawn Darjeeling consisted of huge tender knuckles of seafood doused in a tangy medium sauce. A chicken kaliya was creamy and sweet with firm chicken cooked on the bone with black pepper – the perfect rich alternative to the usual korma. But the best was a dish which owes its origins (in this country at least) to Aziz himself: kodu gosht. This delicious combination of tender lamb and smooth pumpkin is the perfect blend of tastes and textures, and carries a warming kick of chilli, which was soothed with spoonfulls of creamy lal saag (red spinach).
It’s all good, and we are both dying to know Aziz’s secret. “It’s all about making things in the traditional way,” he told us. “We use local producers, organic produce and no artificial colours or flavourings. We have led the way in cooking, decor and ambience for 22 years and will continue to do so.
“Others have tried to copy us, but we are the original. We have a great reputation and that’s based on one thing: being consistently good.”
Aziz, 230 Cowley Rd Oxford Call 01865 794945, or see aziz.uk.com