Tim Hughes revisits an old favourite curry house and finds it still punching above its weight when it comes to imaginative cooking

KARMA is defined in my dictionary as the force generated by a person’s actions that is believed to influence their destiny.

By that measure, good karma must be in plentiful supply in the kitchen of the Cowley restaurant of the same name.

Standing in splendid isolation away from the main drag of Indian restaurants on Cowley Road, Karma was always a bit of an oddity. Despite being an outpost of quality food, it has always punched above its diminutive weight.

Its late proprietor Muhammad Ali had a terrific – even legendary – reputation and had armfuls of awards to his name, going as far as representing the UK in the worldwide Indian Chef of the Year awards in Dhaka.

Now its the turn of Mr Ali’s son, Zakir Hussain, to carry on the good work – which he is undoubtedly doing, having also netted a clutch of awards – including the coveted Golden Poppadom from the Oxford Boys’ Curry Club, and another countywide accolade, which he shows me with a broad smile. There’s nothing wrong in showing off – especially where it concerns people saying nice things about your food.

The last time I had visited Karma was to meet the late Mr Ali, who graciously gave me my first and only curry masterclass in the kitchen – roaring with laughter when I flinched as sheets of flame shot from his curry pan. Curious to see if it had maintained its reputation for excellent curry, I dropped in with my brother in curry, Ed, and spice sister Holly – both Karma virgins.

First impressions were favourable, with the restaurant being nicely busy without being full. It was obvious from the banter with the staff that much of the clientele were regulars. Again, no bad thing.

We started, as we always do in these matters, with a brace of pints of Cobra – crisp, clean-tasting and, importantly, low on fizz. Then it was the turn of the poppadoms, which were good with a better than average assortment of dips.

Starters followed – we having suggested Zakir and his head chef Imdad just bring us what they were most proud of (“Just surprise and impress us!” or words to that effect).

We were treated to a range of delights – all fairly delicate (we are wise to the schoolboy error of filling up on Indian starters). The best was a succulent and fiery hot Spicy Lamb (£4.50). The tender fillets, we were told, are cooked with spinach and yoghurt and served rolled up burrito style in a puree. They were divine.

Also great was a chot poti (£4.95) – chickpeas, potatoes and lentils cooked with diced egg and mysterious Bengali spices and topped with crispy fried onions. A popular Bangladesh street snack, it is healthy, warming and finely flavoured – and a riot of textures. Wonderful, and a meal in itself.

In a break from tradition, the food was served on big plates and slates in the manner of a Michelin-starred restaurant – all jaunty angles, little salads and arty squiggles of sauce. A nice touch.

The main courses, though, were the real reason to write home – or rather, return for more.

A Sea bass parcel (£11.95) elicited gasps from us, and neighbouring tables, being artfully served in a pyramid of silver foil, which when removed, released a cloud of fragrant herb and spice. Pan fried and dressed with curry leaves, lime zest, fresh herbs and a little coconut milk, it was delicate and refined, fresh chunks of fish flaking on the fork, yet packing a tasty tickle of spice. A traditional Bengali recipe, this oriental dish reveals Bangladesh’s oft overlooked proximity to Burma and Thailand .

The standout dish, though, was a magnificent Coconut Golda Chingri (£12.95) – tiger prawns cooked with almonds, coconut milk, lime and herbs. They were beautifully glazed and made for pulling apart with the fingers – cue much lip-smacking and finger licking. The prawns were lightly cooked, and still juicy. They were well-spiced but not enough to dominate the taste of the meaty tails within those deep russet shells.

For some much-needed proper curry heat, we also shared Ali’s Indian Hot Pot (£10.95)– Karma’s signature dish and a tribute to its creator. Chicken or lamb are available – we went for the lamb which was tender, good quality, and divinely cooked in a rich concoction of bell peppers, garlic, ginger coriander and bullet chilli paste, which lends it its punch. Served in a glazed earthernware pot, the flavours are sealed in with a lid of bread – its loveliness revealed once you piece the top. There are other hot pots in Oxford, but none come close to Ali’s.

Oh, and because we could, we also shared a very fine chicken tikka massala (£8.50), which is always a good yardstick by which to judge a chef... and Imdad’s is excellent. Forget what you think you know, a tikka massala in the right hands can be a thing of absolute beauty.

Good karma all round then. Mr Ali would be proud.

  • Karma
  • 152 Oxford Road, Oxford
  • 01865 777402
  • karma restaurant.com