I’m a fraud. Those beautiful heritage tomatoes I admired at the farmers market before posting to Instagram? I find them repulsive. I went home, tomato-less, and demolished a pack of budget noodles without any photo evidence or shame. In the digital foodieverse, where appeal can be so accurately measured and flaunted, I’ve found myself prizing beauty and trends above an objective (or even subjective) assessment of quality when selecting which pictures to share. I’ve neglected to put meals on my feed because they aren’t great lookers. And I still have fuck all followers.
Have you ever noticed that we can’t taste photos? Now, I know, I know, we eat with our eyes. But here’s the thing; no, we don’t. The first victim of the phone’s filter is flavour. This disconnect ensures that, regardless of its enjoyability, a pretty dish is likelier to garner likes than its lumpy, beige (and potentially far more delicious) counterpart. It’s a popularity contest and, as ever, the ugly kids are left sitting in the corner. Or, in this case, not invited to the party at all.
Has, then, our increasingly artificial relationship with food relegated the eating experience to secondary importance, behind fashion, fads and the endless struggle for online favour? Kind of.
But things don’t need to be this way. If Johnny Depp has taught us anything (which, surely, he has), it’s that beauty is fleeting, adoration turns to ridicule and 2003’s swashbuckling hero becomes 2017’s bloated pirate. Given the chance, how many of those who once fantasised about ravaging Captain Jack would now choose him over their far less remarkable but eminently more reliable partners? I don’t really know, but you catch my drift.
And so, I introduce you to Raja’s in Harehills, Leeds. Not with a #foodporn, not because of seasonal relevance and not prompted by a press release (no one sends me them, anyway), but with sincere optimism that your life will improve through knowing about it. For too long, I’ve held my silence on one of my favourite restaurants purely because the food is a study in green and brown slop. There is a time and a place for trendy dining but, far more often, the moment calls for a curry.
Owned and run by its namesake, Raja’s has been a Leeds institution since 1983. Guardian inches devoted to Bundobust and The Cat’s Pyjamas may have made them the city’s current Indian A-listers but, should Mr Rayner ever find himself back in the ‘hood, I’d urge him to settle down at one of the unremarkable, white cloth-covered tables in the unadorned dining room, perhaps beneath the inexplicable and incredibly creepy portrait of a clown, and tuck into a pile of chicken tikka.
The blistered, anaemic flesh belies the delicate buzz of the spicing, uplifting tang of the yoghurt marinade and earthy sear from the tandoor. It should be sold by the bucket. Mushroom bhajis, at a mere £1.95 per portion, carry a more potent heat; a fiery fungal burst, quenched by the refreshing raita. And then there’s the mulligatawny soup. To look at, a molten contender for #foodorpoo, decorated with Rorschach cream splashes. To taste, a cumin-rich potage, rice, spice and keema adding clout to the stocky vegetable base – it’s really quite incredible that something so brown can carry such complexity.
Mains all arrive in the same silver pots because presentation doesn’t matter, remember? From the green chicken, yielding chunks of thigh swamped in spinach and fenugreek, to the tender might of the Karai lamb chops, or the tarka dal, heavy in ginger, garlic and coriander, the menu is a masterclass in flavour and heat. For dessert, a kulfi is a no-brainer (unless you’re really into Punkies).
Raja’s is one of very few restaurants where you can order without fear of making a mistake. The food is precise without being precious; these curries are unfussy and unrivalled. And no matter how many filters you put on them, they’ll still look shit. Perhaps we should embrace the divide and acknowledge that there is little place for gratifying reality online. Or maybe we should edit less, share more and eat better.