"We were on a long haul train journey in India. It was time to eat, and they brought out our meals on a big tray. You had everything! Your curry, chapati, snacks – and we thought right there and then, wouldn't it be great if we could emulate this at home?"
That's Alun Sperring, Head Chef and owner of The Chilli Pickle in Brighton, describing the moment of inception of their signature feast – The Grand Thali Box, which we're going to be trying shortly. It's the jewel in The Chilli Pickle crown, a massive meal for one that takes you on a tasting tour of one of the world's most exciting and diverse cuisines.
"A complete mega-feast in one."
Work started as soon as Alun and his wife Dawn returned home. "Between us we designed the box, and we created the two scenarios: the railway tray, where we emulated exactly what we'd seen on that train – and the Grand Thali Box, which is the all-singing-and-dancing experience – snacks, desserts, everything. Basically a complete mega-feast in one."
When Alun says complete, he means complete. This is a guy who knows his onions when it comes to Indian food. As we talk, he flies off on tangent after fascinating tangent, covering the different regional specialities you could expect to find, his years spent working in high end restaurants in India and Dubai, and how that all culminated in him meeting Dawn, then coming back to Brighton and setting up The Chilli Pickle.
"Ten years ago, we came back to Brighton with the idea to open an exciting Indian restaurant with a point of difference. We really wanted to focus on the diversity in India and its regions. You've got the wetlands and Calcutta, you've got the tropics in the South with their coconut plantations and mangoes. You've got the deserts where they're very big on dairy and farming, you've got the mountains in Sikkim and the borders with Pakistan. There are so many exciting opportunities to explore diversity in culture and cuisine, so for a creative, passionate chef it's just a question of bringing those things to the restaurant."
The key was that people were hungry for something different.
Ten years ago, the sight of a place like The Chilli Pickle was not a common one – Indian food in Britain tended to occupy a very specific place. "It was incredibly different. What you had at the time was your standard Indian or Bengali restaurant, a template which has replicated all over the UK and has built a massive love for Indian food and a massive industry. But now, because people have a greater knowledge, and a hunger for travel or something different – not to mention the role of TV and the media – people are now looking for different things."
A crucial element of bringing that freshness was bringing the right chefs. They found a premises in the Old Lanes, with the capacity for 45 covers. They brought two chefs they had met in Dubai – Sabhu and Laksman – to be a part of the A-Team that would attempt to bring a brand new Indian experience to Brighton. "It was a little bit scary in the beginning – the first few months were really hard. Then word of mouth got around and before you knew it we had a full house every weekend, and then that dripped into the week. All of a sudden we had a very buzzy little talk-of-the-town restaurant."
The main event.
It seems appropriate that at this point in the story, the Grand Thali comes out. There's some real theatre involved, as the lid is lifted. The colours and aromas hit you right in the face – it looks and smells amazing. There are fourteen individual elements, so take a deep breath. You have your choice of curry – I went for the mutton madras on Alun's advice – with pilau rice. Then there's the smaller dishes – daal, aubergine pickle, red chilli jam, pineapple chutney, and the south Indian thoran, which is like a cabbage and a coconut coleslaw. Next is the raita – a beetroot yoghurt cooler with a vibrant pink colour.
We check under a bag and it turns out we've missed something – Pumpkin shorba (to the uninitiated, like me). Then the obligatory Masala pappadum, and a couple of snacks as well. A Punjabi samosa, and a rice cake filled with cheese, all topped off with a beautiful soft chapati. It's hard to know where to start, but Alun has a method. "If it was me, I'd get some chutney on the snacks, and I'd get some chapati in the daal. I wouldn't normally mix the curry and the rice, for me that's diluting the flavour – the rice is a foil and a different taste."
In a league of its own.
So, with that pro tip, we get down to business. It's all delicious – the curry packs some heat but it's intensely flavourful, the mutton is as tender as a night spent with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the rice is – in fact – delicious on its own (10 points to Alun). The samosa and the cheese rice cake were a delight and the assorted pickles, jams and chutneys provide the perfect compliment. A feast is the only appropriate word for it, and at £17 it's genuinely in a league of its own.
And it turns out we aren't the only ones who've noticed. Chilli Pickle have won at the British Curry Awards the last three years running. You also might have seen them win the title of Britain's best curry on the BBC, beating out competition from Scotland and Wales.
"For us, we've picked the best stuff from the restaurant that travels best, will make sure you get that best Chilli Pickle Experience."