It’s an incongruous setting The Six Bells in Headington, not perhaps where you’d expect to find Oxford’s new collective of Indian and Bangladeshi women introducing their own home-cooking to an appreciative audience.
But right at the back, past the happy locals drinking and watching football, you will find Shirin’s Kitchen where we enjoyed a meal that we’re still salivating about.
Set up by Oxford’s Shirin Sultana who began delivering and preparing home cooked Bangladeshi and Indian meals with other local women during lockdown, the time seemed right to strike out on her own.
Because while Oxford’s curry houses tend to be cheffed by men and cater for English palates, at home Oxford’s south Asian population eats totally differently.
And having worked in restaurants such as Aziz for years as a front of house, Shirin wanted to show how good her own home-cooked meals could be, as well as that of other women in her community.
The result is Shirin’s Kitchen, where she, and Oxford cookery teacher Kashmira Patel, introduce not only the food from their specific regions, but what they eat and cook at home, and where female chefs rule supreme.
“the lamb bhuna will be forever cemented in our minds – slow cooked, infused with ginger and garlic, and so soft and succulent it was a wonder to behold”
Other local female Indian and Bangladeshi women are encouraged to join Shirin’s crew a few evenings a month, but in the meantime Shirin is holding the fort and manning the kitchens with her initial friends/homecooks.
Which is how we came to be enjoying an Indian feast of epic proportions. Dish after dish of wonderful offerings kept emerging, starting off with dui bora – a deep fried fritter made from ground lentils and spices served with a yoghurt dip and Asian slaw (crunchy carrot, cabbage and mustard seeds).
Basic in appearance, its taste belied its simplicity; crunchy, fragrantly spiced, the slaw fresh and exotic, it was the perfect start to a gargantuan feast.
Next up the lamb bhuna, which will be forever cemented in our minds. Just a bowl of it to share, placed in the middle of the table with rice – it was slow cooked, infused with ginger and garlic and so soft and succulent it was a wonder to behold. We finished the lot, unable to resist despite the lure of several more tempting dishes arriving.
The potato cakes need a special mention. So delicately spiced, yet unmistakably Indian – crispy on the outside, soft inside and again served with a creamy green dip, they were exceptional.
Other delicacies included a rich chicken rezala concocted with spices and nut pastes that rivalled any anglicized alternative, a mixed vegetable and paneer sabzi – with its distinctive peanut and sesame base and the dal fry – using three kinds of lentils, mild spices, fresh ginger, garlic and butter.
All components of a thali, they came with yoghurt and chapatis and we feasted like kings.
Around us families ate and chatted, oblivious to the football scores at the other end, all aware that we had stumbled across somewhere rather special.
Cookery teacher and food consultant Kashmira Patel explained: “What you eat in an Indian restaurant and at home is quite different, and that’s what she’s trying to address. So she’s not serving fancy food but good home-cooked meals you might not find elsewhere.
“This is her first venture and she hopes it will lead to opening her own restaurant in Oxford and really growing this into something for the female Indian and Bangladeshi community as well, as much as the customers.
Then came the seviyan – a sweet rice pudding, again gently spiced with cardamom, saffron and nuts – which was as utterly irresistible as the rest of the meal.
A real find then in sightly unlikely surroundings, and you can support this fabulous new venture by ordering a takeaway or visiting yourself. But if you expect anything fancy you are missing the point – Shirin’s aims to be a home away from home.
During the week thalis are on offer at Shirin’s Kitchen Monday-Thursday (lamb, chicken or vegetarian) and at weekends Shirin will introduce specialities cooked by herself and her female team. To order, book or find out more go to: https://shirins-kitchen.com