Ali Ahmed Aslam, known to generations of Glasgow curry lovers as ‘Mr Ali’, opened the Shish-Mahal, in Gibson Street, in 1964. In those days, when the pubs shut at 10pm, going for a 'Ruby' was the only way to keep on drinking. In its early days, the Shish even allowed customers to bring in their own bevvy. Spicy food fans, much like the restaurant’s fancy wallpaper, flocked to the place.

In 1979, to mark the Shish-Mahal‘s 15th birthday, Mr Ali rolled his prices back to 1964 levels, hence the huge queue of hairy and hungry students.

A taste of India

His father, Noor Mohammed, had opened what is regarded as the city's first proper Indian restaurant, the 'Green Gates’, in nearby Bank Street, in 1959. But even then, curry wasn’t a new arrival in Glasgow. The city’s historic trading, naval and military links with the Indian sub-continent had long seen Indian spices gobbled up by adventurous Glasgow gourmands. Think of mildly spiced kedgeree, made with good smoked haddock, or hot and fiery mulligatawny soup (mulligatawny being the Tamil word for pepper water).

A veritable army of Glasgow men, after serving in the far-flung corners of the Empire, had also come home with a love for curry.

Back in the early 1900s, if you were brave, you could enjoy a curry by the Clyde, after a few enterprising incomers set up makeshift cafes and dining rooms on Broomielaw and Anderson Quay, to feed the visiting East Indian seamen who stoked the boilers of visiting ships.

Even Queen Victoria was partial to a curry, although, rather than sending a liveried footman out for the full bhuna, she employed her own Indian chef.

Glasgow’s ‘Curry Canyon’

By the mid-1960s, Gibson Street had become Glasgow’s ‘Curry Canyon’, with the Shish involved in a Madras stand-off with its neighbour opposite, the equally enticing Koh-I-Noor.

Curry mad Glaswegians also had their own favourites, with Shish supporters regularly throwing culinary insults at the Koh-I-Noor crew.

The scent of Gibson Street on a Friday or Saturday night – a heady mix of lager fumes, Brut aftershave, and Charlie perfume, mixed with all the exotic spices of the East - was enough to make your mouth (and eyes) water.

At one point, the Shish also shared the street with the Maharajah, the Himalaya and the Shalimar.

And, if you didn’t fancy a curry, you could grab an Italian in the Spaghetti Factory, where director Bill Forsyth first set eyes on future Gregory’s Girl star Clare Grogan, who was working there as a waitress.

In the days before supermarket ready meal curries, the only way to get your chilli fix was to go out for one. (Sorry, folks, freeze-dried Vesta beef curries don’t count!)

First impressions

Generations of Glasgow curry fans developed their Dopiaza habit in Gibson Street. C’mon, how many of you took the test of fire there; ordering a Madras rather than a mild korma, just to impress your friends?

My first Shish experience came in the early 1970s, when we went for a family meal. Aged just six, and already excited by all the exotic scents, white tablecloths, and smartly dressed waiters, I nearly fell off my seat when my grandfather, then in his eighties, addressed the staff in fluent, if slightly rusty, Urdu – a language he had picked up after his long years in the Merchant Marine.

After a moment’s confusion, the waiters’ eyes lit up, their faces broke into broad smiles, and my grandfather was ushered through to the kitchens to meet the chefs (where he chose the extra hot ‘staff’ curry, rather than anything on the menu for his main meal). After that, we were treated like maharajas, with the waiters all calling my grandpa by the Urdu name ‘dadabu’.

A world of flavour

Since that fateful day, I’ve eaten curries in every corner of the world, from America to Australia, from Birmingham’s Balti Triangle to the expensive curry clubs of London, but nothing has ever come close to that magic mouthful of my first ever Glasgow curry.

I once, in my journalist days, even ate what was then advertised as Glasgow’s hottest curry. Cooked up at Masala Twist, in Hope Street, by chefs wearing rubber gloves and gas masks, to protect them from the fumes of the superhot ghost naga chillies they were using. It was quite an experience. The first mouthful was fine, as was the second. By the third I was sweating from places I didn’t know I had sweat glands, and it felt as though my eardrums were about to burst. Undaunted, I ate the lot. The night that followed wasn’t pleasant; one haunted by feverish dreams, indigestion, and repeated visits to the fridge for mouthfuls of cold milk. A lesson learned!

Doing it by the book

High on a shelf in my kitchen lives my copy of the Shish Mahal cookbook, bought many years ago, when I first left home. Stained, battered, and bespattered after hundreds of home curry nights, I’m sure I could now boil it up to make a mouth-watering masala.

The Shish also lays claim to inventing chicken tikka masala. When one customer complained that their chicken tikka was too dry, the enterprising chefs knocked up a sauce, using a can of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup and some curry spices. Whether that legend is true or not - there are other contenders – I’ll leave for you to decide.

End of empire…

Sadly, this Shish closed in the 1980s, after the building began to suffer subsidence. When it went, it took with it a fine Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson tenement in next door Otago Street. The site lay empty and forlorn for years, before becoming home to the new Hillhead Primary School (I wonder if they do a curry on the dinner menu?).

The Koh-I-Noor didn’t last much longer, with the building eventually being undermined by the fast-flowing waters of the River Kelvin

The good news is that both restaurants are still in business, the 'new' Shish in nearby Park Road, and the ‘new’ Koh in North Street, at Charing Cross.

The even better news is that, all these years later, Mr Ali is still going strong.

All I know is that my mouth is now watering, and I’m off, once again, to reach for that recipe book...

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