“Shite almighty” is the cry as a howl of wind and heft of pints cyclones around the insides of our collective craniums. This startling few seconds is enough to remind us, as we briefly attempt to sustain a solid vertical base, that it is in fact only just gone past four in the afternoon and not in fact half two in the morning. Drizzle descends and I inform my mate from work with whom I’ve been supping the afternoon away with that I need to steady myself and the five pints inside my stomach. Being that we’re in Back Piccadilly and (not so) fresh from a questionably lengthy session in Mother Macs, there’s only one port of call for me to attend to.
God (and every other deity) Bless Cafe Marhaba.
My journey may only be a dozen or so stumbled steps through the humid precipitation of a hazy mid-June aft, but I would happily hike miles through sleet, snow and acid rain for a meal as memorable as the one I’m about to inhale.
Graffiti and posters for club nights I will never, ever attend are splattered with such abandon across the backside of Dale Street that you could be forgiven for wandering past Marhaba without even acknowledging its existence. Tucked between peeling white painted brickwork, overwhelmed wheelie bins and nondescript, shuttered doors and windows, it is simply an aroma that grabs you. Plum by the nostrils you are snatched and led through a well worn door that sticks open with a firm nudge. A cacophony of spices and expertly cooked chicken and lamb radiates from the kitchen, ever so slightly out of sight, tucked away at the end of the counter. The lunchtime rush a good couple of hours since dissipated, the overworked steel pans are downturned on the hob, blackened from countless hours over the flames.
Decoration is at a minimum, here. Five two-top cafe tables, synonymous with greasy spoons up and down the country, occupy the wall along your left as you enter. One wall is adorned with the curry menu against a kitchen standard backdrop of plain white tiles, the other with kebab options. This pair of plastic hoardings, with their whiteboard marker prices scrawled next to dishes as standard as tikka massala and jalfrezi through to lesser spotted alternatives such as lamb pumpkin and keema potato, make up what is, for my or anyone’s money, one of the most important menus in all of Greater Manchester.
Because, let’s face it, any menu with ‘BIG SAMOSA – £1.00’ on it is 100% unfuckwithable.
I stare, mouth agape, partly due to my over imbibed level of consciousness, partly due to the freshly baked scent humming from the tandoor, glowing like the Thundercat symbol and hitting me with the same ferocity as the first listen of ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. Yes, yes, alright, the rice and three offerings that have been doing the rounds here since 1992 are the stuff of legend round Manchester, much like Roy Keane’s sessions in Mulligan’s or that Sex Pistols gig that everyone and their dad went to in the ’70s.
But on this particularly pissed wet through Friday in June, 2017, I didn’t rate my chances of polishing off a trio of lamb karahi and bhunas of both chicken and mushroom. The sauce, the spice, the rice. The mere thought of it weighed too heavy on my already gurgling gut, much as I fucking adore each and every dish on Marhaba’s carefully crafted menu with the same level of reverence I hold for my own parents. Father and son duo Nazir and Abdul Ahmen do not fuck about when it comes to pelting out perfectly prepared Punjabi flavours, after all.
What I want is my meal to be slapped against the side of that clay tandoor, which continues to beckon my gaze towards it.
“……One garlic naan please. No, just on it’s own. Tin of…….pop an’ all.”
Abdul wastes no time in rolling and flattening flour, oil, sugar and salt into an oval disc before lowering it into the bowels of the clay oven. I ruminate over the drinks fridge at the far side of the cafe. It’s Rubicon. Sometimes it’s Vimto, but more often than not, it’s Rubicon. In what is relatively short order, but feels like a lifetime to the popped up halfwit awaiting its presence to grace his face, the naan appears, a mesmeric garlic and herb swirl of wonderment. I herd it to the nearest table behind me as if I’m smuggling five kilos of coke through an airport. Almost sending the plastic water jug flying for a six as I crash into my seat, I hurriedly tear into my feast, drooling like a cartoon dog chasing a string of sausages.
“Fuuuuuuuuuucking hell” I gasp. The fucking thing is softer than Art Garfunkel’s voice. The dough pulls apart with the immense satisfaction of scissors gliding through wrapping paper. Steam envelopes my face, garlic butter permeates every one of my pores and my face contorts into a manic ‘Jack Nicholson’s lost the fucking plot here, lads’ sort of grin with every mouthful that cushions my tastebuds.
I reckon the entire thing has disappeared down my gullet in two minutes tops. The rain now teeming down outside, boinging off the tarmac, sputtering across the entrance way through the door I left open upon my entrance. I steady myself with a couple of final gulps of Rubicon. The glucose laden licks shaking some energy into my faltering, lager laden body. I wipe my chops with my bare hands, rubbing over my face like later career Al Pacino when he’s just received some bad news. I throw a couple of cups of water from the jug down me for good measure and allow myself the sort of lean normally reserved for the beginning of a post-Christmas dinner nap.
My WhatsApp pings. “You still out or you gone home?”
I am now soaked up, revived and emerging from Marhaba’s with the energy of a thousand Scatman Johns. I finally arrive home at half three in the morning. The next morning I watch old clips of Keith Floyd on Saturday Kitchen while my head feels like Joe Pesci is interrogating me for information in a vacant warehouse in Las Vegas. But no level of hangover can dampen the spirit of a man who less than 24 hours earlier had been banqueting in the back streets of the Northern Quarter at a cost of roughly two quid. I feel weary, helpless, anxiety ridden and ashamed as I do on all my hangovers, but I also feel like a fucking champion for my triumphant visit to see Nazir and Abdul.
Five years later, I still think about this afternoon on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes daily. I still frequent Marhaba at every available opportunity, even if that has, unfortunately, become less of an occurrence over the last couple of years. Last week, however, I once again plonked myself at the table by the door not long after the lunchtime rush and took down a chicken tikka kebab, nestled within one of those most luxurious of tandoori naans. The couple on the next table took down platefuls of keema and rice, while a bloke in the corner passionately compliments the chana he’s just polished off. The rain, once again, begins to descend. But I’ve got my chicken tikka naan and nowhere else to be. Fucking result.
It can sometimes feel flippant to label places as ‘institutions’ or ‘iconic’. Both terms are barely enough to sum up just how important Cafe Marhaba has been to Manchester over its 30 years of business. Hopefully there’s at least another 30 years of rainy day naans to come.