My abiding image of Nirmal Gupta, who closes her eponymous Indian restaurant at the end of the month, is of her holding two perfectly rounded mangoes in front of her voluptuous figure.
She had invited me down to squeeze her alphonsoes, for these are the best of them all, and for husband Parshotam to show me how to cut them hedgehog-style.
“How can you sleep when you know there’s a mango in the fridge?” she had sighed sensually and confided her son Madush thought nibbling the stones was “better than sex.”
I got somewhat carried away writing the piece under the headline “She’s been Mangoed” and it was a little saucy. There was a silence of a few days from the Glossop Road restaurant and thought I’d blown it. No more mangoes.
But her friends, of which there are many, had called her up to chuckle. My phone rang. It was Nirmal. “Martin, you’re a very naughty boy...”
Other people’s memories will be of a jolly, sari-clad woman advancing on them through the restaurant to take their order, wielding a small blackboard with the day’s specials, most involving spinach.
She would, if she sensed hesitation or indecision, attempt to do the job for you and it might very well be the dish for which Nirmal’s is famous, lamb massallam. Some people waved away the menu and rolled over.
“One man told me he always had the lamb and enjoyed it then thought later, why couldn’t he think for himself? So he said he’d have it but pretend I hadn’t told him,” she says.
Actress Jamie-Lee Curtis’s abiding memory of Nirmal’s must be sitting on the staircase for 45 minutes because, unrecognised, she couldn’t get a table on a very busy night. Eventually she got up, tapped her on the shoulder and said “Nirmal, I’m very disappointed.”
Of course a table was found at once – the place was smaller then – and the actress, who was visiting friends filming The Princess Bride in North Derbyshire, returned several times She wasn’t the only star to have eaten a popadom here. The walls of the restaurant, which the couple opened in 1981, are full of photographs of them with celebrities.
Here’s Cliff Richard, before his knighthood, Sir Derek Jacobi, Honor Blackman, Joanna Lumley, Patricia Routledge, David Essex, Hugh Laurie, Windsor Davies and some who have faded whom we just put down as ‘Him off Whatsisname.” Many, like Davies, from It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum, had come straight from the Crucible or Lyceum. He lost his party on the way, turned up alone and was put in a corner until recognised. But it’s the ordinary folk she values most, like the woman who first came as a medical student 32 years ago and still comes as a family GP from North Derbyshire. Another customer proudly told her his first visit was as a nine months old baby.
And there was the male student who made one visit and was so frightened by her he didn’t dare return for two decades with his wife as protection!
There weren’t many Indian restaurants in Sheffield when she opened and she made an immediate impression. “Devotees crowd into her simple little place,” said the Sunday Times Magazine while the Good Food Guide extolled the “exceptional” home made chutneys.
Indeed, for Nirmal had discovered the parsnip, unknown in India, and turned it into a delightful chutney.
When she eats English food it is likely to be a quiche, summer pudding – or roast parsnips.
Despite being famed for their lamb massallam the Guptas are vegetarian (although Parshotam now eats fish) so I wonder cheekily how Nirmal knows the results of her spicing. “People tell me it is good,” she counters.
In those early days she was a breath of fresh air. But the success of the restaurant was not just due to the food, it was her front of house presence, more a sort of floorshow. “I listen to what they order and when they notice I’m not writing it down I tell people they have got too much.”
She holds forthright views on the general state of Indian restaurants, can overheat at the mere mention of a balti and sighs over the demand for “cheaper, faster food.”
They have rarely taken holidays over the past 32 years and Parshotam and Nirmal, now aged 73 and 71 respectively, feel it is time to call it a day. They’ll revisit India, Nirmal hoping she doesn’t yet another bout of Delhi Belly.
The business funded raising a family but as son Madush is an investment banker and Madush a barrister they’re not going to take it over.
“People say why don’t we employ a manager but when we go, we go completely,” she says, Besides, Nirmal’s without Nirmal would not be normal.
Special buffet evenings will be held until the end of the month. Tel: 0114 272 4054.
- Nirmal is a rarity twice over in the Indian restaurant trade. She and her husband Parshotam are Indian Hindus (in a business dominated by Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims) and is the only Asian woman restaurant boss in Sheffield
- She is the daughter of a Delhi stockbroker and came to England in 1969, moving to Sheffield when Parshotam studied for a PhD at the university
- To keep busy she ran Indian cookery classes and an Asian food shop before starting the restaurant in 1981
- On its opening night the restaurant was rushed off its feet by a party from the university psychology department who had attended her classes. Unfortunately the drinks licence had not come through
- The restaurant, a former game dealers, expanded in the mid-Eighties into what had been Pollards coffee shop
- Nirmal’s is planned to become a Turkish restaurant