Searching for the best curry
Members of the Oakham Curry Club with a cook at the Famous Curry Garden restaurant. Photo: Bruce Murray
A club of international aficionados comes to North America with a new Nova Scotian chapter
Before 2016, Dan Houmann had never tried curry.
He grew up in a small city in Denmark that had traditional pizzerias and Chinese restaurants, but no curries. Then he moved to Hong Kong and a friend introduced him to the bold flavours.
“I loved it right from the start,” laughs Houmann. “If I could, I would live on curry alone.”
As it turned out, Houmann’s friend’s brother had started a club in the U.K. called the Oakham Curry Club (OCC), which has become one of the world’s most respected reviewers of Indian cuisine.
Members meet once a month to “relentlessly scour the globe in pursuit of the crispiest poppadoms, the tastiest sauces, and spiciest curries” (according to their website), critiquing and rating curry restaurants. They publish their findings online, and have chapters in the U.K., China, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.
“I was quite intrigued to learn more,” says Houmann. “So we set up a meeting at a local curry house.”
Soon after, Houmann was one of the founders of an OCC chapter in Hong Kong.
“We started out with four people in Hong Kong and by the time I left in 2019, we had 30 members in that branch,” he recalls. “Then, when I moved to Paris, I planned to set up an OCC there as well, but COVID happened. And now I’m in Canada. It was only fitting that we start a local branch here.”
Houmann’s wife is from Nova Scotia. They met in Hollywood 12 years ago and spent several years travelling around the world. They now have a three-year-old and were ready to give up apartment living and decided to move back to Canada last summer.
“I love Halifax,” says Houmann. “We’ve been here on and off the last few years and have family and friends here, so it was always in the cards for us once our big city adventures were over.”
The Nova Scotia OCC had its first meeting in January. Houmann says it took some time to get things up and running, as there is an approval process they go through with the OCC board, explaining why a location is a good place for a club.
“Halifax is a great community in terms of diversity,” says Houmann. “Not only with culture, but with food, sports, arts, and music. It’s only fitting that you have a local guide to follow when it comes to great food, whether it’s for people coming from out-of-province or locals looking for a good curry.”
At the monthly meetings, club members vote and grade restaurants in several categories, including service, food quality, customer care, atmosphere, and value. When a restaurant averages a score of above seven out of 10, it receives the official OCC mark of approval, and a sticker to display.
The Nova Scotia chapter currently has five members and another two pending. Houmann says they hope to have another 15 to 20 members by year’s end, and although this is the first in North America, they already have plans to set up local branches in other provinces.
“It will be great to have clubs across the country so we can make it a true nationwide curriculum,” Houmann says.
And what’s best about curries? “I love the flavours,” he says. “I love the process. It’s obviously not as easy to make as a pizza or a loaf of bread; there’s much more involved. But it’s worth it. I love the combination of spices and the different meats. Whether you’re eating vegan curry or gluten free or chicken or lamb … There are just endless possibilities with what you can do in a curry dish.”
Houmann says if he had to pick a favourite — which isn’t easy — he would have to go with butter chicken and homemade garlic naan bread.
New OCC Nova Scotia member Andrew Frazer shares his passion.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for the cuisine,” says Frazer. “I love rich, buttery sauces and Indian spices. My wife makes fun of me all the time and would be able to verify just how much I love sauces. I’m a sauce guy.”
Like Houmann, Frazer is new to the area, having recently moved to Halifax from Toronto.
He had completed undergrad and grad school in Halifax and his wife is from Moncton, so they were drawn to the area and moved back in the fall. The club offered Frazer the opportunity to meet new people with similar interests.
“Plus, it was about food,” he says. “It was a perfect blend of everything.”
Frazer met Houmann through his wife, as the two are friends. “We were sitting around talking one time and then suddenly Dan starts telling me about this curry club and I’m like, ‘Wait. What? This exists?’ As soon as he said he was going to start up a chapter here I was the first person to put my hand up.”
Frazer says the club has introduced him to new dishes he wouldn’t normally have tried. He also notes they take their curry very seriously. They have badges, ties, and even their own rule book.
“After you become a member, you must state your case before the group as to why you should be allowed entry to the club,” he laughs. “It’s a two- to five-minute speech about why you love curries. It’s all fun. We really just want to raise the profile of the cuisine as a whole and setting that standard is important.”