Digging into a legendary dinner at a Yorkshire curry house.
On 18 January 1973, a horde of self-described ‘long-haired stoners’ descended on Bradford. Braving freezing weather, they thronged the streets around St George’s Hall, waiting for its doors to be flung open.
Led Zeppelin were arriving two weeks later than planned, after Robert Plant had suffered a heavy bout of flu, but few were put off by the late postponement. This, after all, was the biggest concert in Bradford since The Beatles had played The Gaumont nine years earlier. Fans clutched tickets for the original date, having paid a pound each for the opportunity to see their idols.
The newly anointed UK City of Culture for 2025 has always attracted a steady stream of discerning touring bands. Yet few had expected to see Bradford on the schedule for Led Zeppelin’s homecoming tour. And for those of us concerned with the folklore of the city’s restaurants, it carries particular significance. Legend has it that Led Zep visited The Kashmir – our oldest curry house – before the show, and that the band’s progressive epic of the same name, released in 1975, is named after it.
But did that really happen? As a matter of personal and civic pride, I was determined to find out.
In the second half of the 20th century, the gastronomic gifts of Bradford’s Kashmiri, Gujarati and Punjabi communities changed perceptions of the city forever. On his own homecoming in 1934, JB Priestley had described a backwater, devoid of charm, offering visitors only a handful of boozers filled with unsavoury street-walkers. It’s not much of an endorsement from one of our most famous sons – if only Priestley had waited a few more years – as by the ’50s, the city’s first curry houses had been established, first as social clubs for migrant workers from the subcontinent and later as fully-fledged restaurants providing the perfect foil for those dubious pubs (which thankfully remain). The result is a city which punches well above its weight in culinary terms. It has been crowned the nation’s Curry Capital a record six times.
The centre of Bradford’s curry scene is Great Horton – an assortment of back-to-back terraces, cloth houses and disused woollen mills on the edge of town, where the Seabrook crisp factory still belches clouds of vinegared steam into the atmosphere. The Karachi now offers a ‘Rick Stein Special’ after the chef, who, having agreed to leave Cornwall briefly, visited for a documentary series. Diners at The Mumtaz are greeted by a sun-bleached photograph as proof of the Queen’s meal there. The area has even garnered transatlantic approval, confirmed in the small hours of a cold Saturday in March 2017, when Bradford socials were flooded with blurry images of Floyd Mayweather’s inexplicable presence at Mr T’s.
It can be jarring when celebrities parachute in for a photo opportunity, but these restaurants understandably are keen to capitalise on the limelight afforded by their famous guests. They benefit from the endorsement which we, in turn, rely on when trying to convince friends in London that they should actually come and visit. The only trouble is the most iconic dinner in the city annals remains shrouded in mystery. Where the tale of Led Zeppelin’s visit elicits a knowing nod at home, outside the city walls it is met with scepticism.
Granted, there is a paucity of evidence. But then, The Kashmir has always been a unique proposition. The café remains arguably the most important in the city; on its recent 70th anniversary, owner Mohammed Latif declared that ‘Bradford is the UK capital of curry, and The Kashmir is the curry capital of Bradford’. While some might argue with that assessment, it can often appear as if nobody has ever visited – there are no framed photographs of guests, no commemorative menus and certainly no special treatment. The upper level of the restaurant is often quiet, and on one trip I was joined by only a handful of other customers, two of whom were asleep in front of their meals. But it retains a loyal following of those in the know, and in the basement canteen the place throbs with life.
Many of the team at the restaurant have been there for years, but between memorising lengthy orders they understandably have little time for my questions about a Wednesday evening service nearly 50 years ago. More promisingly, the sheer devotion of Led Zep fans makes it possible to piece together a picture of the night in question from online records. There are setlists, newspaper cuttings, dog-eared ticket stubs and numerous lucid fan anecdotes. Plant’s rougher than usual vocals are recalled with perfect clarity by one, a tetchy exchange with Jimmy Page worn as a badge of honour by another. Those unable to sneak in then submit tales of regret now, their memories undimmed after almost half a century. I even find a tantalising account confirming that the band did spend the night before the show out on the town in Bradford. But despite the impressive completeness of the anoraks’ archive, nobody can confirm where they ate. It was clear I would need to delve deeper.
I began by contacting Dr Patrick Glen, an expert in British musical history at Leeds University. He had heard the story, but had never explored it further. Dr Glen suggested I seek out Chris Charlesworth, an editor of Melody Maker in its ’70s heyday who keeps a meticulous blog documenting his time rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names of the era. As luck would have it, he’s also from my neck of the woods.
Early in our exchange he produced a transcript of his 1969 interview with Page and John Bonham, conducted for Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus, where the band expressed a hope that their brand of progressive pop might, with any luck, ‘catch on’. He was even on the road with the group during the 1973 tour, although sadly not the Yorkshire leg. Charlesworth could not answer my question, but he offered a crumb of hope: ‘I do know that the group liked Indian food, especially Plant’. Two weeks later, Plant himself corroborated this statement on Desert Island Discs, dedicating a significant segment of his appearance to extolling the virtues of dhal.
Charlesworth also passed on my inquiry to Dave Lewis, the UK’s most knowledgeable Led Zeppelin expert. If anyone would know, it would be him. Alas, Lewis’s response was as swift as it was deflating: ‘It would seem unlikely. The working title of Kashmir was Driving to Kashmir, indicating their travels there. So, it’s a no from me.’
Shortly after I heard from Lewis, I unearthed an interview in which the band explained that the track was inspired by a road trip through Morocco, not Kashmir. None of the group seemed to have even been to the region. Plant himself told fans after an early rendition of the song that he hoped to visit soon. Nevertheless, my investigation seemed to be heading for a disappointing conclusion. I did have one final lead, having managed to find someone who could speak to Jimmy Page, though he was notoriously difficult to pin down. When I finally did hear back, it was made clear that I was not going to get a definitive answer. I was starting to wonder whether I wanted one.
Instead, I asked for locals to come forward to discuss the mythology of the restaurant on The Kashmir’s own Facebook forum. A diverse crowd took me up on the offer. While the story surfaced instantly (‘Are you going to mention Led Zeppelin?’ the first respondent asked pointedly) it soon became clear that the restaurant’s ties to the city’s musical heritage stretch far beyond one group. ‘The Kashmir was the place to go for bands in the ’70s,’ explained Laurie Reader, a local who first ate there while on tour in 1974, when a meal cost the equivalent of 12 pence. He has brought numerous groups along in the decades since.
Hazy memories of those early visits are a common theme, as Reader relays, and that’s an occupational hazard for any archivist. The rumour, for those that had heard it, was all part of the fun, but never the deciding factor in their loyalty to The Kashmir. One long standing regular has continued to make a detour to the restaurant for more than 20 years, partly because of nostalgia, but mainly because it remains the seminal Bradford dining experience. In short, the consensus was that the truth should rarely be allowed to get in the way of a good story, and that nothing should get in the way of a great keema and peas.
Left to reflect on my ill-fated quest, I returned to the musical origins of the myth. There are many iterations of the track which bears the name of the restaurant, some live cuts stretching to almost 20 minutes, but in all of its forms there is a familiar, mystical refrain. At the close of the first verse, Plant reassures us that ‘all will be revealed’. Wise words perhaps, but in the case of The Kashmir, an egalitarian gem which simply prefers to keep its secrets, I reckon they need not apply.