Omar’s Balti House in Bradford

A photo the outside of Omar's Balti House in Bradford

I’m sure I must have written about Omar’s Balti House on Great Horton Road in Bradford at least once before, although I don’t think I’ve ever written a whole blog post about it. We went there last week with a group of friends, which is an excuse to write about it.

Bradford is not short of curry houses and has repeatedly won the title of ‘Curry Capital of Britain’ over the years. And whilst Omar’s may not have the renown of other curry houses like Mumtaz, or the likes of Aagrah and Akbars which have become chains, it’s one that is held with affection amongst people who have lived in Bradford. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s a rite of passage for students who study in Bradford. I first visited early on in my first year at university, and have been back many, many times since.

Omar’s is known for serving its meals in the same metal balti dishes that they’re cooked in, and for it’s enormous naan breads. No really, they’re claimed to be the largest in Yorkshire and typically measure almost a metre across. Indeed, eating one of these naans on your own, with a balti dish, is a food challenge – and the record is currently 35 minutes having been last set in 2019. Before that, the record had stood for over a decade.

Massive naans aside, the food at Omar’s is good, and despite being a small restaurant they do cater for large groups. They also serve some western food, which is good when you have an eight-year-old who hates even the mildest spicy food.

Why you shouldn’t buy gift cards as presents

An AI generated image of a Christmas tree with lots of presents and gift cards underneath it by a window.

When you need to buy a present for someone, and aren’t sure what to get them, gift cards seem like a good idea. With Christmas coming up, I’m going to explain why they’re not always the best idea.

They’re less flexible than cash

If you spend £10 to buy a £10 gift card, all you have done is taken £10 of cash, which can be spent anywhere, and converted it into a sort of pseudo-currency that can only be used at one shop. You can’t use a gift voucher for John Lewis at M&S for example.

Whilst multi-retailer gift cards like Love2Shop and One4All exist, they still limit you to a small range of retailers. And you can usually only spend them at large chain stores, so your recipient won’t be able to spend them at a local, independent shops. Let’s face it, Amazon is likely to be around for a long time, but independent shops would probably appreciate your custom.

They can only be used to purchase things

This might seem obvious, but you can only use gift cards to buy more things. You can’t use gift cards to pay bills, or repay debt, for example. And I mean, you really can’t – if someone claims to be HM Revenue & Customs and asks you to pay your tax bill with iTunes Gift Cards, then it’s a scam.

For someone who may be drowning in credit card debt, receiving some money that they can use to pay that off may be more meaningful. At worst, you could end up spending your money on a gift card that can only be used to buy something at a shop where the cost of getting there is higher than the value of the card.

They could also be worthless. If you’re an Android phone user, then you’re not going to get much out of an iTunes gift card, for example. You could try a web site that exchanges gift cards, where you can sell an unwanted gift card for cash. However, you’ll probably get less than its value back, and obscure gift cards may not sell for much.

They expire

Most gift cards expire after 12 months. We’ve had this problem before; a relative bought our (now) seven-year-old a gift card for a well-known toy shop chain. As their birthday is close to Christmas, we saved it to buy a gift the following year, but by the time we came to use it, it had expired. Meanwhile, cash never expires.

If the retailer goes bust, they may become worthless

We’ve recently seen the demise of Wilko in the UK, and other large chain stores like Debenhams, Jessops, Comet, Woolworths, Burtons have all disappeared in recent years. Usually, when these companies go bankrupt and call in administrators, their gift cards immediately become worthless. At best, you can sign up as a creditor of the company in the hope that you may get a fraction of the value of the gift card back.

Some people have lost serious money because of this in the past. Debenhams used to offer a wedding list service, and so those that had people buy them Debenhams gift cards as wedding presents may have lost out on hundreds of pounds.

What to do instead

Buying presents can be tricky, and I don’t think anyone wants to buy something that’ll just end up listed on eBay on Boxing Day. But maybe have a conversation with the person who you are buying a gift for first. Surprises can be nice, but so can knowing that you’re getting a thing that you actually want for Christmas. Christmas lists for Santa needn’t just be for children; you could keep a list in a note-taking app, for example, so that if anyone asks you what you want, you can tell them straight-away.

Or you could just give people cash. If all you are doing is swapping the same amount of money for a card which is restricted to one retailer and expires, then you’re taking choice away from your recipient. With cash, your recipient could use that money for:

  • the weekly food shop
  • to pay off a credit card
  • buy something nice from a small independent shop.

An Amazon gift card won’t allow the recipient to do any of those things.

If you don’t want to put bank notes or coins in the post, you can send a cheque. Despite rumblings from the banking industry a few years ago, most banks will still let you send and receive cheques. Indeed, most banking apps will let you scan cheques, so you can scan them on Christmas Day without waiting for a branch to open. Alternatively, you could send an IOU in a card, and then do a BACS transfer on Christmas Day. That’s if you already know their bank details, of course.

When is it appropriate to send gift cards?

So, now that I have written this, you may be surprised to hear that I am planning to send gift cards to some relatives this Christmas. But this is only because said relatives have specifically asked for them. And that’s fine – you could ask for gift cards as a contribution to a big purchase, for example. Just be careful that you choose a retailer that isn’t at imminent risk of bankruptcy. Money Saving Expert News is usually a good place to get news about retailers that are, or are at risk of entering administration, and their policy on accepting gift cards.

You can also sometimes buy gift cards at a discount. My employer offers Pluxee as an employee benefit, which sells gift cards at a typical 4% discount – but sometimes more. M&S is 6.5%, which means that you can buy a £25 gift card for £23.38.

If your employer doesn’t offer something similar, but you have a mortgage, then Sprive is worth considering. With Sprive, the discounts are smaller (about 3%) but the money you save is taken off your mortgage. If you decide to sign up to Sprive, use my referral code ‘HTWH65PM’ to get an additional £5 off your mortgage.

If you’re buying Amazon gift cards, it’s worth checking your personalised promotions page (sponsored link). Sometimes, Amazon offers additional discounts available if you buy gift cards in bulk.

Christmas Day is three weeks today. If you haven’t already finished your Christmas shopping, maybe reach out to your gift recipients to find out what they want. Just be aware of the last posting days for gifts.

29th February

2016 is a leap year, and it’s the last day in February, so today is the rare occasion where you can enter the date as the 29th February into a computer and it won’t reject it. We don’t have anything much planned specially – I’m having an eye test for the first time in… um… longer than I care to admit, and Christine will be at home looking after our baby.

The last time it was the 29th February, back in 2012, it was me that was at home all day. That’s because I was ill with a stomach bug. It was enough to keep me off work for a couple of days, which is impressive as I very rarely have to take sick leave from work.

Going further back to 2008, I went on a walking weekend on the east coast. We stayed at a youth hostel north of Scarborough, and walked along the coastal path towards Robin Hood’s Bay.

And in 2004, I didn’t really write anything interesting, but that’s because we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook in those days and so my blog was home to more inane ramblings.

As I ‘only’ started blogging in 2002, I can’t quite remember what I would have done on February 29th 2000, but it was a Tuesday. So I was probably at school, preparing to take my GCSEs. Scarily, 2000 was half a lifetime ago for me.

Do you get the impression that I always aim to write something on the 29th February, no matter how pointless it is? It’s an opportunity that only comes around every four years I suppose. Maybe something interesting will happen on this day in 2020, but you’ll have to wait another four years to find out, I’m afraid.

Secret Starbucks Sizes

If I had a pound for every time someone spelled my name like this, I'd be a rich man

Many frequent Starbucks visitors know that its coffee comes in three sizes:

  • ‘Tall’, which is the small size, at around 350 millilitres (12 US fluid ounces), or about the size of a standard drinks can.
  • ‘Grande’, which is the medium size at 470 ml (16 US fl oz) and a bit less than an average drinks bottle.
  • ‘Venti’, which is their largest size at 590 ml or 20 US fl oz. ‘Venti’ means 20 in Italian, hence the name.

Quite why they can’t use ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ is beyond me, but never mind.

But actually, there are seven sizes in total. They’re not widely advertised, but here they are:

Short

If you look more closely at the menu the next time you’re in Starbucks, you’ll see there’s a kid’s hot chocolate on there, which comes in a ‘Short’ serving size – smaller than ‘Tall’. However, your Starbucks barista may be able to make you any hot drink in the ‘Short’ size, which will cost a bit less than ‘Tall’. I don’t think cold drinks like Frappuccinnos are available in the ‘Short’ size in the UK, but you can ask. ‘Short’ is 240 millilitres (8 US fl oz) and should be available in most outlets.

Mini

This one is US-only, and is a limited-time offer for this summer. It’s only for Frappuccinos, and is 10 US fl oz  (300 ml) – halfway between short and tall.

Demi

Demi is the smallest size of them all, at just 89 millilitres (3 US fl oz). It’s basically a single espresso shot, and should be available in most Starbucks outlets.

Trenta

Finally, if you want a drink that’s larger than ‘Venti’, then try asking for a ‘Trenta’ size. It was announced four years ago in the US, but was primarily for the Refresha range of light cold drinks. However, theoretically, it may be possible to have any other cold drink in this size. At over 900 millilitres (31 US fluid ounces), this is a big drink – almost three times the size of a ‘Tall’ drink. As far as I am aware it was only ever available in certain outlets in the US, and as the Refresha range has seemingly been phased out, it’s probably no longer an option. ‘Trenta’ means 30 in Italian.

Starbucks ‘secret menu’

If you want to know more about ‘off the menu’ drinks that may or may not be available at your local Starbucks, Starbucks Secret Menu and Hack the Menu were two web sites that I found during my searches. Not all of the items on these sites are official, but if you’re in a Starbucks outlet and it’s not busy, you can probably ask the barista to vary the drink based on the recipes listed. You can also sometimes get seasonal drinks like the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte out of season if the outlet has stock left over, and sometimes new drinks are available to Starbucks Rewards customers before they appear on the menu.

I go to Starbucks quite a lot nowadays, as I pass one of their outlets on the way to work. So much so that I’m a gold member of Starbucks Rewards. Considering that, four years ago, I didn’t drink coffee at all, it’s quite a turnaround.

Coffee

“Many consider complexity of circumstances and motives to be precious indulgences that can wait until a better world has been achieved.” ―Albert Murray ☕️
Photo by anokarina, under a Creative Commons License.

When wanting to choose a photo for this post, I found that none of me 2500+ Flickr photos were tagged with ‘coffee’, hence the use of someone else’s photo under license. The reason for this is that I don’t drink coffee.

Or rather, I never used to drink coffee. But now I do. Occasionally.

Until now I’ve been that awkward person who, when asked whether I wanted tea or coffee, wanted something else like water or juice or hot chocolate or anything that wasn’t a hot caffeinated beverage. But as coffee shops have become more and more prevalent I’ve been curious to see if I really do still hate coffee.

In Starbucks, I’d been having their Frappucinos for some time – the non-coffee ones – and on a day when I was feeling particularly tired after an early start I opted for a caramel coffee one, hoping it would perk me up and wouldn’t have the bitterness that I hate about normal coffee (I also don’t like dark chocolate, or bitter ales, incidentally). Thankfully, it didn’t, and so step one of accepting coffee into my life was achieved.

The problem with blended drinks like Frappucinos are that they’re cold drinks. Great in summer, when it’s warm – or some semblance thereof, this is northern England we’re talking about here – but in the cold mid-winter the last thing you want is a thick, ice cold drink when you actually want to warm up. So, again, I decided to experiment – a caramel latte. And, it wasn’t bad.

So far I’ve had a few lattes, although not all of them a success (I won’t name the outlet that gave me a latte that frankly tasted foul, but bleurgh, I had the aftertaste in my mouth for hours afterwards). Next I may push the boat out a little further and try a cappuccino.

For those of you who are hardened coffee drinkers, it may seem bizarre that I’m only now discovering coffee in my late twenties. But sometimes, rather than assuming that just because you didn’t like something 10 years ago, you won’t like it now, it’s worth trying it again.