Friday nights in England, my friends would drag me to what they called a “tandoori place“. Your nose could pick it up from far away.
At the door, The Smell hit you like a wall. Being vegan, I would always settle for the chana masala, Bombay potatoes, and roti.
My Brit buddies needed my services to interpret the various items on the menu. After half a dozen visits, though, they had tried everything, and zeroed in on the items they preferred. I was relieved to be excused of “curry” duty.
The Brits are nuts about ‘curry‘ – obsessed with it to the point of insanity.
“Curry” comes from the Tamil word ‘kari‘, and is a generic reference to anything that accompanies rice or breads. It does not refer to any dish or combination of ingredients in particular. But, what do I know?
At college cook-outs, my Brit friends would scoff at my attempt to pass off spinach dal or Gujarati kadhi as ‘curry’. They would have none of that wimpy rubbish. They were looking for the industrial strength assault on their stomach linings and noses, in the form of madras curry, vindaloo, tindaloo, balti, jalfrezi, phall, bhuna, pasanda, rogan josh, and whatever else comprises ‘traditional English Indian fare’.
These were concocted from the few standard pastes that the restaurant owners procured in bulk from suppliers, that got added to veggies, chicken, meat or fish and tweaked to create an orange, red or brown end result. Some restaurants do prepare their own curry bases, but honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Curry has been a part of the British palate since the 1700s. The first curry recipe in Britain appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse in 1747.
The Master Dictionary of Food and Cookery (p. 74) tells us:
“Curry was at one time an epicurean rite of English army circles in India, officers priding themselves on the special combination of spices they had invented.”
In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management listed 14 curry recipes, including Dr. Kitchener’s recipe for ‘India Curry Powder’. It contains coriander, turmeric, cinnamom, cayenne, mustard, ginger, allspice and fenugreek, although she notes that it’s more economical to purchase the powder at ‘any respectable shop’.
The cornerstone of most British curries is Madras curry powder. Its origin, according to the History of Food (p. 498-99) must be credited to
“an Englishman named Sharwood (who) was dining with the Maharaja of Madras, who mentioned to him the shop kept by a famous master maker of curry powder called Vencatachellum. The Englishman visited it and obtained the secret of Madras curry powder, a mixture of saffron, tumeric, cumin, Kerala coriander and a selection of Orissa chillies…”
Curry is big business in the UK. In 2006, they were serving 2.5 million customers a week generating sales of £3.2 billion a year, not to mention the millions of ready-to-eat curry dinners lining supermarket shelves.
Curry is slowly nudging fish and chips out of the spotlight as the national dish. Chicken Tikka Masala is the most popular sandwich filler. Curry sauce is sold as a dip alongside crisps on Intercity trains, and is becoming increasingly popular as a pizza topping.
Pat Chapman’s Curry Club claims a membership of over 30,000 and Kris Dhillon’s The Curry Secret is a part of many British kitchens. Curry kits selling spice assortments to recreate restaurant menus are the norm.
The British curry house is now as ubiquitous as the pub, and the latter now has India pale ale and a couple of ‘curries’ on its standard menu. Most cities have their ‘curry miles’ – rows and rows of BIRs (British Indian restaurants), managed mostly by Bangladeshis, with names like “Bombay Palace” and “Raj Cuisine”. Immigrants from Sylhet own most these eateries, while Punjabis own the majority of the BIRs in the Glasgow area.
Heck, there are even plans to launch a ‘curry flavoured toothpaste’ in the British market.
The standard classification of British curry is based on the level of hotness, ranging from the mild (Butter Chicken) to medium (Rogan Josh), to the hot (Madras and Vindaloo), to the fiery hot Phall. Chicken Tikka Masala and Madras Curry are the most popular, and are unique BIR creations. The former was, as the story goes, invented in Glasgow when a customer demanded a sauce with a ‘too dry’ tikka. The cook is believed to have heated up a tin of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup and added some spices, to please the Brit, who always associates ‘curry’ with some sort of thick gravy.
Popular accompaniments to a curry range from naans, rotis, Cauliflower Bhaji, Bombay Aloo, Saag Bhaji, Chutneys and relishes, Pilau rice of course, Parathas to name but a few. Also an added bonus at the table are lagers from India. Not to forget the lime (not lemon) pickle and the poppadums.
As you progress up the curry ladder, you are expected to venture from the mild and medium curries into the realm of the Madras Curries and Vindaloos. You are recognised as a curry aficionado when you become a true chilli head.
Dishes such as Bangalore/Phall, Tindaloo, Bindaloo etc have the name associated with the typical pub kicking out time, where curry lovers who’ve downed a few Cobras or Kingfishers dare each other to eat the hottest thing available.
Phall originates from the Bangladeshi fish dish called Phaal. It’s British variant is the hottest curry in the world, with 12-15 hot chillies (preferably scotch bonnets), plus copious amounts of chilli powder. The New York-based Brick Lane Curry House is believed to make the hottest known Phall, with a chef wearing a gas mask and handling a dozen or so naga jolokia chillies from Assam, which top the Scoville scale.
Bee, the wimp, refuses to go near it (first pic). J says it’s pretty decent if you can handle the heat, though he hasn’t eaten it since we prepared it a week ago. One thing’s for sure. It must be “authentic”, ‘cos our home did smell like a BIR for a couple of days. We dedicate this curry to our friend Suma who (like Bee) is a chilli-phobe.
Tindalloo is a raging hot vindaloo topped with finely chopped green chilies.
The British curry is indeed a unique animal with specific attributes.
What, exactly, does “curry” mean to a Brit?
It’s the “smell” that first tells you you are in the vicinity of a curry. To Andy of Realcurryrecipes.co.uk,
“It is a complex thing to describe, basically it is the addition of coriander and fenugreek which gives that well known aroma passing through the air as you walk past a take-away or restaurant along with the sweet smell of onions, garlic and of course the extracted fumes from the tandoor.”
“To me the taste is a mixture of oniony (raw) aniseedy, Mustardy and almost vinegary (but this vinegary taste could be something like lemon and another ingredient mixed).”
“A combination of smell and taste somewhere between smoke and toffee.”
“It tastes sort of tomatoey without tasting of tomatoes, hot without tasting of chilli powder, sort of curry like but without tasting of curry powder. In fact it’s almost as if they use a completely different set of ingredients – I’m absolutely sure they don’t, but that’s how it tastes. It also had what I would describe as a slightly smoky, aniseedy, liquoricey underlying taste.” – DC
Strategies discussed to achieve BIR balance of smell and taste include black cardamoms, rock salt, and thickened stock from chicken bones which many BIRs are suspected to sneak even into their vegetarian curry bases.
While there are more and more restaurants trying to be faithful to authentic south Asian cuisines, the British devotion to BIR curry is unshakeable.
To many Brits, a curry is not a curry unless it comes from a BIR. They will have it delivered 1000 miles away while vacationing in Portugal, or pay 1500 pounds for trans-Atlantic delivery to New York or take it with them to New Delhi.
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