Phall curry base from the Jugalbandi kitchen using this recipe

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.


A typical British Indian Restaurant (BIR) Pic: courtesy Andy from Real Curry Recipes.

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.


Chicken Madras curry. Pic from here.

The British curry is indeed a unique animal with specific attributes.

What, exactly, does “curry” mean to a Brit?

I turned to the online forums where curry aficionados studiously try to dissect and recreate “that taste and smell” of their favourite dishes from their favourite BIRs in their home kitchens.


It’s the “smell” that first tells you you are in the vicinity of a curry. To Andy of,

“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 Cory Ander from Curry Recipes Online, it’s the lingering odour in his ruck sack which he took while apprenticing under an Indian lady who taught him how to make her “curry base”. :D


From here:

“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 say that the Brits take their curries seriously is an understatement. There are websites dedicated to individual curries like Nargis Kebab and Phall.

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.

They will invoke a curry meal in court to strike down a speeding ticket, and write rapturous poems on its effects on their innards.

- Bee

More about curry:

The History of Curry
Pairing Wines with Curry
Don’t Curry, Be Happy
The Brit and his curry
The future is curry
All about curry

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  1. Suma Gandlur says:

    Thanks for dedicating this curry to me.
    I am a vegetarian who doesn’t like to smell even garlic. .:-) :-)
    Good info about the curries. Recently, I read Madhur Jaffery’s ‘From curries to Kebabs’ (if I remember it properly) which nicely explained the curry’s journey globally.
    By the way, once a couple in a supermarket approached me and asked where can they find good curry powder. I was at loss. Honestly,to this day, I don’t know whether a curry powder really exists.

  2. Meeta says:

    This was a great article and that curry looks potent.

  3. musical says:

    He he, the omnipresent Curry :) . Bee n’ Jai, great post. I am always perplexed when sometime during lunch break i am having my lunch and people ask me, “Oh Curry” :-D and i really dunno’ what to tell them ;) . Ofcourse, i am Indian and the only food i eat could be curry, right ;) . (This happens even when i eat something as simple as daal-chawal!).

    Sometimes, people pronounce it as “Curie”…..Others find anything with Turmeric (Curcumis) to be curry. I suspect, Curcumis too has something to do with the nomenclature. But, yes, Indian restaurants or Curry Houses are equally responsible for this. Well but then this is the evolution of another cuisine i guess. Its had its origins in India or the Indian sub-continent, but is slowly evolving into something very different…..

    and then there is the Japanese Curry (Kari). A Japanese colleague once brought me something from home (ensuring that it was vegetarian)…..this one tastes entirely different and the consistency is like a stew.

    Ultimately what matters is what you like to eat…..

    Lovely write up, once again.

  4. Monisha says:

    I think Curry has now come to being a subjective term open to interpretation of those who love or hate it, yours does look fiery and I’m sure you’ll be needing more than just one kingfisher to go with it.

  5. Ranjani says:

    i clicked on the original recipe & there is meat/poultry in it .so u just did the base leaving this out , right?

    yeah, didn’t want to torture the dead poultry. – b.

  6. Manisha says:

    I’ve been waiting for you to do this post! Love it!

    I have no clue what the BIR smell is but I’ve been intrigued ever since you led me to the Curry Forums. I want to make phall but I am working on strengthening my stomach lining first! 12 chillies and 3 tsp of red chilli powder!

    BIR smell? check your e-mail. – b.

  7. Asha says:

    Well..I lived in England for 5 yrs and every pub’s dream dish is rice and “curry” with beer!:D Of course Tikka masala is national dish for them now too.Good long info and thanks for all the links.I will check them out.
    Phall sauce looks scary and hope that comes with Antacids like Jalapeno chutney!!;D

  8. Cynthia says:

    A curry with serious chilli heat, now that’s what I’m talking about. I’ve written a very light column talking about my love for curry. Or what we in the Caribbean call curry :) . The garam masala mix we use consists of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves, mace, nutmeg, black cardamom pods, black pepper corns, and fennel seeds. It is usually sold as a mix which you can take home, roast, grind and use at will or in some cases, it is sold already roasted and grounded. To this is added, tumeric, curry powder, chillies and fresh ginger when making a curry.

    There is also another version of masala that we call amchar masala that is used to make achaar. I am not sure the exact contents there.

    I have a good book (I think) that best describes curry or what we westerners call curry: “Essentially, any fish, meat or vegetables, cooked in and with spices and liquid is a curry. The spices and liquid form a sauce that becomes a part of the dish. It is the spices or spice combinations that make each curry different. The cooking method itself varies from simple to sublime – in some cases it could be as simple as simmering in a spiced broth, while in others it may be a complex combination of frying, pot-roasting and braising.” Vivek Singh.

    The book is called: Curry – fragrant dishes from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The authors/contributors are Vivek Singh, Das Sreedharan, Mahmood Akbar, Sri Owen, David Thompson, Corinne Trang, Roopa Gulati, Judy Bastyra and Yasuko Fukuoka.

  9. Suma Gandlur says:

    I was wondering why Jai & Bee posted a meat based recipe from the morning. Again came back now, to check the recipe.
    A big OOPS! I did not pay attention to the word ‘Curry base’. I think if the number of chillies (& garlic ofcourse)
    is reduced, I can handle this. By the way did you use something else along with this base?
    Nice article from you again and accept my hugs.:-) :-)

    no. i’m not going to eat it, and jai’s been looking at it for a week without touching it. we didn’t add anything to it because we anticipated this. – bee

  10. Sig says:

    Great article! People here get very confused about the curry, and I really don’t know how to explain the definition of curry. Once I took my German friend to the Indian store to buy paneer, and she saw the “curry leaves” and got very excited thinking that curry comes from the curry leaves!

  11. Jai says:

    Must admit that the house did smell like a BIR for some time. The taste is sweetish at first (for a “very” short while – you got to look for it, otherwise you’ll miss it!) and then the heat just takes over. Complex, smoky,and pungent. B keeps reminding me that I’ve not made inroads into the Phall, but that’s ‘cos of all the other food that we’ve prepared (tons of recipes coming up folks – stay tuned). Besides this thing can never get spoilt – the germs are afraid of it ;-)

  12. Andy says:

    Great article and well written. Many thanks for visiting us at for some of your inspiration. Very detailed and explanitive article. Terry one of our members whose madras photo is shown is now taking orders for autographs. World fame at last lol.
    Keep up the good work and keep eating those curries, the hot and explosive ones get easier the more you eat. Probably because they burn your taste buds away. But it’s good at the time with yes, a bottle of Kingfisher..

  13. Coffee says:

    That was some curryclopedia !!!!!!!!!!! Nice post :)

  14. sia says:

    being in UK i totall understand what u meant by “The Brits are nuts about ‘curry‘ – obsessed with it to the point of insanity.” even when i take plain lemon rice to office my boss sniffs and asks what curry is that? i am totally lost for words n say we do have many other recipes which are not “curries”. may be i should give them urls of some blogs including mine;)

  15. Trupti says:

    Curry Flavored Toothpaste??!! Isn’t that an Oxymoron? ;)

    Yeah, Brits do love their curries…I was surprised at the range of Curry Houses scattered all over the UK….Brrrr…

  16. Jyothsna says:

    Nice! Hubby’s Brit boss once told me how mulligatawny soup is originally from UK. I told him we called it rasam .

    also …it is called mulligatawny ‘cos they couldn’t pronounce “molagu thanni”

  17. chemcookit says:

    Eheheheh! This was really funny!!! I think Italians think the same as Brits, when it comes to the definition of curry: generally, a thick gravy.. although, nobody really knows more than this in Italy. :)

    The idea of curry pizza is also quite amusing :) – mmm…. maybe I’ll make it one day. And of course, it’ll be British super hot curry :)

  18. [...] Bangladeshi, as you say. When it comes the curry I swing both ways. I like this page… jugalbandi A Madras Curry and a Kingfisher, please … There is a BIR website [...]

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