Curry, without a doubt, is integral to Britain’s food identity. Chicken tikka masala has been heralded as the country’s greatest meal and our supermarkets are brimming with jars of curry sauce, packets of rice, stacks of spices and pre-packed naan breads. Seemingly millions of Indian restaurants accommodate the nation on Friday and Saturday nights, serving scarlet red and vivid yellow curries on hot plates or in foil takeaway trays. And honestly, how many English people can say they have not once frequented a curry house late at night after one to many lagers?
But does this curry culture fairly reflect Indian cuisine?
Living my life on the outskirts of Birmingham, one of the multicultural epicentres of England, I was introduced to curry from a young age. A family Saturday ritual was to order copious amounts of chicken tikka masala, pilau rice and keema naan just in time to simultaneously scoff dinner and watch an evenings TV of Gladiators and Blind Date. Back then I believed the lonely chucks of meat swimming in radio-active coloured sauce was a true representation of what Indians were eating in India. It was only when I started questioning it, at a later age, I revealed a source of food that was unique, inspiring and far superior to anything I had tasted before.
I was fortunate enough to break my initial impressions in my late teens/early twenties through various channels. My hobby of cooking, my Indian friends and my 2 month trip to India all contributed to my better understanding of the cuisine. Kaj, one of my best friends, used to extend gifts from her mother’s kitchen to me, knowing how I adored food. She was evidently proud of her heritage (and her mum’s fabulous cooking) and the curries and breads she presented me with were the sort that makes your eyes double in size at the first mouthful. They were all wholesome dishes, deeply aromatic, some chokingly spicy, all thick with vegetables and pulses and cooked with a loving hand that cannot be duplicated easily in a commercial kitchen. And I should also mention the food extravaganza that was Kaj’s brother’s wedding. It all took place in a huge events hall, the room exploding with colour, a rainbow of sari clad women swarming around the elegantly dressed tables, their dark eyes strikingly beautiful against their heavy golden jewellery. I felt immersed in a Bollywood ball, a camera crew raced around televising the day on plasma screens and the Birmingham Bhangra Dancing Team injected even more festivity and wonder with energetic moves and banging drums. Then the food came along, steaming trays of curry covered our tables, the silky butter chicken and Shahi paneer mopped up with large helpings of hot fluffy bread stole the show and were delightfully finished off with carrot halwa, a sugary buttery pile of shredded carrot infused with cardamom and cashew nut.
Another meal, emphasising how sub-standard the popular British version of curry was by comparison, revealed itself in a small restaurant in Plymouth called Veggie Perrins.
It was a vegetarian restaurant specializing in Gujarati cuisine with an unrecognisable menu that appealed very much to my curiosity. When I arrived on my first visit I noted that the restaurant sat in a quiet and somewhat undesirable area of town and you could not see inside for the opaque office-style blinds which stretched from floor to ceiling. This unusual first impression left me bewildered but I was eager to find out more. Inside eased my skepticism, the decor was bright and the music traditional and I found the unpretentious homely atmosphere very endearing. I was greeted by the waiter, barman, cook and owner – his name was Bill. Bill and his wife ran the restaurant entirely on their own, 7 days a week and were set in their mission to provide the British public with a real insight into Indian cuisine. Bill was a great asset to the front of house, he enthusiastically explained each meal, how it would be served, how it was made and what values were behind the vegetarian ingredients. He did not preach he merely added to the experience. What’s more, the food was unbelievable and a complete revelation. To start we had Kachori, a rich spicy pea curry encased in wheat flour, fried and doused with homemade mint yogurt. Main course was Baingan Bharta, smoky aubergines pureed and cooked with chilli, garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander. We also had Masoor Dhal and a creamy paneer curry, the latter of which tasted similar to korma and had beautiful standout flavors of cardamom, clove and ginger.
I was overwhelmed by my extraordinary dinner and I was dumbfounded to see that the place was little appreciated or understood by the local community. The restaurant was pretty much empty and it seemed to be floating on the small business created by loyal customers. Maybe Veggie Perrins did not have the business finesse required to market the concept profitably but I feel it was probably more a result of the public’s preconceived ideas about curry. In fact, many of my friends refused to join me for dinner that evening exclaiming that ‘a curry without meat is not a curry’!! And sure, I can agree with that on some accounts, a good meat based curry can be fantastic but vegetarianism plays a huge role in Indian faith and culture and this was just another example of the cuisine being misconstrued.
Quite conversely, I believe that the approach to food is changing in England for the better, people are becoming more conscious about their food choices and are supporting locally made, artisan crafted, organic produce. Cooking is now very fashionable, an injection of masculinity from celeb chefs has given the male home chef a massive boost and everyone is supporting the important issues of animal welfare through the medium that is Hugh Fearnley Whitingstall! I therefore think it is a great climate to advocate real Indian food in England because it seems that people are listening and are game for trying new things. So lets shun the outdated bastardised version of curry that continues to haunt our restaurants and invite fresh authentic ingredients and recipes into our homes. I guarantee that one afternoon of dry frying spices, pounding curry paste, marinating chicken thighs and stirring up sauces will leave you with a majorly tasty and satisfying result and have you swearing never to turn back to the pre-prepared nonsense.
Below is one of my favourite recipes called Raan Masaledar, it is a tremendously rich dish with fall of the bone meat. It is always classed as a recipe for an occasion and yes it will impress guests, but i just tend to make it whenever as it is so enjoyable. Make sure you have a large enough oven proof dish to house a big leg of lamb!
Raan Masaledar – (An adjusted version from Madhur Jaffery’s Indian Cooking, BBC publication, 1982)
Leg of Lamb – 2-2.5Kg
6 tbsp of oil – vegetable or rapeseed
Half tsp cloves
Half tsp black peppercorns
16 cardamom pods
Stick of Cinnamon
For the paste:
3 tsp cumin seeds
3 tsp coriander seeds
Good helping of salt, say 2-3tsp?
1 tsp garam masala
2 fresh chillies
1 medium onion
6 garlic cloves
50g blanched almonds
1. Remove as much fat as possible from the outside of the leg of lamb and make deep incisions al around the leg in order to accommodate the paste.
2. Dry fry the cumin and coriander seeds until they release their aroma, about 30 seconds in a hot pan but use your discretion and don’t overdo it. Using a pestle and mortar grind your spices down.
3. Roughly chop your onion, garlic, ginger and chilli. Put into a food processor with the ground spices, garam masala, salt and almonds. Add a quarter of the yogurt and whiz up until all of the ingredients begin to form a paste like consistency. Then add the rest of the yogurt, whiz up again until completely mixed.
4. Put the lamb in a baking dish which can be covered for cooking. Massage the paste into the meat, remembering to push some paste into all the crevices made earlier. Cover the dish and refrigerate. Overnight is always a bonus but, failing that, a few hours should work.
5. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 6. Bring meat to room temperature. Heat oil and when hot, fry the cloves, peppercorns, cardamom and cinnamon for a few seconds, allowing the cloves to expand, and then pour over the leg of lamb. Cover the meat and put in the oven for 2.5 hours or more, basting several times. I find leaving it in longer does no harm and cooking time will depend upon the size of the leg so use your discretion here.
6. Uncover meat for the last 30 minutes of cooking. To serve, decorate with some more almonds.