Spicing it right: Britain’s love affair with curry


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THERE are three hundred languages spoken at London’s supper tables, and probably as many styles of cooking. And among them, India is omnipresent – so much so that ‘having an Indian’ has locked itself into daily language and, yes, we know, curry was voted Britain’s favourite national dish not so long ago. Vaguely royal-sounding North Indian curries are still around, but Britain’s broadening taste preferences mean that they’re also dipping into such gems as creamy coconut broths from Kerala, tamarind infused Gujarati lentils, and dressed-up Mumbai beach snacks.

Back in the seventies, Indian-inspired British curries worked to a one-size-fits-all formula – bottled nostalgia from the Raj. Even today, quirky Madras curry (very hot) and vindaloo (not as hot) have retained their popularity on the late-night take-out scene. In Lancashire, the home of traditional pastry meat pies, the latest flavour on the production line is spicy balti pies – a sign of changing times.

I was brought-up in rural Cumbria – thirty years ago, even garlic was a risqué ingredient, to be used only with caution. Today, the waft sun-kissed spice scents the Cumbrian Lake District where Manel Trepte’s successful business, Demels, produces an internationally-acclaimed selection of Sri Lankan pickles.

Two centuries of colonial presence in the Indian subcontinent fostered a much-flaunted love affair with the Indian kitchen, and Britain, reinventing a centuries-old culinary heritage, has made going out for a curry a celebrated symbol of multiculturalism. The Dutch and Portuguese are also historically intertwined with the Indian subcontinent, but never really embraced the food in the same way as the British – few restaurants there measure up to the rich diversity of regional Indian restaurants located in Britain.

Spices, of course, are no newcomer to Britain. In addition to being a valuable trade commodity, aromatic spice blends have long played a key seasoning role in centuries-old cooking styles. During the medieval period, roast meats, turned over the spit, were usually steeped in heady concoction of rosewater, spiked with nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorns, ginger and cloves.


In the Indian subcontinent, during the late nineteenth century, the British memsahib and her retinue of cooks’ adapted Indian masalas to suit western palates – authenticity went out of the window in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to cooking. At its most basic, British-style curries were made up of meat fried with a curry paste before being stewed in water – hardly an evocative rendition. Even this method was a wild adventure, the norm being to treat white sauces to mild curry powder and perhaps a dollop of apricot jam. Anglicised curries might well include chopped bananas, fistfuls of shredded coconut and raisins in addition to the formula curry paste. Even today, the traditional Boxing Day curry served at homes up and down the country remains a tribute to a style of cooking virtually unknown in South Asia. Spice pastes sold in supermarkets are produced on a large scale – quick-fix spice pastes and panaceas which help make Indian cooking more accessible for those curry enthusiasts in need of a helping hand in the kitchen.


It wasn’t until Madhur Jaffrey arrived on the screen in 1982 that the perception of Indian cooking was given a much-needed makeover. Single handedly, she brought dignity to a cooking style that for most curry houses was more of an engineering exercise than a labour of love. Lending authenticity to cooking, her popular 1980s Indian Cooking television series along with spin-off books succeeded in persuading Brits and Indian purists alike that regional recipes could be as at home in Kettering as they are in Kerala. In her book, Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible (Ebury Press), she eloquently describes how Indian masalas have been adopted and adapted by communities abroad and have been coloured by the host country’s tastes, taking on a new identity. Jaffrey also explores the roots of Thai curries flavoured with lemongrass, Burmese chicken-coconut soup, and South African biryanis. Almost overnight, coriander and root ginger found their way onto supermarket shelves, marking a tide of change in British kitchens as the enjoyment of authentic cooking styles translated into a new social currency.

Recently published Curry (Dorling Kindersely) also traces the migration of curries from India to all four corners of the world. This book follows the journey, exploring how immigrants adapted their cooking skills, accommodated new ingredients and borrowed from existing cooking styles in their new homeland. In addition to my contribution on British and African curries, other chapters include a section on Thai dishes, written by well-known chef David Thompson; North Indian classics, championed by Vivek Singh (head chef at the Cinnamon Club); and recipes for curries from Myanmar and maritime South East Asia, written by expert Sri Owen.

Indian ready-made meals are the most important sector of the Indian food market, and the chilled sector accounts for 65% of the ready-made meal retail market. Julie Michna, from Marks and Spencer, observes that one in four chilled meals sold from their stores is an Indian dish. Sainsbury’s also reports a high turnover in ethnic meals, with the sale of 1.6 million Indian meals every year.


Despite the growth of Chinese and other ethnic cuisines in the chilled and frozen supermarket sectors, Indian has held its own and continues to grow with the introduction of new product lines. Endorsed by celebrity chefs, the buzz word is regional cooking and its development. With more disposable income, a premium is put on leisure – more specifically on food and travel. Thirty years ago, holiday destinations tended to focus on Europe, but current trends indicate that exotic destinations and a search for adventure provide inspirational and aspirational satisfaction.

Regional cooking comes up trumps every time – and supermarkets are quick to repackage the ‘mystic east’ and ensnare its exotic connotations. New product ranges champion Keralan fish curry, Kashmiri rogan josh, and even Punjabi-style dal rather than the tried and tested stalwarts of Indo-British cooking styles. Endorsed by celebrity chefs and supplemented by must-have accessories – naans, pickles, poppadums – the Indian meal experience continues its journey off supermarket shelves and into British homes.


The South Asian restaurant sector has been the success story of the second half of the last century, growing from near nothing to one of the biggest food markets in Britain. Britain’s Indian restaurant industry is worth an impressive £2.4 billion, and boasts around 8,500 Indian restaurants, employing 70,000 staff. For the purposes of this feature, the term Indian, is a wide-ranging one, which also embraces cooking styles from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Second and third generation family-run establishments have built upon humble beginnings to fuel this hugely successful industry. Astute youngsters, familiar with new media platforms, have websites for their restaurants, with online menus and booking facilities; centralised call centres field orders for take-away meals; restaurant décor has been spruced-up with modern fittings and fixtures, and PR agencies are brought on board to trumpet the accomplishments of chefs.

Repackaging Indian street food for office workers, the Tiffinbites chain, with its range of fresh, flavoursome and healthy ‘food-on-go’ have struck gold. Buy your tiffin from the counter and staff behind the counter will heat your meal in three minutes – ready for eating. The three-strong Masala Zone group of restaurants, fronted by successful restaurateurs the Panjabi sisters (who also own upmarket restaurants Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Amaya) have brought affordable homespun Indian meals to a youthful clientele, with authentically prepared food served in a bright and airy setting. It’s about as far as you can get from the traditional, slightly frayed image of high street curry houses.

The majority of South Asian immigrants living in Britain’s big cities arrived from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, and Sri Lanka during the sixties and seventies. With little funds to spare, many entered the restaurant industry, catering affordable British-style curries to the British public. Meals were more of an engineering exercise, and staff often chose to eat their own familiar food, separately from dishes served to a largely white clientele. New immigrants missed home-cooking, and alongside curry houses, sprung a parade of local cafes geared to serve Asian immigrants. For many third generation British Asians, traditional cooking remains a benchmark to judge other establishments by – a handle to cultural heritage. Resourceful enterprise enabled many newcomers to become successful traders. Even today, save for Indianised Chinese noodles and chilli paneer pizzas, in areas with a high density of Asian residents cooking styles stay true to tradition.


The South Asian restaurant industry in Britain has evolved into a two-tier culinary culture. While menus at many high street curry houses remain largely unchanged over the past three decades, the emergence of newer styles of cooking at fine dining restaurants has elevated modern Indian cooking to a privileged position.

At one end of the culinary spectrum, are baltis, (more Birmingham than Pakistan); Madras curry (unheard of in Chennai) and vindaloos (happily irreverent to their Goan heritage). More than fuel, these masala-based dishes, often made with formula pastes, are as integral to Britishness as Lancashire hotpot and Yorkshire pudding – perhaps more so.

For authentic cooking, untouched by fashionable food trends local Asian restaurants continue to hold their own, especially in London’s suburbs, located off the beaten tourist track. What they lack in less-than-salubrious restaurant settings is more than made up for with wholesome cooking – eat out at these spots for mums-own favourites.

Baltis have become such an iconic beacon in Asian restaurants that coach tours are laid on for touring the euphemistically titled ‘balti triangle’ sited in and around Birmingham. And what is a balti? Simply, a karahi-fried Punjabi masala dish, cooked over a fast flame. In addition to meaning a bucket, recent research suggests that the word may also be derived from ‘bhatti’ – oven. Whatever its antecedents, baltis are a British-Asian invention spawning a multi-million pound industry.


A strong contender for Britain’s national dish, 23 million portions of chicken tikka masala are sold every year, but restaurateur Kuldeep Singh, who runs well-known restaurants Mela, Chowki, and the recently-reopened Soho Spice (which specialises in kebabs), thinks the popularity of ‘CTMs’, as they’re known in the trade, is on the wane. When asked about future trends, Singh said he believes that, ‘The future of London’s Indian restaurants lies in showcasing varied regional cooking rather than playing around with flashy fusion fads.’ When asked for her opinion on curries made with formula pastes, Madhur Jaffrey’s response was to say that, ‘These curries serve a purpose in the same way as McDonalds burgers. The quality of Indian food sold in supermarkets has vastly improved, but it’s just as easy and almost as quick for me to make dal and a vegetable dish – more nutritious too.’


It’s not just returning tourists that have broadened the country’s palate. The increased popularity of London’s Indian restaurants owes much to the British Government’s relaxation of visa restrictions for trained chefs in the 1980s. Previously, restaurant kitchens tended to be run by family members, many of whom had little training in the preparation of creative cooking styles. As Iqbal Wahab, owner of Westminster’s well-known fine dining restaurant, Cinnamon Club, points out, ‘The improvement seen in restaurants has come primarily from more talent arriving from India, and restaurants employing more chefs trained by catering colleges and five star hotels. Restaurateurs have also invested more in their businesses and this also has reaped significant rewards.’

Taking coals to Newcastle, ‘British-inspired curried dishes have developed a tendency to make an impression back home, especially in popular tourist destinations. Cyrus Todiwala, chef-patron at Café Spice Namaste, remarked that, ‘Many tourists to India expect to sit down to British-style curries in places like Goa, and the sad thing is that restaurants, anxious to appease, are happy to include chicken tikka masala on their menus.’

Indian restaurants used to be stuck in a time warp – formulaic curries to an undiscerning clientele, much of which was looking for the hottest sensations after a night’s boozing. But in the last decade, a new generation of restaurateurs and entrepreneurs have reinvented the restaurant scene, bringing in chefs from South Asia, resurrecting regional cuisine, experimenting with cross-genre cooking and transforming décor for a ‘cool Raj’ effect. Whether it’s making movies, having a Bollywood blast, or opening a restaurant – British Asian flavours are the flavour of the decade. London’s Indian restaurant scene brims with such culinary gems as rock oysters served with griddle breads, and naans topped with seared rosemary leaves. Leading hotspots have celebrity sommeliers matching wines with tamarind-infused sauces. An Indian granny might be hard-pushed to recognise many of the dishes on modern Indian menus out here, but a new breed of young Indians have forged a style of cooking based on taste, creativity and healthy culinary curiosity.


London’s new batch of Indian chefs are business-savvy and ambitious – Atul Kocchar from Benares, Vineet Bhatia of Rasoi and Yogesh Datta, chef at the Painted Heron, all trained in Indian 5-star hotels before spreading their wings and coming to London to give Indian cooking a stylish makeover. Rasoi Vineet Bhatia and Amaya are the latest entrants to score points for new-wave Indian dining at 24-carat prices. French dressings flavoured with curry leaves, chilli-speckled custards, and even the occasional strawberry curry, increase expectations of deep-pocketed customers, and are a credit to the openness of London’s diverse clientele, where taste is the deciding factor rather than cultural conformity. Dishes from the subcontinent are recreated in pricey London restaurants and styled in the same way as carefully orchestrated modern French meals. When chefs pull off a marvellous meal, it’s worth writing home about.

In the 1970s, first generation economic immigrants from South Asia and East Africa focused on comfort cooking for homesick locals, and western-style ‘curries’ for the Brits. New-wave chefs are likely to celebrate peasant-style spiced marrows with as much fanfare as kebabs flecked with gold leaf. From pavements to palaces, regional Indian cooking is here to stay. When asked for her opinion on new-wave Indian cooking, Madhur Jaffrey commented that, ‘Chefs at the better restaurants in London are very good at innovation, but this kind of cooking is hardly a new phenomena. The colonial planters’ curry is an example of how Indian food in the nineteenth century was adapted to suit British tastes with the addition of curry paste.’


Proponents of culinary traditions, might well have reservations about the new-spangled flavour combinations and cooking styles doing the rounds, but truth is that no cuisine stands still – India didn’t have chillies until the Portuguese brought them from the New World, and where would Indian cooking be without the tomato or potato introduced by the Europeans? London’s top Indian chefs, freed from the constraints of five-star hotel kitchens, are getting experimental and creating fusion dishes which are neither European or Indian – and in doing so have forged and fashioned a new style of Indian cooking. Some of these dishes work well – and some don’t. Looking beyond the plate to provenance – top British Asian chefs are the proud to use top quality produce, including Loch Fyne Scottish salmon, Welsh goat’s cheese or the sparkle of the season’s first crop of spring asparagus. As Vineet Bhatia points out, he’d much rather cook with scallops caught that morning off the Devon coast than with frozen pomfret shipped from the other side of the world.

What makes London so special is that it’s the world’s leader for spotlighting the Indian subcontinent’s culinary diversity. As for cosmopolitan New York, the so-called melting pot of the world – it simply can’t compete with our fine-dining Indian restaurants. When asked about the Indian restaurant scene in America, Madhur Jaffrey commented that, ‘Indian restaurants in America are not quite as evolved as the best ones in Britain because there isn’t so much of a shared culinary background with India to draw upon. Britain’s passion for Indian cooking has an illustrious past – dishes from the subcontinent were popular even in the seventeenth century.’ Yet although there’s a growing appreciation for regional Indian cooking, it’ll take some time before their restaurants can compete with the likes of London’s top-end restaurants.


Alongside the glitter and glamour of London’s fine dining Indian restaurants, there’s a thriving Asian community, unmoved by the latest food fad. Britain’s heart-of-Punjabi culture in Southall is almost as ‘authentic’ as city market places on the Indian subcontinent. Check out essentials of the Punjabi kitchen – huge bunches of saag, weighty marrows, and juicy seasonal mangoes from Pakistan. It’s hard to resist the temptingly smoky aroma of meaty kebabs, or to say no to calorie-laden jalebis as they are drained from a karahi outside Southall’s own Moti Mahal.

Partition and the independence of India and Pakistan were major chapters in the story of Indian migration to Britain. Some people managed to find employment in their specialist areas – teachers, doctors and specialist professions, but for many, the labour shortages of a British nation engaged in post-war reconstruction, dictated employment practice. Many new Punjabi immigrants settled in Southall and other industrial areas where factories and the building industry were in much-need labour.

Known for their hard work and business savvy, the Punjabi community has improved their financial lot in recent years. Flashy cars, glitzy shop fronts and redecorated restaurants testify to new-found wealth. Refurbished Madhu’s restaurant, with its shiny black granite interiors, expansive plate glass windows and pricey menu, sighs with stylish affluence. It’s a world far removed from Southall’s street life origins and a taste of future trends in the area.


Colourful and at times chaotic, Wembley’s Ealing Road – a celebration of Gujarati and Sri Lankan culture, also has the trappings of an Indian bazaar. Stalls spill their wares over pavements, and for a fistful of loose change you can buy anything from street snacks to glittery bangles, Tamil videos and juicy mangoes. Testament to the new-found wealth of its business community, gentrification of Ealing Road is on the cards and already chic vegetarian cafés are all-set to take over from functional venues for local residents.

As Leo Benedictus in The Guardian comments ‘London in 2005 is uncharted territory. Never have so many different kinds of people tried living together in the same place before. What some people see as the great experiment of multiculturalism will triumph or fail here.’ He continues: ‘the British seem to have a unique affinity for foreign food of every kind – so much so that, like tea, they quickly adopt it as their own.’ This affinity for exotic food fuels a multi-million pound industry and helps in the settlement of new immigrants and communities. Benedictus goes on to comment that ‘in London, one can dine on food from more than 70 different countries – and then buy the ingredients to make it all again at home’ Truly a cause for celebration.