Britain: Curry favour

By Dylan Cleaver

The late Robin Cook, foreign secretary under Tony Blair, labelled chicken tikka masala the national dish of Britain.

Given that it would take 25 years of eating out every night at a different curry house - it is something of a misnomer to call them Indian restaurants - to exhaust what the United Kingdom has to offer, you can see his point.

The land of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, toad-in-the-hole and fish and chips has long been seduced by the exotic tastes of the subcontinent.

From Land's End to John O'Groats, thousands pour into curry houses, which support close to 150,000 jobs, every night in search of flavour and sustenance.

Some go to "float a vindaloo" - the questionable, bottom-aching practice of getting sozzled before proving your masculinity by labouring through the hottest dish on the menu. Others will dine at the predominantly Bengali-owned restaurants because they are cheap and ubiquitous.

Whatever the motivation, you can't help but notice how inextricably entwined Britain and curry has become.

The word "curry" in itself is a British invention. The etymology is, pun intended, hotly debated but one theory has it as the anglicised version of Torkari, a Bengali vegetable and gravy stew.

But it goes deeper than that. Britain is almost certainly the birthplace of what we now consider two "Indian" staples.

Balti, a curry dish served in a cast-iron pot, is said to have derived from Birmingham. Even chicken tikka masala, the name of which conjures visions of a steamy Bengali kitchen, is believed to have been invented by an expat chef in Glasgow using a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup and some spices after a customer complained his tikka was too dry.

The English occupation of India began in Bengal and the largest waves of immigration into Britain came from that region, so it makes sense that dishes from that part of the subcontinent dominate in the UK, although there has been a marked increase in Punjabi restaurants since the 1970s.

Still, the two most famous curry thoroughfares feature restaurants that are predominantly Bengali-Sylheti owned.

Although Brick Lane seems slightly more authentic than Manchester's Curry Mile, both are regarded by curry connoisseurs as strictly tourist traps.

This is plainly nonsense as attracting tourists would have been the last thing on the immigrants' minds as they settled into a new and not always welcoming country. Brick Lane, near London's docks and industrial east and where most new immigrants settled, would probably have begun as a focal point of the Bengali community, attracting "outsiders" only once its reputation for good food grew.

However, if you are a tourist and in town, it would be remiss of you to not go at least once.

It's situated in London's once notorious, now art-house cool East End and is a stone's throw from the City, where suited types peruse the Financial Times and ponder the world's markets.

It is quite a spectacle. Entering from the City side, you are immediately set upon by owners/ spruikers offering free starters - poppadums and pickles - and a round of drinks.

But the key is to avoid these joints, even if the thought of dousing a well-spiced jalfrezi with a free Kingfisher beer is appealing. Stick to ones that don't have to work so hard for their clientele, that have earned good reputations over time, such as Preem or Aladdin.

Wilmslow Rd in Manchester's Rusholme area, known simply as the Curry Mile, is less celebrated than Brick Lane. It carries the same tourist-trap reputation but also serves as a great night out. If anything, the frontage is even more of a visual assault than Brick Lane. But don't let the tackiness put you off.

There are unwritten rules for eating in these enclaves, primary among them is to order too much food and drink the Indian beers, usually Kingfisher or Cobra, which are less gassy than normal lagers and don't fill you up as much.

Get the poppadums and pickles, the naans, try different curries. Sure, have a butter chicken or a tikka masala on the table but dip into other dishes like dopiazas, rogan joshs and, if you have the stomach for it, a fire-breathing phall.

The best curry in Britain won't be found in Brick Lane or on the Curry Mile. But with more than 9000 curry restaurants in Britain and millions of locals claiming curry expert status, it is not difficult to start looking for the perfect curry.

- Detours, HoS

- Herald on Sunday

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