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Why do the Brits love Curry?

Aug 17 2013 Published by under Editorial

he Indian food industry in Britain is one of the major success stories of the second half of the last century. It is one of the biggest industries in the UK,worth a reported $5 billion a year, including 15,000 Indian restaurants that provide employment and a large takeaway and pre-packaged ‘curry-in-a-hurry’ sector that employs a healthy 70,000 people around the UK.

London now has more Indian restaurants than Mumbai or Delhi, and Britaincurrently boasts the largest Indian restaurant in the world, The Aakash, which can seat up to 750 people in one sitting..

Indian restaurants follow an interesting geographical pattern in Britain. Strangely enough, many of them are not actually ‘Indian’ at all. Generally in the south of Britain, especially around London, the majority of the owners are of Bangladeshidescent. From Birmingham, it changes slightly and there are more Pakistani owners, and as far up as Manchester and Bradford, the restaurants and nearly all Pakistani, Kashmiri and North Indian owned, with hardly any Bangladeshis at all. In Glasgow, the majority of ownership of the Indian restaurants comes from the Punjab.

In the past 50 years, we have seen Indian food go from an occasional, exotic treat to a weekend tradition. Indian food has become so entwined in the British nationalpsyche that popping out for a curry at the weekend could now easily be seen as a British trait.

The integration is due to various factors, one of which is the idea of the ‘British Curry’.

Many of the curries that can be found on Indian restaurant menus, not just in Britain, but also around the world, are actually British inventions. The Balti, a richtangy curry was supposedly invented in Birmingham; the Jalfrezi, a dry spicy dish, isclaimed to be from Bradford; and the Chicken Tikka Masala, a very creamy marinated chicken dish, possibly hails from Glasgow. The ambiguity of the origins of the curries is telling. You can visit one of the many curry houses in London’s famousBrick Lane, and each one will serve you a different version of the same dish.

Many people disagree even on the origins of the curries’ names. A good example is the Balti that was possibly named after a region between Pakistan and India, or rather comically, from a regional dialect for the word ‘bucket’.

The general non-conformity of recipes is due to the fact that there is no one recipe for any single curry. Many of the first chefs to cook Indian food in the UK were simply using the original recipes from their home countries changed slightly for the British taste.

Britain’s New National Dish

Since before former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook proclaimed in 2001 that Chicken Tikka Masala was “a true British national dish”, it was a dish held dear to many Brits.

 

The origins of Chicken Tikka Masala, like many British Indian hybrid dishes, aremurky. Possibly first made by Indian chefs for the British Army whilst in India, Chicken Tikka Masala combines the dish ‘Butter Chicken’ with yoghurt and extraspice to make it saucier. It’s also possible that the dish hails from Glasgow restaurant where a customer wanted a bit more gravy-like sauce on his curry. There are other claims from Essex, London and Bradford that are all similar in that it is a curry made for the British palate with more sauce.

There is no set recipe for what exactly is a Chicken Tikka Masala. It can vary in color from red, orange and even green and it can be spicy hot or creamy and mild. It can be served on a plate mixed in with rice or separate on skewers.

Eighteen tons of Chicken Tikka Masala are served to people across Britain every week. It accounts for nearly one in seven of all curries sold, and if you stacked up all the portions served each year, they would reach halfway to the Moon.

It is also not simply just another curry. It can easily be found as a hot or cold fillingin sandwiches, a flavor of crisps and pies or even as a pizza topping.

The Changing Taste of Curry

In recent years, modern Indian Cuisine has left behind the traditional Curry House image of sticky carpets and flowery peeling wallpaper and moved more towards fine dining. The Bombay Brasserie in London was one of the first restaurants to embracethis new thinking about Indian food when it opened in 1982. Its success (it has been almost fully booked ever since its opening) proved that a top-end Indian restaurant could be successful and led to others trying this new culinary style.

 

Ben Clatworthy, a professional British chef from Oxford currently working in India Spice, a British Curry House in La Paz, Bolivia, said, “I see Indian food as a pioneer of changing people’s perceptions of different food and tastes in Britain. Our adoption of it proves that we can enjoy a different culture’s food.” He added, “The restaurant scene in many parts of London is dominated by Indian restaurants of both the old Curry House style and the new more up market Indian restaurants”.

London now boasts three Michelin Star Indian restaurants in Quilon, Rasoi and Trishna. Whilst the increase in the numbers of new Indian restaurants opening in the UK seems to have hit a plateau in recent years, the rightful recognition of this type of food as not just very good food, but a British staple, means it is here to stay.

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