The British are well-known for many things. But what is it with their obsession with curry?
Four young men are sitting around a table in an Indian restaurant in London.
“I’m having the Madras,” says one.
“We’re having vindaloos,” say the two sitting opposite him.
Then there’s a pause as they all turn to look at the last member of the party.
“Alright then,” he says. “I’m going for the phall!”
Instantly there are whoops of joy from his three friends and accusatory shaking of heads from the other people in the restaurant who can overhear their conversation. (For the uninitiated out there, Madras is hot, vindaloo is very hot and phall is ridiculously hot.) It’s a ritual among young British men to test their manhood by eating the hottest food possible.
Also in the restaurant is a group of middle-aged couples, all swapping dishes across the table like it’s the last curry they’ll ever eat.
“Have a taste of mine, it’s delicious,” they say simultaneously, while offering their dishes around.
There is chicken, lamb, prawns, potato, spinach, more rice than you’d see thrown at an extravagant wedding, hot flat breads, puffy raised breads with savoury and sweet fillings, and a whole host of pickles. There is way too much on the table but in true British style nobody will allow anything to go to waste, so they all eat on.
Next to the overloaded table is a family, with the parents ensuring that their love of curry is dutifully passed down to their children. For the youngsters there are milder dishes like creamy korma and the mooreish chicken tikka masala. But mum and dad take great pride in translating the rest of the menu for them.
“Aloo is potato, sag is spinach, murgh is chicken and mutter is peas”, they are taught, as they dip shards of their crispy popadoms into the sweet mango chutney.
It’s fair to say that the average Brit probably knows more Hindi words than French or German thanks to these menus.
Then there is a young couple over in a corner cooing to each other over the spicy dishes. The fancy places serving other cuisines may be out of their financial reach but thanks to the affordability of Indian restaurants dating couples such as these can escape the burger joints and visit a “proper” restaurant.
This is the scene that will greet you in a British Indian restaurant on a typical night. Oh, and wow, do those typical nights clock up some big numbers. So obsessed are Brits when it comes to curry that there are around 14,000 of these restaurants on their small island. According to the trade magazine Spice Business, 2.5 million people eat in Indian restaurants in Britain every year and the curry business is worth £3.2bn.
“The love of this food is historical. In the time of the Raj the army would bring those flavours back home.” says Bedar Miah from the Madhuban restaurant in Liss, Hampshire. “Years ago people liked the milder dishes but now they are more experimental.”
Sudesh Singh, executive chef at Scene Indian Street Kitchen in Manchester agrees. “The British living in India in colonial times developed an appetite for local cuisine. The dishes are cooked with intoxicating spices that compliment each other to produce flavours unlike anything they would have tasted. Then [Asian] people moved to Britain and brought their cooking and spices with them and soon the British population developed a taste for Indian food.”
Although there are some storms brewing as the industry complains that government immigration rules are hindering their ability to hire chefs, Emaan Ali, marketing and events manager at Scene, remains upbeat. “Indian food has become a part of British culture. I think we will see more innovation from newer chefs and more fusion foods but there will always be room for the classic traditional dishes.”
Indian food remains firmly entrenched in the British national culture. The first British cookbook to include a curry recipe was Hannah Glasse’s The Art Of Cookery, which was first published in 1747, while London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in 1809. The British Raj exposed more Brits to spicy food and when, at the end of that era, large numbers of Asians moved to Britain, the number of Indian restaurants grew rapidly. Within a few years, as these restaurants sought to appeal to the local population’s palates, a new type of cooking was born: British Indian Restaurant (BIR) curry. Its most famous dish, chicken tikka masala, is widely accepted to have been created in Britain when a chef (a few claim credit) added sauce to the spicy, but dry chicken tikka. So engrained is the dish among Brits that as far back as 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called it “a true national dish” in a speech in London.
But perhaps the firmest evidence that the Brits are curry mad is the number of curry clubs that exist around the country. Some are organised networking events but the majority are just groups of friends who meet to eat Indian food.
Adam Hathaway, from a groups called Ruby Tuesday (Ruby is Cockney rhyming slang for Curry), which meets at Lahore restaurant in London every month says: “A lot of the group have moved out of London but they plan special trips for our curry nights. One, who lives in Spain, once came straight from the airport without even dropping off his bags.”
But the last word goes to Ian Howell, who has run the Norwich Curry Club since 1987. “From the moment the pile of popadoms is smashed and we dip into the chutneys we know we are in for a good night. The ability to share your friends’ dishes, split a piece of naan bread, to pass the food around the table, reminds us of a modern banquet experience. We never discuss work, we simply all get on, share the food and talk nonsense until the hot towels arrive at our table.”
Five restaurants to try
Veeraswamy celebrates its 90th birthday this year and is the oldest Indian restaurant in the country that is still operating. Superb décor with a hint of the Raj, you can be sure of luxurious, quality dishes across the menu.
99 Regent Street, London, W1B 4RS. Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 1401. www.veeraswamy.com.
Lahore is an east London institution for Pakistani food lovers. There’s no standing on parade in this canteen-style restaurant as waiters glide between tables with plates piled high with lamb chops and sheek kebabs. No alcohol is served but you can bring your own.
2-10 Umberston Street, London, E1 1PY. Tel: +44 (0)20 7481 9737. www.lahore-kebabhouse.com.
Madhuban is proof that even in small villages you will find quality spicy food. Run by three brothers from Bangladesh, the restaurant celebrates its 30th birthday next year and attracts customers from far and wide.
94 Station Road, Liss, Hampshire, GU33 7AQ. Tel: +44 (0)1730 893 363. www.madhubanrestaurant.co.uk.
Scene Indian Street Kitchen is the perfect example of the new wave of Indian restaurants in Britain: smart food, smart décor and smart-looking people. Try the samosa chat, the popular street food starter.
4a Leftbank, Irwell Square, Spinningfields, Manchester, M3 3AN. Tel: +44 (0)161 839 3929. www.scenedining.com.
Charcoals is a small, relaxed restaurant in the centre of Glasgow serving well-priced and mouth-watering food.
26a Renfield Street, Glasgow, G2 1LU, Scotland. Tel: +44 (0)141 441 9251. www.charcoals.co.uk.
• This article first appeared in Sawubona, the South African Airways in-flight magazine.