In British cuisine, the word curry started out as a generic term to describe what the British Army encountered a mixture of spices or spiced sauces, sauteed vegetables and meats, basically applied to about any savory Indian dishes. Along the way “curry” became a specific term for dishes created for the British in India. Note that the humbling of the ‘British curry’ as a dish solely made with ‘curry powder’ (which, prior to the 1970’s, meant a yellow powder consisting mostly of ground turmeric and chili powder, used to create dishes such as ‘Coronation chicken’– so named as it was created for Queen Elizabeth’s II coronation) is a 20th-century phenomenon as was adding (golden raisins) sultanas to every curry dish. The trend is reversing direction and back towards authentic “curry”.
Indian food in the UK also includes cuisine served in restaurants that are run predominantly by the Bangladeshi / Pakistani community. Consider that Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until 1971, and Pakistan split from India in 1947. So, despite present national boundaries, what we know as Indian cuisine has its roots in the India of yesteryear.
The British love affair with curry began at the end of the 16th century when the Dutch led the pepper trade. Because of the Dutch monopoly’s exorbitant prices, the British monarch granted a royal charter to a small group of merchants allowing them to create a trading company – the sole raison d’être of the East India Company, as it was later called, was to secure a better price for pepper than the Dutch asking price. There was never a desire for this company to build an empire. In fact, the British were not keen on trading with India either. The country was perceived as a handy stopping off port and a trading post for goods such as cotton and linens. However with the Dutch making trading in Indonesia increasingly difficult, India became increasingly attractive with its coast lined with ports protected by private armies consigned to keep an eye on the European traders.
At that time India was ruled by emperors and Mughals who were often infighting, strengthening the European stronghold and their chances of grasping control of many of the Indian territories. When the Mughals yielded to the British, the East India Company gained power. This reign of the British Raj was the most significant and the longest in Imperial history lasting ntil 1947. This period was decadent and it showed in their cooking. Every social event paid special attention to the food and the British memsahibs included cooks highly trained to cater for the western palate. Banquets would have consisted of game and poultry which was of poor quality so the cooks would often have to improvise by creating hybrid dishes such as chapatis. Breakfasts consisted of omelets seasoned with spices and the simple Indian dish of rice and lentils known as kichidi transformed into the British kedgeree with the addition of smoked kippers from England. Soon all meals became a fusion of East meets West cooking traditions.
Just as the British in India had endeavoured to replicate home comfort food, upon their return to Britain they craved that ‘curry’ that was part of their daily diets when they were stationed in India.
Home Curry Cooking
Hanna Glasse published the first recorded recipe for curry in Britain. In her 1747 book The Art of Cookery which appeared in twenty editions throughout the 18th – 19th centuries. Her initial recipe for ‘currey’ included coriander seeds and pepper, and by the 4th edition, she had added ginger and turmeric. There was no mention of chilli as they had only been introduced to India around the late 15th Century.
The First Indian Restaurant
The first ‘Curry’ house in Britain was run by an ambitious man known as Dean Mahomed. With his father’s connections, the young Dean Mahomet found himself in the service of an Anglo-Irish officer known as Captain Godfrey Evan Baker. As Baker rose through the military ranks, so too did Mahomet, who followed his employer across India before stopping in Ireland. On the Emerald Isle, he became the first Indian to publish a book in English called The Travels of Dean Mahomet. At the turn of the 19th century, at the age of fifty with his wife and children, he moved to London to make his mark in the culinary field. London was open to unusual tastes and if Indian food was served, it was bound to be popular. Mahomet picked up on this curiosity and opened the Hindostanee Coffee House on No 34 George Street. There he served Indian-style dishes with a hookah containing Chilm Tobacco. The building which was the Coffee House is now known as Carlton House. A green plaque exists in Westminster in honour of this Indian entrepreneur.
Curry Trends – Ebbs and Flows
For the remainder of the 19th century, curry’s popularity continued a gradual but steady increase until interest plummeted at the onset of World War I when food for survival was all anyone could think about. After the fall of Hitler and Indian Independence in 1947, interest in curry renewed, especially during the late 1950’s to 1960’s, when Indian food was a cheap alternative when eating out. At the same time, increasing numbers of people moving from the Indian sub-continent to live in the UK for work, demand for food from their homeland added to the clamor for Indian curries.
Until 1998, 85% of curry restaurants in the UK were Bangladeshi restaurants but in 2003, this figure declined to just over 65%. Whatever the ethnic origin of a restaurant’s ownership, the menu will nearly always be influenced by the broader Indian subcontinent (may include Nepalese dishes), and sometimes stretching to include cuisines from further afield such as Persian. British-style curry restaurants infiltrated some former British settler colonies: Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In a relatively short space of time, curry become an integral part of British cuisine, so much so that, since the late 1990’s, Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) is referred to as the “British national dish“. In fact, its not a truly Indian, as it was developed in a UK restaurant most probably by Bangladesh cooks. Note: the exact origins of CTM are a mystery, but the consensus is that it was developed in the UK, and the dominant story is that it was developed in Glasgow – more details forthcoming later in this post.
Britain’s Curry Crisis – problems on the horizon
England’s point-based system to determine migration by non-EU citizens, may be good for security reasons, but bad for food. Over the last several decades, many believe that curry has become England’s “true national dish”. However, thanks to the immigration restrictions, many of Britain’s curry houses are suffering from a staff shortage. Restauranteur Ahmed Koysor, “It’s been really difficult to recruit locally. We have tried hiring eastern European staff but they have been mostly useless. No skills, no understanding of what we do. And besides, they need to speak the language of the kitchen if we are going to [succeed].” The Bangladesh Caterers’ Association states that there are 27,500 vacancies in Bangladeshi-owned restaurants and that immigration officials have said that no more Bangladeshi nationals will be allowed in. If this continues, many restaurants may be forced to close.
The British Curry House
Restaurants of all stars and ranks, whether the tables are topped with white linen or formica serve authentic Indian food in Britain. This cuisine is characterised by the use of a common base for all the sauces to which spices are added when individual dishes are prepared. A quick primer:
- Korma – mild, yellow sauce, with almond and coconut
- Curry – medium, gravy-like sauce
- Rogan Josh (from “Roghan” (oil) + “Gosht” (meat)) – medium, with tomatoes
- Bhuna – medium, thick sauce, some vegetables
- Dhansak – medium/hot, sweet and sour sauce with lentils (originally a Parsi dish)
- Madras – fairly hot curry, red in color; heavy on the chilli powder
- Pathia – similar to a Madras + lemon juice and tomato puree
- Jalfrezi – onion, green chilli and a thick sauce
- Vindaloo – generally tips the scale as the classic “hot” restaurant curry, (although a true Vindaloo indicate any particular level of spiciness)
Other dishes may be featured with varying strengths, with those of north Indian origin, such as Butter Chicken, leaning towards mild, and recipes from the south of India going for blistering heat.
No look at curry in the UK would be complete without delving into CTK, or Chicken Tikka Masala (IMHO – in my humble opinion) Chicken Tikka Masala was a rift on that famous butter chicken, and as stated previously it replaced fish & chips as the national dish.
Chicken Tikka Masala – just the facts
- Marks & Spenser claims to sell 18 tons a week of the stuff
- 23 million portions a year are sold in Indian restaurants
- 10 tons of CTM/day are produced by Noon Products alone destined for supermarkets
- Most schools and charities in Sylhet, Bangladesh are run by proceeds from its sales
- Chef Iftekar Haris from Newport, Gwent wrote a musical praising it
- Chicken Tikka Masala boasts a huge 14.6% of the sales of the almost half a million curries consumed, on average, in the restaurants and homes of the United Kingdom every day of the year
- Organizers of National Curry Week claim that if all the portions sold in a single year in UK were stacked, the resulting tikka tower would be 2,770 times taller than the Greenwich Millennium Dome
Journalist Amit Roy referred to it as “a dish which does not exist in Indian cuisine”. So the question is ‘is it a genuine Indian dish, or isn’t it?’, when the dish does not hail from India. It was created to appeal to the British palate by savvy restaurateurs. From that point on, the story of CTM is murky at best, with claims and counter-claims.
No ‘Indian’ chef can produced any evidence that they invented the dish, and its invention is believed to have came about by accident. Journalist and restaurateur, Iqbal Wahhab, claims it was created when a Bangladeshi chef produced a dish of traditional Chicken Tikka only to be asked “where’s my gravy?” The response was, supposedly, the addition of a tin of cream of tomato soup and a few spices and the ‘masala’ element was born. Food writer, Charles Campion, refers to CTM as “a dish invented in London in the 1970’s so that the ignorant could have gravy with their chicken tikka”. Several chefs have made claim to the invention of CTM but lack the evidence or witness support so the mystery will have to remain. The descendents of Sultan Ahmed Ansari, who owned the Taj Mahal in Glasgow claim he invented it in the 1950’s, but again, no other evidence of the dish at this early date or of the tandoor in Glasgow.
The tandoor, which boosted tikka sales, had not even arrived in Britain at that time, having only been introduced to the first Indian restaurant, Moti Mahal in New Delhi in 1948 – which can be seen as the event that gave birth to CTM in its original form of Butter Chicken. Lala Kundan Lal Gujral establish the Moti Mahal restaurant in Dehli in 1947, and produced the first restaurant version of the tandoor, along with a tandoori spice mix for tandoori chicken – ground coriander seeds, black pepper and mild red pepper. Called Murg Makhani in Hindi, Butter Chicken originated in the 1950’s at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks recycled the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. This sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and the result was Butter Chicken. The leftover dish appealed to Delhites, and its appeal spread like wild fire around the world.
One family which received tangible benefits from the success of CTM is that of Sheik Abdul Khalique who owns The Polash in Shoeburyness which opened in 1979. His father, Haji Abdul Razzah, returned to Bangladesh in 1985 having made sufficient profit to build the Polash hotel in Sylhet and a mosque and The Polash Sheba Charitable Trust were added after his death -the family credits their fortunes to CTM.
For something that is so popular with the public and with the restaurateurs who make their living from it, Chicken Tikka Masala is a minefield of culinary creations. Few recipes for CTM appear in the plethora of Indian cookbooks over the last twenty years and Alan Davidson’s recent Oxford Companion to Food does not deem it wothy of a listing. Indeed, such are the passions it generates in the industry, that many top chefs refuse to cook or serve it due to its ‘lack of authenticity’.
So what is Chicken Tikka Masala? Tikkas are the bite-sized chunks of chicken marinated and cooked in the tandoor. The masala part is where it gets complicated – there is no one sauce or right way to prepare this dish. Masala means spices but no exact recipe for these seems to exist. CTM can be yellow, red, brownish or green; very creamy, a little creamy, chilli hot or mild.
A motion was introduced the British parliament seeking a “Designation of Origin” or D.O. from the European Union for Glasgow as the first home of Chicken Tikka Masala, up there with Greek feta, Champagne, and Parma ham. The late Robin Cook, a former UK Foreign Secretary, had commented that this dish was the truly universal national meal of Britain. Mohammad Sarwar, a Labor Party Member of Parliament from Glasgow Central, leads the request for the designation for the curry. Mr. Sarwar claimed that the dish was invented in the 1970s by Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow. The town is already a three time recipient of the “curry capital of Britain” award.
Birmingham Balti – competition is fierce for the curry capital title in the UK
A balti is a type of curry, widely served in restaurants in the United Kingdom, the defining characteristic is that it is served in a Balti dish. The name is thought to have originated from Indian vessel (Bucket). Balti dish is served in a bucket shaped vessel. According to Pat Chapman, the origins of the word can be traced back to the Pakistani area of Baltistan, where the people cook in a cast iron wok similar to the Chinese technique. (not surprising since Baltistan shares a border with China). “The balti pan is a round-bottomed, wok-like heavy cast-iron dish with two handles.” He also states “The origins of Balti cooking are wide ranging and owes much to China (with a slight resemblance to the spicy cooking of Szechuan) and Tibet as well as to the ancestry of the Mirpuris, the tastes of the Moghul emperors, the aromatic spices of Kashmir, and the ‘winter foods’ of lands high in the mountains.”
The main difference between a balti and a curry is the way it is served. The ingredients for a balti are cooked in much the same way as a curry. However, for the last ten minutes, the contents are cooked at high temperatures in a distinctive flat-bottomed wok which gives the dish its name: a balti. The fresh spices, herbs and chillis added during the final stages of cooking make it flavoursome and colorful. By the 1990s, the balti restaurant was firmly established in Birmingham’s restaurant scene. Balti restaurants, also know as ‘balti houses’ are known as a cheap place to eat.
Balti houses originally clustered along and behind the main road to the south of Birmingham city center. This area is still sometimes referred to as the ‘Balti Triangle‘ and contains a high concentration of Balti restaurants, as well as some of the oldest to be found in the city. One of the oldest established Balti Houses, N.Pasha’s and M.Niam’s K2 in the Birmingham B13 district of the Balti Triangle displays a large map of Baltistan on one wall.
UK Curry Trivia
- Curry is exceeds traditional British fish & chips in popularity
- A survey found curry is one of the favorite dishes of 3-5 year olds
- The world’s hottest Indian curry is claimed to be the Bollywood Burner made by The Cinnamon Club restaurant in London
- UK curry eaters munch nearly four million popadoms a week
- Folks in the UK eat 2.5 million curries per week
Chicken Tikka Masala of the Year 2002
(as voted in the Best in Britain Awards (BIBA))
Chef Manzoor Ahmed of Tabaq Restaurant South Clapham, London
Ingredients for the chicken
1# diced boneless chicken breast
1 oz garlic
1 oz ginger
4 T yogurt
2 small fresh green chillies
1 tsp salt
1 tbs lemon juice
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 T paprika
4-5 fresh springs of cilantro
Grind green chilies, cilantro, garlic and ginger with 2-3 T water to form a thick paste. Marinate the chicken in the paste then add the salt and yoghurt. Next add the lemon juice, cumin, coriander and paprika and mix thoroughly. Let chicken marinate in the paste overnight.
Ingredients for the Sauce
4 oz chopped onions
3 oz ghee (clarified butter)
1 oz ground garlic
1 oz ground ginger
3 oz yoghurt
½ tsp cumin
2 T dried coconut
4 oz cream
2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
1 -2 tsp salt
½ tsp chilli powder
½ tsp coriander powder
pinch dried methi (fenugreek)
Take marinated chicken and cook on skewers on a grill for 10-12 minutes over moderate high heat.
Fry onions in the ghee
Add tomatoes and yoghurt and mix on low/moderate heat. Add cumin powder, chilli powder, coriander powder, salt, desicated coconut, dried methi and fresh single cream and mix thoroughly. Water may be added if more liquid is required. Add cooked pieces or chicken to the sauce and mix well. Leave to simmer on low heat. Transfer to serving dish garnish with a little single cream and sprinkle liberally with fresh coriander and garam masala.
Amber India’s Butter Chicken
With multiple locations around the Bay Area, the original is in a simple strip mall in Mountain View California, Amber India Restaurant is a Bay Area favorite. They are justly famous for their Butter Chicken (the precursor to chicken tikka marsala)
Recipe from: Secrets of Success Cookbook by Michael Bauer
Marinating the chicken in yogurt and spices before cooking adds flavor and tenderizes the meat. The chicken is then roasted on the bone. Once the chicken has been cooled, the meat is removed from the bone and simmered with the sauce. The finished dish is best accompanied by steamed rice to sop up all the aromatic juices. Believe me nothing is wasted, its lick the plate good.
Ingredients for the chicken
3 pounds chicken pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs), skinned
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T dried red pepper flakes
2 ¼ tsp salt
1 ¼c yogurt
2 T heavy cream
1 ¼ tsp garlic paste (see Note)
1 ¼ tsp ginger paste (see Note)
¼ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp garam masala
Ingredients for Sauce
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp red chile powder
Pinch of garam rnasala
Pinch of ground mace
Pinch of ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 tsp brown sugar
¼ c butter
2 c canned chopped tomatoes with juices
1 T tomato paste
2 c (or more) water
2 T heavy cream
2 tsp ground fenugreek
To make the chicken: Make three parallel cuts on top of each piece of chicken. In a resealable heavy-duty plastic bag, combine the lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and 2 teaspoons salt. Add the chicken, coating well with the marinade. Seal the bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a bowl, stir together the yogurt and cream. Add the garlic paste, ginger paste, coriander, cumin, garam masala, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend thoroughly. When the chicken has marinated 30 minutes, add the yogurt mixture to the plastic bag. Reseal the bag. Refrigerate overnight.
To make the sauce: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the ground ginger, chile powder, garam masala, mace, nutmeg, white pepper, and brown sugar.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes with juices, tomato paste, water, and spice mixture. Let simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes or until slightly thickened, adding more water if needed. Remove the sauce from the heat.
Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard the marinade. Place chicken in a baking pan large enough to hold all the pieces in a single layer. Bake until cooked through, about 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and cut into bite-sized pieces. Discard the bones.
Add the chicken, cream, and fenugreek to the sauce. Simmer over medium heat until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Season to taste with salt.
Note: I did not used the paste, but minced both the ginger and garlic, and for me, that substitution worked just fine.
BUTTER CHICKEN’S SECRETS OF SUCCESS:
Marinating: A two-step marinating process adds complex flavor to the chicken. First, the chicken is marinated in seasoned lemon juice for 30 minutes to add fresh notes to the meat. Then the yogurt mixture is added and the chicken marinates overnight.
Roasting: The chicken is roasted on the bone, adding flavor. The meat is then cooled, boned, and added to the sauce.