Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.
In this issue
- This week:The Great British Curry
- Virtual Snacks
- Bizarre Searches
- Quotation and joke
Food is always a popular topic amongst our readers, and indeed newsletters about food usually get the most feedback. We aim to please! The subject for this week is the Great British Curry.
The origins of the word “curry” itself are lost in the mists of time. As most Britons will know (although maybe not the devisers of Vesta freeze-dried meals) there’s no single Indian dish called “curry”. The most widely accepted theory is that the word derives from the Tamil word “kari”, meaning any secondary dish eaten with rice. Others believe that it’s related to a North Indian word, “tari”, meaning “gravy”, or the Indian cooking pot called a “kadahi” or “karahi”. Whichever way you look at it, though, the word as it’s internationally understood today was coined by Britons, though obviously as a result of Indian influence.
The first recipe for curry published in the UK dates back as far as 1747. Perhaps appropriately, it bore little resemblance to the curries eaten in India; the only spices included in its making were coriander seeds and pepper, although by the fourth edition the author felt daring enough to include turmeric and ginger. Fast forward a century or so to the days of Mrs Beeton, and you can find a recipe for curry powder “founded on Dr Kitchener’s recipe” – but she added that “that purchased at any respectable shop is, generally speaking, far superior, and taking all things into consideration, very frequently more economical”. So towards the end of the nineteenth century curry was a relatively mainstream dish; so much so, in fact, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was able to use curried mutton as a crucial clue in his Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, published in 1892. The curry was eaten by domestic staff, not householders – so clearly it wasn’t regarded as a rare delicacy. And of course kedgeree was a regular feature at the breakfast table in well-to-do houses from Victorian times onwards.
But the British curry really got underway with the invention of Coronation chicken in 1953. A simple mix of cold chicken with curry powder and mayonnaise had already existed as Jubilee chicken since George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, but Coronation chicken took British curries down the fateful path of adding fruit – in this case, apricots. And by the 1970s, if not even earlier, no school dinner menu was complete without its “curry”: bright yellow and watery, containing all sorts of weird ingredients like swede and sultanas. (Maybe that’s why curry sauce is so popular in many British fish-and-chip shops today.)
As you’ll have twigged by now, British curry is nothing like real Indian food and relies on a good deal of local “innovation”. (Indeed, when a group of people go out for a curry in the UK, it’s established tradition that at some point in the meal one of those present is required to say knowledgeably, “Of course, you’d never get a curry like this in India…”) This isn’t necessarily all a bad thing, though. Legend has it that chicken tikka masala – famously cited by Robin Cook as Britain’s national dish, replacing fish and chips – was originally a Glasgow invention, when a customer complained that their chicken tikka was too dry; the chef allegedly improvised a sauce using a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup, yoghurt and spices! And the balti, with its exquisitely tender meat and spicy, greasy gravy, is native to Birmingham.
There’s one other very good reason that British curry houses offer dishes that bear little resemblance to meals in India, though. Most so-called Indian restaurants in Britain are actually run by Bangladeshis (some estimate the figure at 70%; of those, 90% are reckoned to be run by Bangladeshis from the Sylhet region in north-eastern Bangladesh). The diet in Bengal consists largely of fish and rice rather than meat and wheat – and among poor families (which make up the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population) the fish is a rare treat; yellow lentils are much more usual. So “Indian” dishes tended in the early days to be interpretations of Indian recipes using whatever ingredients were available in Britain. The range of ingredients is much bigger nowadays, of course, but the new recipes have now become established.
A key ingredient in most British restaurant curries is the onion. And it’s not just for pakoras or bhajis, or even for do piaza (“two onions”) curries; virtually all curries will have a spoonful of a magic onion mix added towards the end of their making. As you’d expect – given that curries are “Indian” food – onions are even more important in the sub-continent; the price of onions in the market is almost as important as the price of rice or flour. So when the prices shoot up, as they often do in the middle of the cool season, there’s a great deal of anxiety among Indian housewives. (I say “housewives” advisedly. In spite of much progress in recent years, Indian society’s still very traditional when it comes to equal opportunities.) Delhi’s Chief Minister was forced to resign in 1998 after he advised poor people to give up onions if the price was too high for them!
If all of this is making you feel nostalgic for the great British curry, and you’ve ever wanted to make a real British “Indian” restaurant curry at home, you can find out how to do it in our Virtual Snacks below. Enjoy!
Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?
Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:
[Obsolete content and links removed. However, there’s plenty of information about curry, including recipes on our sister site Not Delia. http://www.notdelia.co.uk]
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Till next time…
Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine
“There are two types of onions, the big white Spanish and the little red Italian. The Spanish has more food value and is therefore chosen to make soup for huntsmen and drunkards, two classes of people who require fast recuperation.”
– Alexandre Dumas père, French novelist (1802-70)
This man goes into a restaurant, accompanied by a big ostrich. The waiter is a bit perturbed, but business has been slack and he thinks his boss will go mad at him if he turns away custom.
“What will you have, sir?” he asks the man.
“I’ll have the chicken korma with pilau rice please, my favourite. It’s the best thing for a Monday night,” he replies.
The ostrich says, “I think so too. The same, please.”
So they eat their dinner and afterwards the waiter brings the bill, which comes to £12.68. The guy puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a number of notes and coins. Amazingly, it is the exact amount.
The next night the man and the ostrich come in again.
“Let’s see, Tuesday night, I always think some prawn bhuna and garlic naan goes down well on a Tuesday,” he says.
The ostrich nods its head. “I’ll say! Same for me, please.”
When the waiter brings the bill for £14.60 at the end of the meal, he’s astonished when the man once more puts his hand in his pocket and brings out the exact amount.
This happens every night: always a dish of the night, the ostrich always has the same, and the man always has the right money.
In the end it gets to the stage where the waiter can’t help himself.
“Excuse me, sir,” he says on the Sunday night after the man’s put his hand in his pocket and pulled out exactly the £24.50 for the lamb dhansak, prawn jhalfrezi, two onion bhajis, keema naan and poppadoms he and the ostrich have just eaten. “How do you do that? Do you check the prices before coming in and only have the amount you want in that pocket?”
The man looks at him, then at the ostrich. “Should I tell him?”
“Do you want to?” asks the ostrich.
“Well, yes,” says the man.
“Well, yes, do tell him then!” says the ostrich.
The man sighs and begins his tale. “Just the other week there I was clearing out a house for an old sea-going fella I knew, when I found this old-fashioned lamp up in the loft. Wondering what metal it was made out of, I gave it a quick rub and out popped this genie. He granted me two wishes. So I thought about it for a bit and came up with this idea for my first wish. I wished that whenever I needed money for anything, all I had to do was put my hand in my pocket and I’d bring out exactly what I needed.”
“Ah, so that’s why it’s always the exact amount,” says the waiter, “And of course, the wish was for when you needed money for anything, so it will always work.”
“Yes,” says the man with a nod, “No matter what it’s for – cigars, meals, a car, anything – the exact money is there each time. Clever, eh?”
“Wow!” says the waiter. “And the ostrich?”
The man gives a baleful stare at the creature. “Not so clever with the second one,” he sighs. “I asked for a tall, leggy bird who’d always agree with everything I said.”