Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hurry! I Want Curry!

Remember when I told you that the national dish or food of England was most likely sausages.  Well, that’s only part of the truth.  Most people consider one other dish to share this title with the sausages and that would have to be “curry” or more specifically, chicken tikka masala.  If you are finding this a little hard to believe, all you have to do is simply walk down one street in London to let the plethora of “Indian” restaurants prove it right.  But although these restaurants may advertise themselves as serving authentic Indian food, their fare, the “meat in a spiced sauce over rice” that people generally imagine when they think Indian, is an English invention.  In fact, it does not resemble any traditional food one may find in India at all.

So how did England happen to take on this international style dish as their own?  Well the origins go back to the 1200s.  At this point in time, India was in control of the spice trading and for Europeans to obtain these valued items, they had to pay enormous sums of money.  So, the Europeans decided to take matters into their own hands and traveled to India to take control of the spice trade.  Portugal was the first to do this, but, in the 1600s, the English stole this control.  Because of this, many businesspeople in England found themselves traveling to India and developing much fondness for the flavors of the food there.  They tried to replicate it as soon as they returned home but without full knowledge of the Indian food culture, all they came up with was gravy made from lots of spices that they poured over all their food.  But they really liked it so this spice mixture became highly commercialized and widely sold in little packages labeled “curry powder.”  And although people in India really do flavor their food with mixtures of spices (called a masala) they use fresh spices and grind up the powders themselves.

In England, the most widely recognized mixture of spices is called “garam masala” and makes up the base of virtually all of the curries available in London.  It is used to flavor both the meat (served in bite sized pieces or bits called tikka) and the sauce in which it's served, whether that be tikka masala, korma, jalfrezi, rogan josh, vindaloo, or one of the many others. 

Chicken tikka masala has become the most widely recognized curry in all of England and can be found anywhere from the grocery store frozen food section to the best of restaurants and it's even used as a sandwich topping at Subway or flavoring for crisps.  Yet, it’s always somewhat different depending on where it’s from.  But essentially, the chicken is marinated in a combination of garam masala and yogurt and cooked on skewers inside a tandoor oven.  Then, it’s combined with a tikka masala sauce made from garam masala, onions, tomatoes, and cream. 

 Although I’ve tried a number of varieties of the dish, the absolute best I’ve had so far came from Brick Lane.  Brick Lane is in a very famous stretch of road in the east end of London, situated right in the middle of the Bangladeshi community.  And believe me when I say that there are literally hundreds of restaurants on this road, all in the “Asian food” category meaning Indian, Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, and every other possibility.  It is an overwhelming sight and almost every place bears a sign that reads “voted best curry on Brick Lane”.  Only with the help of a suggestion from a tour guide could I pick one of the restaurants so I found myself a Sheraz with high expectations that were fulfilled.  

Again, I ordered the chicken tikka masala along with naan peshwari (Indian flatbread stuffed with coconut and mushrooms and cooked in the tandoor) to tear off in pieces and mop up the remaining sauce on the plate.  It really was the best tikka masala I’ve tried.  I generally think that the cheaper versions have this awful lingering onion and garlic taste, but this one was quite creamy, mild, and sweet with still a good punch if spice flavor.  Therefore, the sweet naan was a nice pairing.  I definitely got the sense that Sheraz used very fresh ingredients, and prepared the food in the most authentic of ways, so I was glad for the suggestion to lead me in the right direction.

But tikka masala is by no means the only option for a curry.  I’ve also sampled a very tasty lamb tikka at a restaurant in Bath and served in fancy style.  The waiter came to the table with a hot miniature pan where he mixed together the tandoor cooked lamb with caramelized onions so that it was hot and sizzling as he placed it onto my plate.  This kind had no sauce but served with basmati rice, it was still delicious.

Even vegetarians have a lot of options with the many chickpea and lentil dishes, and because a vegetarian dish is the cheapest to make, I had a go a making my own curry at home.  I prepared a vegetable jalfrezi (jalfrezi is a garam masala sauce with tomatoes and red peppers) made with cauliflower, butternut squash, courgettes, onion, ginger, tomatoes, and chickpeas.  I used this Jamie Oliver recipe, although cut in half and with few ingredient changes, for a filling and tasty dish that lasted me four days.  It was a lot of prep work, slicing, and dicing, but in the end, was worth the hard work.

Indian food and curries has become a staple in the diet of many in our London study abroad group because it’s cheap, widely available for takeaway, and always very flavorful and filling.  And just like Chinese food in America, the dirt cheap stuff from the corner place is usually just as satisfying as what come from a quality restaurant .  It is also very blatant representation of the many outside influences in English food.  Also, as London is a diverse city with many Asian communities, I can’t see the high prevalence and popularity of the Indian cuisine fading away anytime soon.  So, with only a few weeks left, it’s high time to fill up on this amazing food as much as I can before it’s no longer available.

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