Britain’s love affair with the curry now stretches back more than 200 years, with the Indian food industry in the UK being one of the major success stories of the last century. It is estimated that it is now worth more than £3 billion. Recent figures suggest that there are now just over 15,000 Indian restaurants and takeaways in the UK, which is considerably more than there are fish and chip shops, with London boasting more restaurants serving Indian cuisine than both Delhi and Mumbai.
The truth is that no other food has become so entwined in British society to the extent that going for a curry at the weekend is seen as very much a traditional British trait. Eating Indian food has gone from being completely unheard of, to an occasional exotic treat to what is now a regular weekend occurrence for many.
Curry – the best of British
Of course, the British curry is quite different from those found in India. Many of the curries available on UK Indian restaurant menus having actually been invented in Britain and with most Indian’s having never actually having heard of a vindaloo or tikka masala.
For example, it is said that the Balti was first made in Birmingham, with the Jalfrezi originating from Bradford, rather than Bangalore. The creamy chicken korma, once heralded as the nation’s favourite curry, is said to hail from Glasgow.
In fact, many of Britain’s Indian restaurant’s aren’t Indian at all, the vast majority of owners being of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Kashmiri descent.
Not that any of this really matters in the grand scheme of things and the sketchy origins of our favourite curry dishes certainly doesn’t take anything away from what has become a British culinary obsession.
Chicken Tikka Masala – a true national dish
In 2001, Robin Cook, the then British Foreign Secretary, proclaimed Chicken Tikka Masala as “a true British national dish” and whilst it might now be as popular as roast beef or afternoon tea, like many of the other hybrid British curries its origins are just as murky.
Some claim that it was first made almost two hundred years ago when it was given to officers of the British Army who were serving in India, where it was adapted from a Butter Chicken recipe. Then there are others who claim it was invented in a restaurant in the suburbs of Glasgow following repeated requests from customers who wanted their curry sauce to be more gravy like.
Heading south and there are similar claims from establishments in Bradford, Manchester, Essex and London all of whom speak of creating a ‘curry’ specifically for British taste buds.
The thing with Chicken Tikka Masala is that there is not really a set recipe, with so many variations it is almost a kind of catch all term used to describe a chicken dish with a spicy sauce. For example, it can vary in colour from red to green and just about everything in between. It can be spicy or mild, creamy and juicy or served on mixed skewers and barbecued.
No matter how Chicken Tikka Masala is served almost eighteen tons of the stuff is eaten across Britain every single week!
Chicken Tikka Masala is not only enjoyed in curry form; it is also a flavour of crisps, a pizza topping and a sandwich filler. If you’re really lucky you might even find it in a pie.
Going for an ‘Indian’
There was once a time when the great British curry house or your local Indian restaurant would probably be situated at the dodgy end of the high street, the restaurant’s name bathed in bright neon, usually missing a vowel or two. Upon entering you’d be greeted with sticky floors and faded flowery wallpaper peeling from the walls before being served a dish of sizzling shiny something or other, alongside some bright yellow rice and a big soggy floppy thing that looked more like an oven glove, than a nan bread; all this washed down with about ten pints of lager.
However, going to an Indian restaurant has changed considerably, with traditional curry houses really upping their game and an increasing number even moving towards fine dining rather than acting as the last stop on the way home from the pub. London, for example, is home to three Michelin Star Indian restaurants.
All that remains then is to take a look at some of Britain’s best Indian restaurants.
The Great Kathmandu Tandoori Restaurant
For a good curry in Manchester, plenty of people will tell you to head for the famous Curry Mile in Rusholme. However, located not too far away in Didsbury is the Great Kathmandu Tandoori Restaurant, which has been serving the finest traditional Nepalese cuisine for almost 30 years. Winner of the Hardens Readers Choice Indian Cuisine of the Year, the restaurant has also been selected for the House of Commons Tiffin Club. Don’t leave without trying the Kathmandu Chicken Makanwala.
Opened in 1996, Mother India has established itself as one of Glasgow’s best Indian restaurants. Located in the West End of the city, the restaurant spans 3 floors and was voted Glasgow’s Restaurant of the Year in 2010. The owners have also recently opened Mother India’s Café, which offers a mixture of Indian style tapas.
Lasan in Birmingham is widely considered to be one of the best Indian restaurants in the whole of the United Kingdom and has won nearly as many awards as it has served nan breads. The innovative and well thought menu, prepared and cooked by a team of award winning chefs has helped Lasan take Indian cuisine to the next level. Instead of the regular chicken korma or tikka balti, Lasan offers up things like Macher Jhol – pan fried fillet of bream with garlic, leaf spinach and spicy Bengal tomato sauce.
Zouk Tea Bar
People travel from far and wide to sample the food from Zouk Tea Bar. After originally opening in Bradford, Zouk has expanded to launch new restaurants in Manchester and Liverpool. Offering an array of authentic Indian and Pakistani dishes in a very modern stylish setting, so popular is the food here that the owners have even opened their own cookery school. Try the Lamb Passanda, a bargain at £9.95.
Located in Whitechapel, London, Tayyabs started out as a neighbourhood cafe serving traditional Pakistani food. Today, it is considered to be one of the very best places for Tandoori roasted meats and kebabs in London. Not only is the food delicious, it’s also very reasonably priced, the kind of place where £20 will go a long way. Tender chunks of chicken tikka or meaty lamb chops succulent and richly marinated – what a fine way to spend an evening.