Indian cuisine has established itself as a firm favourite in British culture. But how did these mouth-watering dishes make their way to our plates?
Interestingly, the word ‘curry’ is largely unknown in India. George Shaw, an Asian Curry Award judge, says that while the word is used worldwide for Indian dishes, it is not much liked.
“Leading Indian chefs in the UK find confining one of the world’s greatest cuisines, known for its complexity and variety, to a single word, something of an insult and you won’t find the word used on their menus,” he says.
So, does the food we buy from the local takeaway remotely resemble what we’d find in India?
You might be surprised to find that the most popular Indian dish ordered in the UK, chicken tikka masala – chunks of meat marinated in spices and cooked in a semi-sweet, rich tomato sauce – was invented in Glasgow in 1971.
Also, ‘korma’ does not mean that a dish is mild and creamy, but instead means the food has been cooked slowly or braised – and can be fiery or mild.
That said, food regarded as authentically Indian has influences from far and wide. Naan bread originated from Persia in about 1300AD via the Mughals.
And chilli, without which curry would be unrecognisable, was introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Now, India is the world’s biggest producer, consumer and exporter of chilli.
The spice can even help to combat heart attacks and stroke. If ever you eat too much chilli, reach for milk or lassi (an Indian yogurt-based drink), which will ease the burning caused by capsaicin, the active component in chilli.
George explains, “Spices, such as hot chillies, trigger a pain response in the mouth, stimulating the production of endorphins, which act on the pleasure centre of the brain.
Chilli is addictive and its prolonged absence from the diet causes cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Spicy food stimulates many body functions and engenders a general sense of wellbeing.
That’s why diners tend to look forward to a curry more than other cuisines and leave the restaurant in a good mood.”
Chef and teacher Hari Ghotra, who worked at The Tamarind Collection of Restaurants, which includes the first Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin star, says, “The sliding curry heat scale is fascinating – from a hot vindaloo right down to a mild creamy korma.
Indians don’t cook dishes based on heat-love – this was actually created by early restaurateurs to make curry accessible to the British public, so they would know what they were getting, and I think it was genius.
“Many dishes are rooted in India, but when Indians cook at home it’s generally fairly simple, fresh and usually about lots of different dishes coming together for a meal not just a big bowl of rice topped with one curry.”
There are 29 states in India that each has a culinary style and history. Rice, however, is a staple food that is eaten daily – there are many variants, including white, red, brown, sticky and the less common black rice. Similarly, spiced lentils (dhal) of various flavours are routinely served to accompany other food.
Chicken and mutton are the most commonly eaten meats in India, with fish and beef only eaten in coastal areas and the North East of the country. Many Indians are vegetarians and the consumption of beef is banned in many states. Also, pork is not eaten by Indian Muslims.
In terms of flavours, Indian food is based on six elements of taste: sweet, salty sour, bitter, spicy and sharp. A good chef will blend these so they are balanced.
The most frequently used spices used in Indian cooking are chilli pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, coriander and garlic. Garam masala is a powdered mixture of five or more spices – these will differ depending on the region in which it is used.