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The Great British Curry Craze

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September 2004
The Great British Curry Craze

The most popular restaurant dish in England is not fish-and-chips.

By JOHN REED

It is perhaps a case of opposites attract. After all, not long ago, British cuisine was considered an oxymoron in the culinary world. Today, the British, who had traditionally favored the hearty but bland native fare, have pushed the popularity of the fiery curry; so much so that ?Indian' is now by far the most popular restaurant cuisine in England. It accounts for more than 60% of all dining out, with over 8,000 restaurants.

Much of the "Indian" food served in Britain bears little resemblance to the genuine dishes of India's diverse regional cuisine. Most carry dishes that are either creations unique to the British Indian restaurant or have been adapted to British tastes. Most prominent of such dishes is the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala. Its exact origins are shrouded in mystery but it is generally agreed that it first saw the light of day not in India but in a British kitchen in response to a British diner demanding gravy with his chicken tikka. A sauce was hastily prepared from a can of tomato soup and some spices, and a new food phenomenon was born. It is now the most popular restaurant dish and supermarket ready meal in the UK, and in 2001 was called "Britain's national dish" by politician Robin Cook.

This apparent lack of authenticity does not seem to worry many people. Even the best selling Indian recipe book on Amazon.co.uk proudly proclaims that it "?gives the secret of Indian Restaurant Cooking ? not the traditional cuisine practiced by Indians at home."

So how did Indian cuisine rise to such prominence in Britain? Its origins date back to the early 17th Century, when the English East India Company began trading with the East, initially establishing a stronghold at the Gujarati port of Surat. When ships returned to Britain, they brought not just Indian spices but Indian seamen, some whom deserted to start a new life in London. As this small Indian community grew, they established places to gather and eat food to remind them of home. Slowly, the local population developed an interest in this new cuisine. By the late 18th Century, curries were appearing on London menus and the first commercial curry powder was introduced. Britain's first dedicated Indian restaurant, the Hindustani Coffee House, opened in London in 1809.

But the rise of the Indian restaurant to prominence in Britain was a 20th Century phenomenon. Some 80% to 90% of all "Indian" restaurants in Britain are actually operated by Bangladeshis, most of them from Sylhet in the North East of Bangladesh, which was a rich source of seaman on British Imperial ships. Once in London many of these sailors opened cafes, which gradually spread from the dockside to dominate the British dining scene, with thousands of restaurants opening in the last thirty years.

Traditionally, the food served in most of these restaurants has little Indian or Bangladeshi authenticity. The vast majority of restaurants adhere to the same formula, where numerous permutations of dishes are assembled from a relatively small selection of pre-cooked meat and vegetables and a basic sauce to which additional flavoring and coloring is added: coconut cream and turmeric to make korma sauce, chili powder and tomato to get vindaloo, yogurt for cooler dishes, more chilies for the hot ones. The results can vary from excellent to very poor quality, especially in those places that opt for artificial colorings and flavorings.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a trend for upscale restaurants specializing in regional cuisines, creating more authentic dishes, and enthusiastic British diners trying their hand at Indian cooking at home. There is also a "Curry Club", boasting over 30,000 members, which supplies its members with recipes, restaurant guides, cooking classes and even trips to Asia to sample regional cuisine.

The Great British Curry Craze? in Atlanta

As ties between America and the UK have grown stronger in recent years, many Britons have immigrated to the USA. In Atlanta it is increasingly common to see vehicles with Union Jack license plates, and to detect English accents in shops and restaurants.

When immigrants of any nationality gather, conversation soon turns to what things they miss from home. Amongst Brits, the common themes are soccer and cricket, British newspapers, the BBC, English beer and unique foods such as Marmite and Cadbury's chocolate. However, top of the list for many British expats is Indian food. That is why the development of a vibrant Indian restaurant scene in Metro Atlanta is of great interest to the city's fast growing British expat community.

As global communications and travel have become easier, there has also been a reverse trend, where dishes first developed in British kitchens now reappear on menus in India. Gareth Philips, a telecommunications consultant who moved from London to Atlanta in 1998, was surprised when he spent six months working in India last year. "Many menus were identical to those in the UK as chefs move back and forth between the two countries. They even had chicken tikka masala."

Against this background, it is therefore no surprise that British immigrants arriving in Atlanta enthusiastically seek out Indian cuisine, both in restaurants and grocery stores where they can source ingredients for home cooking. Many British residents live on the north side of town, and enjoy the restaurants that have opened in Alpharetta, Roswell and Duluth in recent years, including Minerva, Andy's and Ruchi, and shops such as Bombay Spices. However, they will happily travel to the other side of town when word of a good Indian restaurant or shop gets around on the expat grapevine. Recommendations on where to find a good curry are a regular item on online expat discussion forums.

Ruth Cameron moved to Alpharetta from England five years ago. As a vegetarian, she is particularly pleased by the choices available in Atlanta's Indian restaurant scene. "There are so many places serving barbecue or steaks. It is refreshing to find an increasing number of restaurants with interesting vegetarian food". Ruth's favorite Indian dining spots include Udipi Caf� and Madras Saravana Bhavan, both in Decatur.

Just as Britain and India's histories are inextricably intertwined, so are their foods. Many Indian grocery stores in Atlanta carry a good range of British products that are also popular in India, such as Ovaltine, Marmite and McVities biscuits. "Taste of Britain", a British store in Norcross carries British-made Indian food products from Sharwoods and Pataks, and at Harry's Farmers Market in Alpharetta the British and Indian food sections share the same aisle.

As the number and variety of Indian restaurants in Atlanta continues to grow, so will the number of British customers.


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