Why Do The Brits Love Their Curry?
I haven't traveled across the pond in several years. But thanks to BBC America, Gordon Ramsay and other high-profile British chefs, I've managed to somewhat keep up with their ever evolving cuisine. Maybe it's just my American ignorance, but each day I hear less and less about fish and chips or bangers and mash, and more and more about curry.
So what is it about Chicken Tikka Masala that everyone over there is raving about, and why do some people call it the National Dish of Great Britain?
(Note: Apologies for any errors or omissions in this text. I'm not a Brit. Blame Google.)
How It All Started
The McCarran-Walter Act in the United States, which ran from the early 50's to the mid 60's, drastically reduced immigration to the United States. This resulted in the diversion of many immigrants to Great Britain. That, coupled with England's push for immigrant labor from the subcontinent during the 1950s resulted in new cultures and cuisines for the British to discover.
During this time, various military personnel who were stationed in India acquired a definite taste for the spicy cuisine and brought those flavors back home with them. As a matter of fact, Mulligatawny soup is believed to have originated from one of their spicy sauces. And kedgeree, now an English breakfast dish, began as an Indian rice and lentil dish.
As the Indian immigrants settled in Great Britain, many of them began to open small restaurants in relatively affordable neighborhoods. At that time, dining out was not a deeply rooted tradition in England, and the cuisine that the Brits did eat was neither spicy nor filled with big flavors. So as these restaurants opened, the Brits slowly began to patronize these restaurants and were amazed both at the taste of this new cuisine and the fact that it was so affordable.
The country was instantly addicted, and curry began to take off in popularity. This popularity was greatly boosted by Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, as the main dish that was served was a curry-style dish that was named "Coronation Chicken."
What Is Curry?
In the subcontinent, arice and other boiled or baked grains were staples of their diets. Curry essentially is any meat, fish or vegetable cooked up in a very flavorable gravy, and is designed to lend flavor to the blandness of the grains. So the heart of any curry dish is the blend of spices that are used.
The combination and amount of spices depends on where the dish originated. For example, in Calcutta, the blend will include white cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard or celery seed and onion. In Dhaka, black cumin and aniseed would replace the celery seed, onion and fennel. The number of spices used in curry blends could be many or as few as three.
In most curry dishes, a common sauce base is created, and then the spice blends are added as individual dishes are cooked. Other popular additions to the sauce base are peppers, ginger, garlic or tomatoes.
Not all 'curry' dishes are made in this manner, however. One of the favorites in Great Britain, Koorma, is a good example. The name of the dish refers to the style of cooking rather than the spice blend that is used. It's a slow-cooked method that includes oil, garlic, ginger, onion and lamb marinated in yogurt.
Curry in England Today
In England, 'curry house' refers to an Indian restaurant, and 'Indian' food refers to any food that comes from Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese and Sri Lankan cuisines, or cuisines from any country in the Indian sub-continent. That said, if you walked down a grocery store aisle in England,
you'd probably think that 'curry' to them meant anything that had
spices in it!
Today, approximately 85% of the curry houses in England are Bangladeshi-owned, and they tend to offer a large assortment of curry dishes incorporating many elements of Indian cuisine.
The far and away most favored curry dish in England is Chicken Tikka Masala. It is so popular, in fact, that it's also a topping for pizza and is available on the InterCity rail line. This demonstrates the Brits' desire and ability to adapt. Chicken Tikka was an Indian dish. The English, however, were used to meat and gravy and thus the Masala sauce was added.