I’ve heard tell that British food is boring, heavy and uninspired. I slapped this person, then pointed at the history of British Colonialism. I’m not going to talk overmuch about the history of the British invasion of India, although I do recommend that you look it up yourself (Europe as a whole just went nuts). But what I will say is that for 400 years, the history of Britain and India have been interlinked. The British fell in love with the Indian food and, in time, the British Indian cuisine was born.
So, now that we’ve briefly addressed the (Indian) elephant in the room, and you’ve returned after twelve hours of research into the history of colonialism in my weak attempt to not go off on a tangent, let’s talk about curry. First of all, what’s the difference between Indian food and British Indian food? Well, it’s simultaneously bigger and smaller than you might think at first. The ingredients are largely the same. Many of the principles in the method are the same, such as developing a curry paste in advance along with a spice mix. However, the differences are significant. Indian food is, obviously, designed to be eaten every day. Even that term ‘Indian food’ is a bit disingenuous as India is a comically enormous subcontinent and the foods that people grow and eat are hugely varied. Many parts of India don’t necessarily have what we consider ‘curry’ as a large part of their cuisine. The ‘mix and match’ principle of British Indian food doesn’t show up. One dish is designed for one type of protein (if any) and that’s that. The idea of a madras, for example, being served with whichever meat you fancy, isn’t a thing.
What about British Indian food? This is more where my expertise lies, so all those who are from the subcontinent of India can sigh a breath of relief. British Indian food was, to the surprise of nobody, developed to cater to the tastes of the British. Specifically, it was designed to cater to restaurants. This has resulted in a few differences. I’ve already mentioned the ‘mix and match’ ideology present here, but this food also generally requires a ‘base sauce’ to be made, along with the aforementioned ‘spice mix’. I will go further into these things shortly. This restaurant food is also often richer and uses more expensive ingredients than your everyday Indian food. It’s not something you’ll necessarily eat everyday.
So, which is better? I’m kidding, I’m not going down that route. But I, like many of my peers in the Western world, am far more familiar with the British Indian cuisine. This is probably one of my favourite cuisines and recently, I’ve learnt how to do proper takeaway (or takeout for my neighbours across the pond) curry. This, of course, has led to our house constantly smelling of curry (a non-problem) and an almost constant need to buy more spices. So, why do I love this food so much? Well, it’s a combination of basically everything I’ve written an article about so far (it’s almost like I planned this).
The first point, is that British Indian curries can be as spicy as you like. I don’t necessarily enjoy an overwhelming level of heat, but I certainly like a warmth along with my curry. This can be further customisable with the addition of pickles, chutneys and yoghurts. Secondly, made properly, this cuisine can have a staggering amount of the Unami flavour that we so crave. This is because the cooking method that is used in the restaurant (or at home) allows for a constant development of flavour by encouraging something called the Maynard reaction. We will again, get back to this. Thirdly, a decent curry along with all the trimmings definitely can be considered a comfort food. While it’s not ‘stodgy’ in the same way that traditional English food can be, it ticks the same boxes and definitely fills a hole. Finally, it’s just a really tasty thing. British Indian curries are customisable by design and are just delightful.
So, we’ve established why people like this cuisine. We also know that it’s designed to be made in a restaurant capacity, which means that for a while, homemade curries didn’t necessarily scratch the same itch. But it’s okay, you can replicate the unique style of curry at home. This is something I wholeheartedly recommend you try, it’s cheaper and if you live somewhere where a good curry house is nowhere to be seen (like me), it’s much more convenient. Also, healthier. Well, you have the option to control what you put in there if you care about that kind of thing. So how can we do it?
Be prepared. This is a fantastic lesson to learn with cooking in general, but it’s particularly important when cooking this cuisine. The first thing you’ll need for every single curry is something called a ‘base sauce’. This is basically a thin, gently spiced gravy that will provide the liquid in your curry. It’s usually made with a bunch of chopped vegetables, primarily onions, and a few ground spices and some liquid. This is cooked for a while and blended up into a sauce. There will be recipes online, but the exact measurements aren’t important. I usually do a huge batch of this, and freeze portions of it in advance. When I need to make a curry, I’ll defrost it along with enough water to dilute it to the consistency of milk, and I’ll have it in a pan keeping warm while I make the curry.
You’ll also want to make a spice mix in advance. This is pretty self explanatory and again, you’ll find a recipe online. These won’t be the only spices you use in any curry, but they are very important in the process of building up your flavour. The base sauce also serves this purpose, as we’ll explore. A garlic and ginger paste is also used in basically every dish, you can buy this or make it yourself, I don’t super care what option you go with. The spice mix and the paste will last a while, although you can freeze the paste as well. Another useful component to have is a spiced caramelised onion paste. This isn’t necessary, but I absolutely recommend finding a recipe for this (search for bunjarra paste). This will basically give your curry another spike of savoury flavour.
Next, we have our protein. If you’re having meat, as I tend to, you’re going to want to precook this as well. There are different methods for different types of meat, and this can be either be done the same day, or in advance and even frozen. If you freeze your meat, you’ll want to at least defrost it before cooking your curry. The meat should be cooked in a method that gives it some flavour, so find a recipe for this. This is important, every single component of this curry should add deliciousness. So these were mostly the things you’ll want in advance. If you’re making a chutney or a pickle, obviously you’ll want that done beforehand as well. Most curries seem to benefit from chucking a bit of pickle in there. So once you’ve done all this, what next?
This is where the genius part comes in. So you’ve got your ingredients sat there, your sauce bubbling away and your meat defrosted (and preferably at room temperature). You’ve decided whether you’re going for rice or bread and that’ll be ready in 20minutes or so (it can be longer if you need it to be). Now we make our curry. I’m not going to give you a recipe, just an idea of the method and an explanation of why this food works so well. I recommend following a recipe until you’re comfortable. The first thing to do is almost always to flavour your oil with aromatics, your bay leaves, cardamom pods, cumin and cassia or cinnamon. Next, your vegetables, your onions, pepper and your garlic and ginger paste. After this, there’ll usually be dry spices and a splash of base sauce. Maybe you’ll put in some tomato paste, dried herbs at this point. Now this will all take only a few minutes. You generally don’t want too much colour on your onions, you’re just getting them soft. You only want to add liquid to stop anything from burning.
Now, we’re going to start developing our flavours. This is done by repeatedly adding small amounts of our base sauce and letting it cook right down, we need to be bold. So we add some liquid to our curry, give it a minute or so, then add our meat. We want the meat to be heated through, if it’s frozen it’ll cool your curry right down and might not be warmed all the way through by the end. If it’s raw, it might not cook all the way through. Besides, it’s now delicious spiced meat, it could even come with some nice cooking liquid which adds yet another layer of flavour. I’m just going to take a minute here to emphasise that this is the whole point of this cooking method. We are always building layers and layers of flavour. Throw any enhancers in at this point, your onion paste or some chutney. After this point, the method turns into repeatedly adding some base sauce to your curry and leaving it. Don’t stir or anything, we want those crusty bits to form. Once craters appear in your curry and you’re sure it’s going to burn any minute, you want to stir it and add some extra sauce. After repeating this process a few times, your curry should be unbelievably delicious, the sauce having concentrated down and caramelised at different levels to create a truly unique depth of flavour. Serve and eat and marvel at your genius.
So, hopefully, you know a little bit more about what makes a good British Indian curry and why this takeaway meal can get so good. Even better, you can replicate it at home. I learnt this method from a book entitled ‘Indian Restaurant Curry at Home’ by Richard Sayce, but you can find recipes on the internet which use this method. If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of food, become familiar, it’s amazing. If you don’t want be be familiar with this kind of food, then why have you read this article?