This is a big one. So big, in fact, that help is needed. A very special guest will be with you shortly…
Oh, and here’s a photo to give you a clue:
Any visitor to Britain who ventures beyond the confines of their hotel/guest house/elderly relative’s sprawling mansion (this last one only occurs in US movies, by the way) will quickly realise one very consistent fact of life upon which the entire isles agree. We bloody love Indian food. We love it so very much that we adopted it. Curry (Cockney rhyming slang Ruby Murray, to explain the title of this piece) is a legitimate part of the national diet, a soul-nourishing end to a night of fizzy beer light-headedness, or a blissful treat when no-one can be arsed to cook. They’ll even bring it to your door. With warm wet-naps. But I’m not here to expound upon a particular dish itself, I’m just providing the preamble to my guest. So, a little history. Which is a lot if you’re English, really.
The British love affair with curry began at the end of the Sixteenth century when the Dutch were the leaders in the trading of pepper. With their monopoly over the spice, they had hiked up the price, so the monarch granted a royal charter to a small group of merchants allowing them to create a trading company. The sole purpose of the East India Company, as it was later called, was to secure a better price for pepper than the Dutch asking price.There was never any intention for this company to build an empire. In fact, the British were not too keen on trading with India either. The country was merely perceived as a handy stopping off port and a place for the exchange of goods such as cotton and linens. However with the Dutch increasingly making trading in Indonesia more difficult, the coast of India became lined with ports that were protected by private armies consigned to keep an eye on the European traders.
At that time India was ruled by emperors and Mughals who were more often than not involved in infighting. This strengthened the European stronghold and their chances of grasping control of many regions and territories of India. With the Mughals yielding to the British, the East India Company gathered momentum and power. This reign of the British Raj was the most significant and the longest in Imperial history lasting officially up until 1947. The days of the Raj were decadent and this was reflected in their cooking.
Every social event paid special attention to the food and the British Memsahibs ran households that included chefs and cooks. Many of them were highly trained to cater for the western palate. Often, the grand meals would have consisted of game and poultry which was of poor quality so the cooks would often have to improvise by creating hybrid dishes such as chapatis and homemade jam. Breakfasts would consist of omelettes seasoned with spices and the simple Indian dish of rice and lentils known as kichidi turned into the British kedgeree with the addition of smoked kippers shipped from England. So from morning, noon until night, all the meals became a fusion of western and eastern cooking traditions.
Just as the British in India had endeavoured to replicate home comfort cuisine, when they arrived back in Blighty, they craved a little of the East and that was ‘curry’. Over decades, dishes have been altered and tweaked to suit the, ahem, somewhat more blunt British palate. Some dishes are entirely British creations, the names of which would be greeted with a blank stare in many kitchens in Jaipur, Madras or Mumbai. One of these homegrown examples has become a bona fide claimant to the title of national dish of Great Britain. And to tell you all about it is my very good friend and host of the fantastic and very silly podcast Here Goes Nothing, Mr CartBozMan a.ka Lee Bozier. Over to you Boz, I’ll crack open a couple of Cobras…
Aha Cobras indeed!!
Yes the dish so eloquently eluded to is non other than the mighty Chicken Tikka Massala.
Now my input here, as is my style (some may know) will be devoid of any actual researched facts or authoritative sources. It will be my own experiences and meandering randomness which will now be divulged.
I grew up in an area with a very close Indian community and when walking in the neighbourhood the smell of exotic spices were constantly prevalent in the air. Would I to walk there now it would be heavenly and would make me very hungry. At that stage in my life however I hated the smell, and consequently would not try any of this amazing cuisine until i reached 15 yrs old. At this stage I was fencing competitively on the junior series circuit, and after a blindingly good days competition, I was dragged to an Indian restaurant by my coaches daughter for celebratory purposes. At this point I was introduced to popadums naan breads and tandori chicken on the bone.
Once the flood gate was opened I became a bit of a regular in these establishments. But the day I tried my first Korma was the start of my love for actual curries. I have tried many over the years but non ever trumps the top spot held by the massala.
I was once visiting a friend and it was st. Georges day and we were going out for a meal. I said we had to have something that was quintessentially British on such a day, so 2 tikka massalas it was.
This dish has a particular taste that if done right sets all your taste buds alight but without blowing your head off (or a similar problem at a further extremity the next day ;). It is a heady mix of spices and in my humble opinion should be fairly sweet to taste. I have found that there are quite great differences in this dish regionally. Being from Hertfordshire in the home counties and having moved to the midlands I noticed quite a different approach to this dish. In the Stoke area it seems to be done with with a much fuller spicing and with less of the sweetness. It has taken me a while to find somewhere that consistently makes it the way I like. It is a smallish restaurant that uses only organic ingredients and no artificial colours or flavours.
One of the main characteristics of the massala in many places is that it comes bright red, and there have been reports that dangerous levels of colourings have been used at some establishments to achieve this. So from our adopted curry supplier, due to its ingredients policy the dish arrives a sort of orange colour and feels much healthier for the eating.
I have also recently delved into cooking this dish myself at home. Mine too end up an orange colour, in fact I go a bit mad with the tomato puree to achieve this.
I have tried both doing all my own spice blend and by buying a garam massala pre-mix of spices. I found the from scratch method to be far superior.
I guess I should mention however that this dish is not the most healthy on the planet. The chicken or lamb should be pan fried in Ghee which is clarified butter and a traditional ingredient. The marinade usually involves a yoghurt or cream base, and the final sauce is comprised of double cream. I dread to think of the calorific value (which is why I get someone else to cook it, plausible deniability ;). And with the normal accompanying items that traditionally comprise such a meal….. well lets just say that this isn’t a beer belly I have here 😉
So if you have a pre-conceived notion about ‘curries’ and have yet to venture into this particular cuisine, I would heartily recommend this dish as a very solid start point. It shouldn’t blow you head off and you may be pleasantly surprised. My wife hated curry when I met her, now she is a massala monster 😉
Well I think I have wittered enough. This dish is amazing and cornerstone of British society. Thanks to Casey for inviting me to write this, it is a real honour to put my waffle into text for such a consistently great Blog (hope I don’t bring the standard down ;).
Now back to Casey to fill in the bits I no doubt missed.
As if! Thank YOU Boz for your valued thoughts on a very English dish indeed.Good work, my friend. Hopefully this latest post was worth the wait for those of you that are following me regularly, once again I can only apologise for the sporadic nature of the episodes at the moment. Work is leaving almost no time for anything else, and the blog is sacrificed because of it. I will try and put another couple of eps up as soon as I can by means of compensation, and as always I truly value any comments, good or bad. (I’m a chef, I’m used to criticism). Before I draw this latest piece to a close, I’d like to steer any folks in search of a good giggle to Lee and Dave’s podcast, “Here Goes Nothing”. There are few more agreeable chaps I know than Boz, and his show demonstrates this every week. Plus the other guy puts on a comedy voice.
And on that Geordie-baiting bombshell…goodbye, and see you again soon. Or sooner, at least.