Before there was Prozac, Xanax and Zoloft, there was (and is) mac & cheese, fried chicken and meatloaf. Every person on earth has their comfort foods. These are dishes which lift the spirits and steady the nerves; essential coping mechanisms for when you’re dangerously late with your tax returns, when you suspect your girlfriend is shagging the plumber, or just when you are feeling a bit hungover.
So being an Englishman who lives in New York, when I feel stressed or homesick then naturally my thoughts turn to India.
For me, eating curry is to be transported back to my homeland where – as everyone knows – fish and chips was long ago dethroned by Chicken Tikka Masala as the nation’s official Favourite Dish. Curry reminds me of hunkering down in cozy Bengali restaurants (laminated menus; scratchy sitar music on loop; faded, autographed photos of no-longer-famous soap stars on the walls) as the London rain falls outside from darkening skies. Curry reminds me of ribald, lager-fueled evenings with my best friends. The British use curry as an antidote to living on a rather dank, overcrowded, inexplicably over-priced little island. For us, life without curry is unimaginable.
Not that I believe for a moment that Anglo-Indian food bears more than a cursory resemblance to the genuine article to be found on the Subcontinent. I’ve been to India a couple of times, and know that it doesn’t. If one were to pluck an Indian from the streets of Calcutta and teleport him into one of the thousands of curry houses (usually named something faux-exotic like “Taj Mahal”, or “Maharaja”, or “Spice Lounge”) which festoon Britain’s streets, he would barely recognize the roll call of dishes which most Brits can recite from memory. Here they are, in approximate order of hotness:
Korma, Bhuna, Dansak, Japlfrezi, Dopiazi, Ceylon, Karahi, Rhogan Josh, Madras, Vindaloo. And, finally, the toxicly hot Phal. (Eating a Phal is akin to exposing one’s testicles in public: a pointless act only performed when young, heavily intoxicated, at the urging of one’s friends, and guaranteed to be regretted the next day. Phals are largely consumed by students and Arsenal fans.)
The historical backdrop to Anglo-Indian food is of course the British colonial rule of India (which spanned the years between 1858 and 1947). The Raj, as it is known, was characterized by our shameless plundering of India’s resources and the proclamation of Queen Victoria as “Empress of India” (not a bad title for someone who never went there.) Some argue that the Empire was not exclusively such a Very Bad Thing, and that in some ways India did OK out of it. I don’t know about that, but what I do know that is that the resulting influx of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangaldeshis to Britain’s overcast shores brought with them a culinary lexicon which changed the British palate forever.
The transfusion of curry into the veins of British populace was nothing short of transformational. In the late 50s and 60s, British food was still recovering from the deprivations of post-World War 2. It was unflinchingly awful and spectacularly bland. Boiled beef; liver and onions; lots of turnips. When I ask my mother to describe the food she ate growing up, she is vague and even a bit evasive. Maybe she truly cannot remember the horrors which emerged from the kitchens of her youth, but I suspect she chooses to forget. Imagine, then, after a lifetime of jellied eels and oxtail stew what the first revelatory taste of curry and basmati rice did to the nation. Fast forward to today, and there are currently around 8,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, making one such eatery for about every 7,000 of the total population.
(Incidentally, my favourite modern British entrepreneur was a Gujarati Brahmin named Laxmishanker G. Pathak. He arrived in London in 1957 with only £5 in his pocket, built the UK’s largest supplier of curry pastes and spices, and died one of the nation’s richest men. His brilliant insight was to realize that the Indian restaurant business of the time was largely staffed by recent immigrants often with rudimentary cooking skills, and then probably limited to the dishes of their own particular regional area. He made it easy for them by producing ready-made sauces and chutneys. After his death, his fortune was then the subject of a very public and venomous squabble between his heirs who sued their mother, who at one point dramatically fainted during cross-examination.)
Anyway, about cooking curry. The underpinning of good curry is – of course – the curry powder, but in contradiction to an otherwise near-universal rule I do not believe that creating a homemade curry powder yourself is much better than buying one from the store. Now if you are weird enough to have on hand a stash of cardamon pods, ginger, celery, fenugreek, clove, fennel, cinnamon, coriander, chilli powder, paprika, cumin, tumeric, black pepper, and caraway, then by all means mix your own. But you probably use these spices so infrequently that they are stale. So go buy a curry powder instead.
That being said, here is a recipe for the great, the incomparable, the eternally popular Chicken Tikka Masala which is pretty simple and doesn’t require too many peculiar spices.
CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA
1 lb skinless & boness chicken, preferably thighs.
8 oz plain yogurt, full fat
2 medium onions
2 medium tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 small green chillis (optional)
1 inch root ginger (peeled)
4 garlic cloves
Fresh chopped cilantro (a.k.a. coriander) for garnish
5 tbsp cooking oil
Salt to taste
A level teaspoon each of dried turmeric, cumin, paprika, cardamon pods, cinnamon, red chilli powder.
Cut chicken into bite size pieces
Finely chop onions, garlic and ginger, preferably in a food processor. (But do not over-chop into a purée.)
Finely chop tomatoes, preferably in a food processor. (But do not over-chop into a purée.)
Finely slice the green chillis (optional).
Cook some basmati rice according to the packet instructions.
In a bowl, combine the yogurt, turmeric, cumin, paprika, green chillis, salt, chicken. Mix well.
Empty into a roasting pan and cook under a broiler, high heat, tossing occasionally, or until the chicken starts to brown. About 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil over a medium heat in a good sized pan. Add the cardamon pods. Wait until they sizzle.
Add the onions, ginger and garlic, and fry till golden brown on medium heat. Now add the cinnamon and red chilli powder. Stir well.
Next add the tomatoes and the tomato purée. Cover and cook for 5 minutes on a low heat.
Finally, empty the chicken into the pan, stir well, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes on low to medium heat.
Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro and serve with basmati rice.
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