Subcontinental food became popular in Britain with Victorian colonial types, when bland curry powders were cooked with ill-deserved additions like kippers or scrambled eggs. With the influx of Asian nationals into Britain after the Second World War, restaurants serving something more akin to traditional Indian food were founded. To describe it as 'Indian', however, is certainly something of a misnomer - the food served today in your average restaurant is mostly from the northern regions of India and will contain culinary influences from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Portugal and East Africa.
Note: All spellings of Indian foodstuffs are transliterated from their native alphabet (usually Bengali). Therefore there is no consistent spelling, it is dependent upon on the translator.
How Is My Food Cooked?
Today, only the best restaurants serve food authentically similar to that on the Subcontinent; the meals that are most firmly ingrained into British consciousness have been Anglified to a greater or lesser extent. This belies the fact that, when well prepared, the majority of them are extremely tasty, so rather than concentrate on the more esoteric dishes, this entry focuses on what you might commonly expect to find.
The majority of dishes begin with a spice paste or garam masala. This varies between dishes and restaurants, as each chef has their own recipes, and contain anything up to 20 different spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, fenugreek, curry leaves, cloves, black pepper and turmeric are common. Importantly, the quantity of chilli (usually in the form of a freshly made, dried powder) and ginger in the garam masala will determine the heat of a particular curry. Chilli gives a tongue-burning 'instant' heat, whereas ginger has a 'slow burn' that is no less intense. The blend of spices is made into a paste with the addition of ghee. Ghee is a heated and separated butter, which does not then burn when used for cooking.
The curry ingredients, usually lamb1, chicken, prawns or vegetables2 are rapidly fried in the garam masala; then water (or stock) is added and the dish allowed to thicken by rapid boiling. The average curry, contrary to opinion, contains very little cooked-down tomato, although tomato wedges are usually added for flavour.
The other main method of cooking is via the tandoor, a clay oven which can be heated to extremely high temperatures and used for cooking chicken and Indian breads. The chicken tikka (breast meat off the bone), or tandoori chicken (chicken quarters on the bone) is rubbed with a combination of spice mixture (usually different and more strongly-tasting than the garam masala) and yoghurt before baking. The vibrant red colour invariably comes from food colouring - don't be fooled!
What do I Order?
A typical menu offers the following:
Popadums. These are a flat, savoury wafer made with lentil flour. Fairly tasteless and quite dry on their own, they are accompanied by mint yoghurt and chutneys. In Asia, the chutneys are served with all courses, so always ask your waiter to leave the tray and try a bit with your main course.
A starter. These range from chicken or lamb tikka - cooked in the tandoor and served from a metal 'sizzler', through pakora (a fritter of vegetables or chicken) to kebabs (shami and sheek kebabs are made with minced lamb and tikka spices) and puri (poori, or puree3) breads - a thin, yeastless bread cooked in the tandoor and topped with a prawn curry.
Main course. This is served with a naan or chapati bread and / or rice. The naan is a very fragrant and puffy bread, made with onion seeds. It was traditionally used in place of cutlery to scoop up one's food4. Chapatis are flatter, more stodgy breads, best for dipping and mopping up sauces. Rice is usually boiled, fried with onions or served pilau - cooked with a variety of spices (most prominently cinnamon and cardamom) and often a lurid range of food colourings too. Side dishes look imposing on many menus, and are too often overlooked. Because they often receive more attention from the chef than the main courses, they are heartily recommended.
Dessert. Optional. Most Asians prefer a strong cup of tea or coffee, although kulfi, Indian ice-cream made - unlike the European version - without eggs, is worth a try. Other authentic desserts include kheer - similar to rice pudding, but with plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg, and ras malai: a mixture of caramalised nuts and fruit in a cream sauce.
Translating the Menu
First things first: this entry uses the term 'curry' very loosely to describe a typical 'Indian' dish, following common usage. The word actually originates from khari, an Indian cooking pot, and is used by most restaurants today to describe their no-frills sauce, to which the cheapest cuts of meat have been added. Hence it occupies the cheap spot on the menu. Here's what else you might find:
Balti: The balti is based upon a traditional Kashmiri5 method of cooking using a shallow steel pan with lots of onions, a little green pepper (often called 'capsicum' on menus) and topped with fresh coriander leaves. They are generally eaten with naan bread, which negates the need for cutlery (see above). Authentic baltis should use a very fragrant spice blend which justifies the higher cost. Sadly, many restaurants use a bhuna (see below) recipe, which is the closest match, and simply serve it in a different dish.
Bhuna: A good all-round dish. Not too bland, not too spicy. Traditionally made with onions, green pepper, and quite a lot of cumin. Cumin translates as jeera in and around India; this word sometimes lends its name to the dish.
Biriani: A very popular dish where the meat is not simmered after frying, but instead stir-fried in the garam masala with cooked rice. The result is that the flavour penetrates the whole dish. Birianies are somewhat dry, so are served with a side dish of moist vegetable curry.
Bombay: A bit of an oddity, this one. Ordering a Bombay in a restaurant, you will invariably be served a Sri Lankan dish, with boiled egg in a sauce rich with cumin and fennel flavours. How the city of Bombay gave it the name is unknown.
Ceylon: A hot and slightly sour dish, made with a lot of coconut in a creamy, piquant sauce. Tends to lean heavily on the 'earthier' spices, like curry leaves, cumin and bay.
Dopiaza: With lots of sliced onions and spices that can be commonly found on British shores (turmeric, ginger and cinnamon), the dopiaza is often a good choice for those new to continental cuisine, as it (slightly) resembles a good old British stew, particularly when cooked with lamb.
Jalfrezi: The jalfrezi varies greatly between restaurants, as the name covers both sweet green peppers and hot, small green chilli peppers. You will find both added to many jalfrezis, making it considerably spicier than average.
Karahi: Another dish named after the vessel it's cooked in, the karahi is smaller than the balti and usually made from blackened cast iron. The dish orginates from Northern India, and uses a lot of coriander seed, which lends it a fruity taste. A good karahi will be finished with a swirl of creme fraiche.
Korma: This extremely mild, creamy sauce should be flavoured with ground almonds and saffron. It is originally a Nepalese dish, and was originally made with creamy yak's milk. A good mild curry, often recommended for 'beginners', but this is an insult to a very flavoursome dish.
Madras: A good madras is somewhat spicy - usually hotter than the average chilli con carne, by way of comparison. It is made with a quantity of dried red chilli and ginger or galangal (a root very similar to ginger), which gives it a warm, glowing flavour.
Malayan: A very light, mild sauce with added fruit: usually pineapple and / or banana. Parsley is sometimes used in place of the coriander leaves to avoid masking the fruit flavour.
Masala (also spelled 'mashala' or 'mossala'): One of the great cons of 'foreign' cookery. The word 'masala' translates simply as 'spice'6. Not very descriptive, eh? Legend has it that the infamous chicken tikka masala originated in the 1960s, when a customer mistakenly ordered a (dry) chicken tikka main course and then sent it back because he wanted some sauce on it. In a flash of inventiveness, the chef smothered it with some yoghurt, spices and tinned tomato soup, and a national dish was born. Today's masala sauce remains quite mild, with some coconut and plenty of cardamom used to flavour it. Chicken tikka, however, went on to be used instead of chicken in a range of dishes, where it adds a variety and depth of flavour. These are known as two-stage curries, as the chicken tikka is first cooked in the tandoor, and then added to the sauce.
Methi: Methi is better known to us as fenugreek, the spice that gives curry its pungent flavour. A good methi dish will rely heavily on pungent spices such as fenugreek and asafoetida, as well as garlic, so is not one for socialites!
Pathia: Taking its influence from Chinese dishes, the pathia sauce is usually quite thin and tomato-based. The dish is made with lemon juice, ginger and red chillies, giving it a hot and sour flavour that works particularly well with prawns. The best pathias are made with sun-dried chillies, which add a delicious smoky flavour to the dish.
Phall: A dish to be reckoned with. A good phall (not the late-night rubbish eaten by macho Novocastrians7) will be made with fresh minced red chillies (at least ten per portion) and contain a great deal of ginger and fennel seed.
Rogan Josh: The rogan forgoes several spices for a more tomato-flavoured sauce, giving this dish an almost Mediterranean flavour.
Vindaloo: A dish of Portuguese origin, first brought to Goa by Portuguese colonists. Hotter still than the Madras, the meat for a vindaloo will be originally marinaded in vinegar for tenderisation (and hence the 'vin' of 'vindaloo'). Cooked with a large quantity of red chillies and lemon juice, the vindaloo contains potatoes (or aloo - the second half of the name) to neutralise the excessive flavours. The traditional Portuguese vindaloo was made with pork but this, of course, is unpopular with Moslem nations.
There are, of course, many variations on the above, most featuring ingredients that can also be found in the side dishes.
Most restaurant menus will feature a selection of Chef's Specials, which will often justify their extra cost by containing a richer, more varied selection of spices and flavours. Common additions include whole green chillies, paneer (see below), garlic or minced lamb, and dishes made with generous quantities of cream or butter.
'Always eat your veg', mothers like to say, and most Indian side dishes are based around one vegetable or a combination of two vegetables, cooked in a bhaji ('bhajia or 'bhajee') sauce. Indeed, the practice of vegetarians ordering two or three side dishes in place of a main course is usually quite acceptable. The term 'bhaji' leads to confusion, as onion bhajis - a popular starter - are deep fried balls of onion shreds and lentil flour. The sauce bears no resemblance to these: it is an interesting blend of whole spices, finished with a vegetable stock. In a good dish the whole spices will be served to you intact, so be careful what you crunch down on - if it's a cardamom seed, that's rather nice, but if it's a clove...!
Saag: Saag is better known to us as spinach, cooked down for a long time, often with a fair amount of cinnamon in the bhaji. Traditionally, saag is an Indian vegetable, rarely available in Britain, but spinach is a perfectly adequate substitute.
Aloo: Potatoes are often served alone as Bombay Potatoes, which are dry-roasted in a fiery spice blend. Aloo gobi is served with cauliflower, often in a richer, creamier sauce.
Brinjal: Aubergine, often cubed, cooked for a long time to absorb the flavours of the sauce.
Bhindi: For some reason, the words bhindi bhaji have imbued themselves in the national consciousness without anyone being too sure what they mean. For the record, then: bhindi is okra, or 'ladies' fingers'.
Dhal ('daal' or 'dall'): Lentils, usually red split peas or chickpeas. In main courses, the lentils are cooked down to a thick mush, which makes for a very satisfying dish; in side dishes, they are cooked much more briefly in the bhaji sauce. The well-known 'tarka dhal' is not made with otters; rather the lentils are cooked in a sauce with more onions and garlic and plenty of coriander leaf. Kdiney beans are popular in South India and can sometimes be found on menus as Rajma.
Muttar: Green peas.
Uri: Green beans. Not to be confused with a second-rate mind-reader.
Paneer: Often served with saag or muttar, paneer is an Indian cheese, which is pretty tasteless in its natural state. Upon cooking, however, it does not melt but softens delightfully, and absorbs all the flavours of the sauce. Definitely recommended.
Other well-known side orders include raita, yoghurt with cucumber or potato and samosas - a dish based broadly on Chinese cuisine, consisting of deep-fried pastry-wrapped meat or vegetables.
Whetting One's Palate
Lassi, a 50-50 mix of yoghurt and water, is served either sweet or savoury and is renowned for its cooling effect after eating hot curries. This is a reputation with strong basis in fact: if you should find yourself having consumed a dish that is too hot for you, the best remedy is to drink something with a high fat content. The fat forms an emulsification with your saliva which forms a protective layer over the tender areas of your mouth. Water-based drinks (including lager) will only clean the palate and make the next mouthful appear even hotter.
Speaking of lager, Cobra is one of the truly authentic Indian experiences. Imported (hence a bit more expensive), it's an ultra-smooth lager, brewed in a similar way to English ales. It has won no end of prizes, and is generally considered a perfect accompaniment to Indian food.
Tiger is a more lively lager from South-east Asia. With a fruitier and more hoppy taste than Cobra, it is a better accompaniment to the stronger-flavored curry dishes.
Usually inadvisable, unless you are plumping for only the mildest dishes, is drinking wine with curry. The delicate tastebuds necessary to appreciate most wines to the fullest are unlikely to be clean of strong spicy flavours and you will not get the full benefit of the drink.
Of course, many restaurants, being owned by Moslems, are 'dry' and do not serve any alcohol at all. This is not to say that you cannot bring your own, but to avoid embarrassment it is always wise to check what the licensing circumstances are before going to a new restaurant.
At the end of your meal, you will often be served with lemon 'freshen-up' towels and mints. If you really want to impress, however, ask for a few fennel seeds8 . These have a pleasant, aniseed flavour when eaten raw and are used across South Asia as a breath freshener. They are particularly effective against garlic.
In the unlikely event of getting a cut on your finger in a restaurant, ask your waiter for a little turmeric. This spice is used for 'dying' dishes yellow in place of the more expensive saffron; it has a very subtle flavour that is usually overwhelmed by other ingredients. More importantly, it is a natural coagulant and antiseptic, so is perfect for treating cuts.