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What's The Difference Between A Curry House And An Indian Restaurant?

Brick Lane is a street in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It is famous for its many curry houses.
Victor Cardoner
Getty Images
Brick Lane is a street in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It is famous for its many curry houses.

"I hate the term curry house," says Ranjit Mathrani, who co-owns Veeraswamy restaurant in London. "We are not a curry house."

Veeraswamy has been around since 1926 — it is London's oldest surviving Indian restaurant. Founded by Edward Palmer — the great-grandson of an English general and an Indian princess — the restaurant served not quite Indian food, but an Anglicized version of it, catering to an English clientele that craved something a bit spicy, but not overly so.

But when Mathrani, along with his wife, Namita Panjabi, and his sister-in-law, Camellia Panjabi, bought Veeraswamy in 1997, they completely overhauled the menu, making it their mission to serve what they call "real Indian food" — dishes you'd actually find in Indian homes.

"Our starting point is that the term 'Indian food' is actually only a lazy way of people describing the food of a continent," Mathrani says. India has dozens of distinct cuisines, he points out. "It would be like describing French, German, Italian and Spanish cuisines as 'European food.'"

Don't even get him started on Brits who like to say they're "going out for a curry."

Spicy Casserole

Of course, Mathrani is correct in pointing out that the concept of an Indian curry is an entirely British invention. "And it goes back a long way," says historian Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors and The Hungry Empire. All the way back to the 1600s, when British East India Company merchants first encountered it.

"To suit slightly sensitive English stomachs, Indian cooks employed by merchants would have put less ghee, and fewer hot spices in their dishes," Collingham says. When East India company men came back to Britain, they'd ask English cooks to try to recreate what they might have eaten in India. Of course, much was lost in translation. And as a result, Collingham says, "You get a formulaic idea of what an Indian dish is. It becomes a sort of spicy casserole."

As for the term curry, no one knows exactly how it came about, Collingham says. Most likely, it's an English bastardization of a Portuguese bastardization of the Tamil world kari — which was used to describe spices or seasoning.

"In any case, curry became very, very popular in the Victorian era," Collingham says. An 1852 cookbook even declared that "few dinners are thought complete unless one is on the table." As The Salt reported last month, this was in part due to Queen Victoria's bond with an Indian servant. It was also a shrewd political move, Collingham says. In promoting curry, Victoria was promoting her imperial agenda.

Curry fell out of fashion for a bit during the turn of the century, Collingham says. "During the 1920s and 30s there were only a handful of Indian restaurants in Britain," she says — Veeraswamy among them. They served a British interpretation of what the Mughal royals would have eaten — richly spiced stews and rice, or as Collingham puts it, "the English idea of what fancy Indian food is."

The modern British curry house, however, has working-class origins. And a very narrow lineage. More than 80 percent of of curry house owners in the UK can trace their roots back to Sylhet, a city in the east of what is now Bangladesh, Collingham explains in Curry. Sylhet's waterways were key to trade during the Raj, hundreds of Sylhetis ended up working on British steamships. "They often had the horrible jobs of working in the engine rooms," Collingham says. "So quite a lot of them tended to jump ship."

They had a tough time finding work in England, and many of them ended up in restaurant kitchens. "Some of these immigrants saved up enough money to then open their own restaurants," Collingham says. In the 1940s, they bought bombed-out fish-and-chip shops, selling curry and rice alongside traditional British favorites.

Many of these immigrant restaurateurs were self-taught, Collingham says. "They'd copy the menus from existing Indian restaurants because they know that's what sells."

And that is why, nowadays, you can wander into pretty much any curry house in any part of the United Kingdom, "and you can have a vindaloo or a korma or a chicken tikka," Collingham says. "That's what the customers expect and so that's what they get."

Britain's National Dish

In 2001, the UK's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said that chicken tikka masala is a "a true British national dish," epitomizing "multiculturalism as a positive force for our economy and society."

The story goes that a British customer at a curry house complained that his marinated, baked chicken was too dry. So the chef mixed up some canned tomato soup with yogurt and spices to create a sauce. Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester all lay claim to its invention. In any case, chicken tikka masala was a hit. "For a while it was the most common dish ordered in England," Collingham says.

"It's nothing like what you'd find in India," says Syed Belal Ahmed, who runs the trade publication Curry Life Magazine. "But I don't see anything wrong with that."

British curry isn't a dish but a cuisine, Ahmed says — a distinct cuisine that's a testament to the innovation of Indian immigrants in the UK. A British curry house menu may feature an Anglicized korma (featuring South Indian flavors) alongside rogan josh (originally a Kashmiri dish). Naan — which traditionally was only consumed in Iran and parts of north India — is a staple at the British curry house. "And all of these dishes are inspired by Indian dishes, but they've developed into something different in this country," Ahmed says.

Take Balti, for instance — a style of curry that gets its name from the steel bowls in which it is served. "Balti is a cuisine from a region of Pakistan, from the Northeast frontier," Ahmed explains. But British Balti is something else altogether; it's an approach to cooking invented by Pakistani restaurateurs in Birmingham that involves quickly assembling together pre-cooked meats with pre-made curry sauce, to serve the hungry hoards of Britons queuing up for a post-pub nosh. As Collingham writes in her book, it "unashamedly makes a virtue of restaurant shortcuts."

Back To Indian Roots

For Mathrani, British Balti is the antithesis of true, gourmet Indian food. At Mathrani's revamped, Michelin-starred Veeraswamy, and at his other restaurants — Chutney Mary, Amaya and Masala Zone — he's on a mission to teach the British public what "real Indian food" is, he says. These days at Veeraswamy you might find patiala shahi raan – a lamb shank that's slow-cooked for six hours, with marrow sauce. Or a Keralan prawn curry simmered in coconut milk.

Of course, with British customers raised on chicken tikka, it can be a bit of an uphill battle at times. "At Masala Zone, we have 17 different types of street food on offer," Mathrani says. "And 70 percent of the people who have them are Indian, even though they're just 20 percent of our customer base."

What do the Brits have? "Samosas," Mathrani sighs. And what's the biggest selling main dish? Butter chicken — which is the closest thing to chicken tikka masala that his restaurants sell. Still, Mathrani says, "at least in our restaurants, they're the proper versions of those dishes" — cooked as they would be in India, by "Indian regional specialist chefs."

Still, Mathrani's ethos seems to be spreading More and more, highly rated — and high-end — Indian restaurants in the UK are focusing on the provenance and history of the food they serve. Dishoom restaurants (of which there are four branches in London and one in Edinburgh) are nostalgic recreations of the Irani cafés in Mumbai. Curry Leaf Café, which was founded by Hyderabadi chef Kanthi Thamma, introduces Brighton residents to South Indian street food.

Among British diners, says Collingham, it is now a sign of sophistication to go out for Keralan food or to go out for Punjabi food. "Going out for a curry," Collingham says, "may be starting to sound a bit gauche."

Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer based in London. Contact her @maanvisings

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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