Gastronauts- a question for you this fine, sunny, July morning. Do you have a thing about takeaway curry? A secret addictive vice? Go on. Admit it. It's gloriously tacky, I know, unquestionably laddish, and possibly, no probably, horribly fattening (more about that later), but isn't there just something so very comforting indeed about a rich, oily, meaty, salty, spicy Madras on a Friday night, after a difficult week? There's a place for it, despite what Mrs Aitch thinks. Her view being that why on earth anybody would want to re-create the flavours of a British Indian Takeaway is beyond comprehension.
British Indian Restaurant (BIR as the aficionados call it) is a different ball game from genuine and traditional Indian food- as prepared and eaten by families across the Sub-Continent. It all started when Bangladeshis arrived in Britain just after the Second World War. They developed a new style of cooking, perhaps more suited to British taste buds, which could be prepared with relative ease, and on a strict budget, allowing many different dishes to be served at once.
Ever wondered how your local Indian Taj Mahal manages to serve up so many different dishes at such short notice? Ever wondered how Indian restaurants manage to survive even though you're the only punter in the room?
The secret lies in the various very affordable base sauces and pastes which the restaurant makes up before hand. I became curious about this and started to investigate. Surprise, surprise, there's a whole BIR sub-culture on YouTube, with beery jokey blokey types revealing 'for the first time' the mystery of the 'base sauce' and curry fanatics peddling their e-books revealing the 'secret' recipes of British Indian Restaurant Cookery. There's also several internet forums full of angst-ridden middle aged men arguing about the exact quantity of this spice and that sauce. In truth, there are now so many of these curry evangelists, that to claim the whole caboodle a 'secret' is, perhaps, as trifle economique with the actualité.
I've discovered that the base sauce tends to be, in essence, a puréed vegetable stock. There doesn't seem to be any major rules, but the sauce tends to include cabbage, carrots, peppers, fresh coriander, garlic and ginger paste, green chillies, tomatoes, water and a great deal of onions. And a great deal of oil. As much as a litre of sunflower oil is poured into the cooking pot, which explains why you get that dark red oily surface floating on top of your curry. The vegetable bit is extremely healthy, but I'm not sure about the quantities of oil. A litre of oil does seem like an enormous amount. Scary. Coming to think about it, none of the Curry Crusaders I watched on YouTube seemed to have- how can I put it delicately? - washboard stomachs.
Anyway, to move on. To cut a very long story short, it's simmered for several hours. When ready it can be used as a base for any dish you think of. There are all sorts of other nifty little tricks to know about too. In a Korma, super fine coconut flour is used, not desiccated coconut. And butter is added to the dish, as well as cream. Tomato ketchup often goes into a Rogan Josh. And so on and so on. Meat is pre-cooked and then warmed through in the sauce before serving.
The first book published on the subject seems to be Kris Dhillon's The Curry Secret. In its day it was breaking new ground. I've read this slim volume from cover to cover, and it's a bit different from all the e-books and YouTube videos out there. Very pared down. Basic even. The base sauce, for example, is much simpler and seems to lack ingredients (like cabbage and carrots) everyone else is recommending. I finished this book slightly unfulfilled, not convinced that with this one, we really were learning "The Secret"- whatever that might be.
A more complicated (and perhaps more genuine) approach seems to come from Dave Loyden's Undercover Curry, an insider's expose of British Indian Restaurant Cookery, which goes into great length and detail about exactly how to prepare all the sauces, pastes and wotnot that you need to create genuine BIR food. It's like a technician's manual. All great stuff, and worth getting, but there's so much emphasis on the technique, there's not much room left for the recipes. Classics such as Chicken Korma (which I would have loved to have learnt how to cook properly) seems to have been left out.
And then you turn to the internet. I love YouTube, I think, partly because I like enthusiasts. There's so much quirky stuff out there for enthusiastic amateurs. If you suddenly decide you want to breed orchids, raise Alpacas, restore a Bentley Mark VI or learn how to speak Cornish with a Newlyn dialect, there's going to be some nut on YouTube showing you exactly how to do it. And with their videos come helpful 'how-to-do-it' e-books.
For once, the Sinister Kindle seems to have come into its own. Talking of which, I'm toying- and I mean toying- with the idea of writing a "Best of The Greasy Spoon" recipe book. There could be two paths- a relatively expensive de-luxe edition, wood-cuts, hand-made paper, limited print run et al, or a democratic, affordable e-book, which could be downloaded immediatley to the computer screens at your Counting House for a few golden nuggets. With the first option, I would probably end up loosing money, with the second- I might actually make a few bob or two. Enough to keep me in take-away curries for a few months. But that's beside the point.
Which one would you prefer? Are there any unmissable classic dishes that you think I should include? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your views.