letters to the Curry House

Alex wrote :
I am wondering about the authenticity of restaurant curries. I have eaten many curries in the UK and cooked a few from recipes on your site. Recently I was on holiday with my wife in Rouen, Normandy, and we found what looked like an authentic Indian restaurant. I ordered a vindaloo and was surprised to find that, although the meal was beautifully aromatic, there was no heat. A vindaloo with no heat? Talking with the waiter, he said that Indian restaurants change their recipes according to the country that they are in. I asked about curries in India and he said that it was entirely different. He said that food was cooked at home from fresh ingredients and couldn't be compared to the "batch method" used in Western Europe. What was he talking about? Before you ask "is this meal authentic?" first you have to decide authentic to what?. That's the tricky bit. If you asked most English curry fans whether the curry in front of them was authentic they would probably make their judgement using restaurant curries as their yardstick. But if you asked a British Asian the same question their reply is likely to be based on their family's home cooking. Many British Asians would, I think, consider standard curry house fare to be at best Anglicised and at worst a travesty of the original dishes on which they are based. The well known Indian chef, Cyrus Todiwala, remarks in his excellent book Café Spice Namaste that the traditional Parsee dhansak has been "grossly abused by restaurants in the UK". Many English people would find home-style Asian cooking quite unfamiliar. That's because, for most of us, our idea of an authentic Indian meal is based upon our experiences in "Indian" restaurants (which, just to confound our expectations even further, are mainly run by Bangladeshis). Listen to what restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab has to say "At the end of a night in an Indian restaurant, the boys sit down to their own meal. The staff curry is brought out ...... [and] it's like nothing on the menu they serve their customers". Yet there is a new and welcome trend in Asian restaurants. These new-wave restaurants aspire to be not the familiar curry houses but Bengali restaurants or Punjabi restaurants or other restaurants serving regional cuisine from the Asian sub-continent. So we are now getting restaurant specialities that could certainly be described as authentic. Of course, even the more upmarket restaurants serving regional cuisine have to adapt their cooking for mass catering. They cannot cook in home-style quantities. They have to prepare stock sauces in advance. They have to pre-cook meat that needs long, slow cooking. So even here a traditional recipe will be changed according to the needs of a restaurant to serve its customers quickly and efficiently. That's what the waiter meant by "batch" cooking. Your experience of the vindaloo with no heat is a clear case of the restaurant adapting its cooking to the expectation and tastes of its customers. The curry house has been a feature of the British high street for 40 odd years. Curries have been cooked in British homes (using good old Madras curry powder but unrecognisable to the average Indian) since the days of the British Empire in India. Curry houses in France or the USA are a fairly new phenomenon. The menu is relatively unfamiliar so the curries have been tailored to suit the local clientele. But, in the end, does it spoil your enjoyment if the dhansak in your local curry house is not made in the traditional Parsee style? The dhansak I was served last week in my local Tandoori was astonishingly good but probably not authentic. A traditional dhansak from the Café Spice Namaste would, I am sure, be a delight and a whole new experience. So why worry about authenticity? Enjoy both!

© David W Smith, 2002
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