This week we celebrated our nine-year Londonversary. We arrived in London on 13th September 2011. Since then, we have had plenty of Pints, Fish and Chips, Pork Pies, Full English Breakfasts and/or kebabs after nights out. But there is one true British experience that really stands out: Curry.
Curry as I know it has changed at different stages of my life. Based on what I’ve learned researching for this post, I’m barely scratching the surface.
There is too much to read, learn and write about curry. So, this time, I’ll focus on my first steps in the wonderful world of Indian spices.
In the beginning, there was powder.
Curry is a yellow, smelly powder that my dad adds to a tuna pasta salad, and to a side-dish of rice with almonds and raisins. Dad had a curry phase. I wasn’t a fan, neither was my mother. The smell was poignant and would stick to pretty much everything, for days. It also made everything taste the same.
The yellow powder that my Dad loves so much dates back to the days of British colonialism.
Apparently, a British officer, desperate to keep the newly discovered flavours in his life, asked his Indian servant for a mix of spices so that someone back in Britain could recreate for him the exciting taste of India.
The mixed spices spread like gunpowder through all British colonies, which helps to explain how curry powder reached almost every corner of the world and influenced kitchens from southern China to the Caribbean.
It was a scapegoat.
I discovered that curry was more than powder through a travelling show. And, it is a shame that I didn’t start looking more into it when I was still back home.
If I had, I would have learned that we have curry in Venezuela: Tarkary de Chivo (Goat Tarkary), a tomato-based stew of goat meat with spices, curry powder included. It is a curry in every sense of the word: there isn’t one authentic recipe. The mix of spices varies depending on the preference and taste of the cook.
Tarkary de Chivo is a popular dish from the easter coast of Venezuela. Our closest neighbours on that side, Trinidad and Tobago, likely passed it on to us in exchange for a little sugar cane or maybe gold.
Curry Goat is a staple dish in India, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. I can (and will) try it in Indonesian, Malaysian, Sri-Lankan and Jamaican restaurants in London. But, I am keen to go home and try Tarkary de Chivo, or Talkary as it’s also called.
It’s not Indian, it’s Bangladeshi.
We fell in love with sauce-based curry one afternoon at a restaurant in Brick Lane, an area with a long and interesting migration history. It has been home to Irish, Jewish, Bengalis over the century. It is also known as Banglatown and is currently in the midst of gentrification.
Brick Lane itself is a long street in East London with plenty of curry houses to choose from. All of which claim to be the “Best Curry House in London” or something to that effect.
We have always gone back to the same restaurant, despite multiple offers to try different places. And when we have visitors from out of town, that’s where we take them for dinner. Our dear friend Omar is one of them.
Omar was studying for a Master’s degree in Cambridge at the time, and he came to visit us in London. He was not impressed when we suggested Indian (food) for dinner. He had tried it in Cambridge and wasn’t really a fan.
We insisted and eventually he agreed. I can’t remember anymore if it was before, during or after dinner that my very Venezuelan friend blurted out what to me was an unexpected statement: This isn’t Indian, it’s Bangladeshi.
Omar had tried Indian curry in Cambridge, and it was very different.
It’s British, actually.
I may not know when my favourite dishes were invented, but Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 1971. Pakistan itself was part of India until 1947. Therefore, the dishes from my beloved Brick Lane are (or once were) Indian. Sorry, Omar.
Yet, the term or concept of curry is actually British and it comes from the Portuguese, who used the words ‘caril’ and ‘carree’ to identify Indian dishes made with butter, nuts, spices and other condiments, always served with boiled rice.
‘Caril’ and ‘carree’ are the Portuguese interpretation of the Malayalam word ‘Karil’ and the Tamil word ‘Kari’. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, author Lizzie Conllingham explains that both words were used to describe spices and dishes of meat and vegetables.
Through the miracle of language transformation, ‘caril’ and ‘carree’ became curry. Depending on the thickness of your English accent, your pronunciation will be closer to one or the other.
On the other hand, the hotness in curry as we know it comes from the chillies that the Portuguese explorers discovered in their journeys to America. Without them, the fiery Vindaloo as we know it would not exist. And perhaps Brits wouldn’t have turned it into a football anthem.
Whether Indian, Bangladeshi, Portuguese, or English, curry has been an important part of our journey in this city. We have celebrated joys with Tandoori King Prawn Masala, shared Butter Chicken with visiting family, and lifted our broken spirits with Lamb Bhuna, balti style.
After nine years of curry dinners, it is completely normal that we have developed cravings. We often find ourselves yearning for a good curry, almost in the same way we long for certain Venezuelan dishes.
I’ve also gone out on a limb and tried to cook it at home, using store-bought sauces and pastes which were all a big mistake. But as it turns out, for it to be as closest to the real deal, curry must be made from scratch.
Back in April, when everybody went crazy for baking, I decided to give homemade curry another try and looked for a recipe on Pinterest. I also wanted to try the Rogan Josh and Balti mixes by Spice Mountain that I got on our last visit to Borough Market.
I took special care to sweat the onions properly, frying the spices and letting the lamb stew in its juices for more than three hours. The result was a delicious version of the recipe I got online with multiple layers of flavours. We both enjoyed it very much.
Yet, we also both agree that it is not the real deal. As much as I can keep trying, somewhere deep inside I know that it will never be as good. That’s ok.
Besides, it may not be the yellow powder my dad loves so much, but the smell of wet curry is also poignant and sticks to pretty much everything, for days. Thankfully, not everything tastes the same.
So I’ll leave the cooking to our local curry house, and to our beloved Aladin in Brick Lane.