My Citizens – the Maestro of Magnificence, the Suzerain of Spice – YOUR TFD was privileged to join one of my closest friends from the UK for a proper curry dinner last night, where he regaled his wife and me with stories of his 20-year quest to find good British curry in the States.
We are both huge fans of British Indian Restaurant (BIR)-style curries, which are very different from Indian curries. There is a unique texture and flavor profile found in BIR curries that are the result of an amalgamation of British and Indian taste sensibilities that I find intoxicating. It all comes down to the classic curry ‘base’ that is the foundation of all good British-style curries!
Since it is so difficult to find real BIR curry or curry base here, I have taken on the yoke of responsibility to teach you how to do it as well as anything you’d find in the UK!
As noted in this great (excerpted) article from NPR:
The modern British curry house, however, has working-class origins. And a very narrow lineage. More than 80 percent 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.”
There are 4 quintessentially BIR curries, IMHO – the most popular is Chicken Tikka Masala, and I have already posted a recipe for it. The other 3 range from very mild to so spicy it will literally strip paint from the wall if you breathe on it – in order, these are Korma, Madras, and Phall. Over this and the next 3 posts, I will teach you how to properly make each one using curry base so that even the most finicky UK citizen will proclaim you to be an honorary Brit. 🙂
The key to all BIR curries is two-fold: the curry base, which serves as the foundation of the sauce for most of them; and the pre-cooking of the meats. Between these two shortcuts and armed with the proper finishing spices for each specific dish, a restaurant can serve any delicious curry on its menu within 15 minutes!
So – let’s get to it, shall we?
First – you should read this tutorial in its entirety – it will start you on the one true path to BIR nirvana! This author really knows their stuff and I simply can’t improve on their techniques and instructions when it comes to curry and the base.
Now that you’ve done that, I will teach you how to make my version of curry base, which will serve as the foundation recipe for the next few posts! It is – unsurprisingly – a more complex version of the curry base used in most curry houses, using Indian Akhni spiced broth instead of just plain water.
Be advised that this makes a LOT of base – but the good news is that it freezes perfectly. Once you’ve gone to the trouble of creating the curry base, you can literally have dinner on the table in 15 minutes and in near-infinite variety by varying finishing spices and meats.
Citizens, I hope you find this a wonderful taste of home if you’re a British ex-pat – and even if you’re not, this curry base will become a go-to recipe for you, I promise!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon British Indian Restaurant Curry Base And How To Make A Proper Curry!
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- 10 medium onions, chopped
- 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 large green bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 large red bell pepper, chopped
- 2 stalks leafy celery, chopped
- 1/4 green cabbage head – chopped
- 2 cups Pomi-brand chopped tomatoes
- 6 stalks fresh cilantro with leaves
- 250 ml vegetable oil
- 4 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
- 4 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger purée
- 4 1/2 tbsp garlic purée
- 1 tbsp ground turmeric
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 1 tbsp freshly-ground cumin
- 1 tbsp freshly-ground coriander seed
- 1 tbsp ground fenugreek powder
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 cups chicken stock (homemade strongly preferred)
- Akhni stock plus more as needed – made from:
- 8 cups water
- 4 bay leaves (Asian / Indian bay leaves preferred, as they are milder – use 1 regular bay leaf if unavailable)
- 14 green cardamom pods
- 4” cinnamon stick
- 10 whole cloves
- 4 tsp. coriander seeds
- 4 tsp. fennel seeds
- 6 garlic cloves, bruised
- 4” chunk fresh ginger
- 2 star anise
- 2 black cardamom (optional but recommended)
- 1 whole onion, cut into large chunks
- 2 tsp. black peppercorns
- For the Akhni stock, add all ingredients to a saucepan. bring to the boil for about ten minutes then strain the mixture, discard the solids and reserve.
- Pour the oil into a large heavy bottomed saucepan and heat over medium high heat until bubbling.
- Throw in the chopped onions and fry, stirring regularly for about 20 minutes until the onions are soft, lightly browned and translucent.
- Add the bell peppers, celery, cilantro, carrot and cabbage and stir to combine.
- Fry for a further five minutes and then add the ginger and garlic and then all of the spices except for the turmeric.
- Now add the tomatoes, chicken stock and just enough Akhni stock to cover the vegetables and simmer for about half an hour. Add more stock as needed.
- After 30 minutes, remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
- Scoop the mixture in batches into a blender and blend until silky smooth. I usually do this for about three minutes per batch. If you have a handheld blender, this stage will be much easier. Add more Akhni stock if needed to achieve the proper consistency.
- Once your sauce is smooth, melt the ghee in a frying pan. Add the turmeric powder to the ghee. It will darken as it cooks. You want to brown it for about 30 seconds being careful not to burn the turmeric.
- Now add the turmeric/ghee mixture to the sauce and bring to a simmer again.
- Once it is bubbling away, turn down the heat and simmer for a further 20 to 30 minutes.
- Use immediately or store in the fridge for up to three days or freeze in 750ml (3 cup) portions for up to three months.
- Prep Time: 0 hours
- Cook Time: 0 hours
- Category: Recipes
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Thanks for the link Generalissimo and the kind words. I really enjoyed writing the guide to BIR.
Thank YOU for sharing your BIR wisdom!!! I learned a lot from your post, and am a fan of your site! 🙂
Carole st. Laurent
I am making this (in bulk) for the second time. I wanted to thank you for the time and history you put into your recipes. I was unable to find fenugreek at my local grocery, but in the health food and organic Herbal section, I located a bottle of powdered fenugreek in capsule form. These were actually made in the area I live in and they worked quite well. After tasting fenugreek for the first time, I realized I might use some homemade maple syrup as a substitute. What do you think?
I hope all is well for you and your pupper.
Citizen Carole – he is improving day by day, thank you so much for asking and your kind words about the blog! Yes, imitation maple syrup is actually flavored with fenugreek and as long as you adjust for the increased sweetness, yes it would work!
Thanks for the recipe. But canned soup and yogurt sounds easier. Having visited the UK a couple of times, I loved the Balti. Which I could not find in the US. At an Indian Restaurant in San Francisco, I asked for the dish closest to Balti. The waiter looked at me and said, “You’re from London aren’t you?”