Loosen your belt, East London! Our the blog seeks to establish an informal code of conduct for East London’s favourite dishes and this month we’re having a curry.
Of course, “curry” is shorthand for a vast, complex food culture, not a dish per se, but given the unique way it is enjoyed and eaten in East London, it made sense to cover it as one.
Choosing a curry house
No, the supermarket won’t do. And who among non-Asians has ever cooked a satisfying curry at home? However, identifying a curry house that is cooking fresh, clearly differentiated dishes is difficult. There are no hard and fast rules. These pointers, though, may help.
- It’s south Indian. Bad south Indians must exist, but I’ve yet to eat in one. Instead, the sensitivity of the spicing in most Tamil or Keralan eateries is revelatory. From light, interesting rices cooked with curry leaves, cashew nuts, mustards seed and lentils, to the thali – the ultimate meal for the indecisive diner – you can’t go wrong.
- There are women in the kitchen. A sign that you’re in good (often Gujarati) hands.
- It is vegetarian and, therefore, will be working that bit harder to maximise flavour.
- It is a basic, no-frills cafe. It will be cheap at least, and with nothing going for it but the food, likely brilliant.
- There is a waiter outside touting for business.
- No one has bothered to blanch the onions for the “kachumbar”, which is just raw onion, ketchup and chilli powder served with thin, cold poppadoms. Conversely, if your poppadoms arrive hot and glossy with a mint chutney, sour with anardana pomegranate powder, you are on to a winner.
- The menu includes innumerable curries both historic (biryani, dopiaza) and British (korma, tikka masala), with identical descriptions for each. No kitchen is that good; particularly one that sticks king prawns in a rogan josh and chicken in its vindaloo. Everything will arrive in the time it takes to cook some meat and add a jarred sauce.
- XXL naans; hot curry challenges; healthy emphasis on lean chicken breast; monomaniacal ghee reduction: all signs that a venue is – albeit in different ways pandering.
- Also, beware the award-winning Indian restaurant. There seem to be thousands, many touting gongs from unknown bodies, which date back years, if not decades.
When to eat curry
There is a common misapprehension that the best time to eat a curry is when you’re drunk. In fact, the best time to eat a curry is when you’re hungover. There are several reasons for this: you can’t be arsed to cook; you’re craving carbs; the piquant flavours of a good curry will penetrate the muggy fug in your head like few other foods; eating something with a decent chilli heat feels restorative (erroneous endorphin claims or not); and it’s a great excuse to crack open what you really want, which is a belated hair-of-the-dog beer.
Curry is a two-and-a-half-course meal. Poppadoms, starters, main course, rice, maybe a side daal. But dessert? Who ever has room for dessert? In fact, it’s a fascinating chicken and egg: which came first, bloated British curry eaters or the sad pineapple fritters and bought-in ice-creams which, in a curry house, make passing on dessert so easy?
Notwithstanding an early experience with Indian sweets in Rusholme (I’m still recovering from the sugar rush), I am aware there is a fine Indian dessert tradition of semolina puddings, halwa and shrikhand variations. But will I ever forgo that second seekh kebab to make sure I’ve still got room to try them? Never in a million years.
A note on sharing
Don’t do it. Sounds good in theory – various main courses, so you can all try new dishes – but it never works. First, it leads to a mess of mismatched flavours/textures on your plate. Second, deep down, even supposedly adventurous East London curry eaters are pretty conservative. Most people have one or two “safety dishes” that they order habitually and, even when they’re meant to be exploring off-piste, people always want a core of those familiar dishes on the table as security.
Those dishes are then hotly fought over as people panic-eat, while the exotic stuff goes cold. Choose your own main, unless you’re happy to be left with that paneer and aubergine/one-pot duck/hot’n’sour monkfish curry that no one was quite sure about.
Brief menu highlights …
Proper lamb rogan josh in a rich, glossy sauce fit for a Kashmiri prince. Expertly marinated adraki chops and juicy seekh kebabs. Pretty much any use of spinach and kasoori methi. The staggering depth of savoury flavour that a conscientious kitchen can draw out of something as simple as sambar (see also channa masala; various daals, particularly daal makhani; many chicken and lentil curries). Vadai and idli. Masala dosa: pancake of the gods; and its close cousin, topped uthappam. Revitalising rasam. The light, sweet’n’sour, singsong joys of bhelpuri and other Gujarati chaat snacks, such as cinnamon-spiked kachori. Keralan cabbage thoran or “beef chaps”. Tawa-fried seabass. Keema curries – go on, admit it: it is the easy, unsophisticated option, but that minced lamb is like filthy, curried crack.
What to drink
Beer, Wine and Water. Nothing too complex, just a proper lager or a pale, dry, crisply hoppy ale. Pineapple juice and tonic’s cutting edge works, too. Water.