Finding anything Indian outside India always puts a smile on my face.
This morning, a takeaway food menu card dropped in through the letter-box made me grin from ear to ear.
Not only was I fascinated by the sheer variety of ‘Indian’ fare promising to have my taste buds salivating, but what made me smile in amusement were the many strange dishes on the menu.
To be fair, it did say it was an Indian and Bangladeshi menu. But even so, some of the dishes are such tongue twisters and brain teasers, that they provide a good few minutes of entertaining guesswork while waiting for the food to arrive.
This is not the only menu that has made me laugh. Ever since I came to the UK I have been baffled by many a restaurant / takeaway joint calling itself an Indian food joint. I have scratched my head at menu items like ‘Prawn puri’, pondered over what a ‘Lamb Passanda’ could be and wondered what a ‘Pilaf’ was. I have racked my brains trying to guess where on earth these ‘Indian’ dishes originated from.
So here were are in the UK, in an ‘Indian’ restaurant, checking out the appetisers, wondering what ‘Mogo chips’ are and if they taste better than ‘onion bhaajis’, which by the way seems set to overtake chicken ‘tikka masala’ in the popularity stakes in the UK.
Onion ‘bhaajis’ are onion ‘bhajias’ or onion ‘pakoras’. In Maharashtra, we would call them onion bhajee[ pronounced with a short ‘bha’].They are deep fried onion and gram flour fritters meant to be eaten with a steaming cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. But here in the UK they pronounce them onion ‘baaji’, confusing me further because in Marathi, bhaaji means subzi[vegetable]. Never mind. What’s in a name? But I have to report that ‘onion bhajis’ are seen selling like hot cakes even in the local bakeries, nestled next to traditional English sausage rolls or cheese and onion pasties. Believe it or not, they are enticingly displayed in the delicatessen section of my regular supermarket, where they sit adjacent to ‘dal and sago patties’ Sigh! – ‘sabudana wadas’ of course!
I cannot keep the secrets anymore. Mogo chips are chips made of Cassava which is a root veggie like yam. I think the origin is somewhere in east Africa where plenty of Indians live and lived, then migrating to the UK. Restaurants with a Gujarati influence in the UK have Mogo chips in the starters section. And yes, they taste as good as they sound.
As one munches away at the complimentary, obligatory basket of ‘Poppadams’[ papads] at Indian restaurants in the UK, one has a tough time deciding between the ‘Chicken balti’, ‘Chicken Madras’ and the ‘Chicken Chat’! ‘Duck karahi’ anyone? The ‘Balti’ dishes are a ‘made in UK’ invention, apparently originating somewhere in Birmingham and although sometimes called Indian food, it is not something we would find in Indian restaurants in India. The fried onions, tomatoes, ginger-garlic, garam masala, cumin, coriander seems to be the basis of most dishes but the names are unfamiliar and the combinations seem foreign to an Indian who has lived for most of his/her life in India. When I first came across the name Balti, I seriously wondered what sort of food this was. Balti means bucket in Hindi and the only food I’ve seen being served out of buckets is in the South of India in those wonderful food joints where the steaming hot sambar and rasam comes to the table straight of a huge steel bucket.
But the balti food in UK, is not south Indian food.The closest it comes to resemble is North Indian food, because the sauce in which meat or the veggies is cooked is heavily laden with the onion-tomato paste described above and there are definitely no buckets visible in the restaurant.
Indian food is very popular in the UK and it’s not just Indians who eat at these restaurants. ‘Let’s go out for a curry’ basically means ‘let’s go out for Indian food’. There are Indian restaurants and takeaway food shops on every street, even in far flung, small towns in the UK and they seem to be doing good business too. It is really irrelevant that the food is not authentic Indian food in most of these places, because people love it. There is some influence from our neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and one can discover wonderful new items like Peshawari naan which I’d certainly never heard of in India. So ‘Indian’ is a general term used for food from the Indian subcontinent and sometimes for the Balti cuisine whose origins are unclear.
So popular is Indian food that even at workplace lunches, there is usually a ‘curry’ dish with rice and yes, most people whether Indian or not dig into it with gusto.
In my local supermarket, there is in fact an entire hot meal section with various Indian curries, pilaf rice[ basically pulao], poppadoms and naan bread[ naan!] and at lunch time, office workers are seen enthusiastically filling up plastic containers with curry meals to eat on the go. Who doesn’t like a hot, spicy curry on a cold, grey day? Again, the Indian dishes are not what we in India are familiar with. The ‘Rogan Josh’ and ‘Tikka masala’ dominate and both taste pretty much the same. It’s the same onions-tomato-ginger-garlic-spices combination in various permutations, but honestly on a freezing day, the comforting warmth of the spicy curry is enough without caring about the authenticity of the dish. I have to mention the Vindaloo. Unless you are from Goa or well travelled, chances are, you may not have heard of the fiery curry called ‘Vindaloo’. But in the UK, Vindaloo is a popular item on the menu and ‘ how hot can you handle your Vindaloo?’ is not an uncommon dining challenge. Believe me, this is really HOT and spicy even for the most seasoned, spice-eaters, brought up in India. Never ask for a spicy Vindaloo, because it has enough fire as it is!
There are of course plenty of authentic Indian restaurants where the food is what we in India are familiar with and it is a pleasure discovering such places. Some of these are very basic, unpretentious places but the food is real Indian food and divine, to say the least. There used to be one such place opposite Queensbury Tube station where one could devour a leisurely Sunday breakfast of dosas , idlis and filter coffee- not sure if it exists now. Also Harrow, in London has a wonderful authentic Surti cuisine restaurant serving undhiyo, rotlas, khichadi, kadhi and so on. One just has to discover these places in the Indian pockets of UK and the list is endless. I have to mention the chana bhaturas and hot fried jalebis frying in the little eateries, off the pavement in Southall, which is as authentic as it gets.
There are of course several upmarket, authentic Indian restaurants which serve Indian food that we in India are familiar with. Often called ‘fine dining’, these places have dishes that are typical to a particular region in India and one discovers a whole new India on eating at these places. A Keralan fine dining restaurant very close to Buckingham Palace serves the most delicious ‘appams’ where you can actually see the chef making them in the special pan. They even give you a complimentary glass of rasam with your meal.
Not all fine dining Indian resturants are truly authentic Indian. To celebrate a special occasion, we once dined at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant in London. In those days, one could not check the menu online. When we got there, on the menu, in all its glory was the ‘Prawn puri’. I cannot remember what we ordered, but I remember the horror of looking at a large plate with a miniscule artwork of ‘Indian’ food with the obligatory sprig of coriander sitting on top of it. Perhaps, going to a balti restaurant would have been a better choice- atleast I would not have starved that night!
Coming back to the menu card, these days the menu is available online so one checks beforehand and decide if it is up to one’s taste and preference. There are still surprises no matter where you choose to go and where you end up eating.
Discovering Indian food in the UK is always a pleasure- whether authentic or not, it reminds of India and comforts the soul. We, who live outside India will go to great lengths to eat Indian food.
I must end with a story of my relatives who were visiting from India and visited a very famous, posh, luxury store in Kensington, London where most ordinary mortals only end up sightseeing. On visiting the food halls, they spotted ‘batata wadas’ in the Indian section and so homesick were they, that they actually bought two ‘wadas’ for an astronomical price and ate them stone cold, sitting on a bench in Hyde park. The next time I would advice them to at least have them warmed up in the microwave in the store as I know they usually do, on request!