This Side of the Pond – Sept. 6

By Sarah Pridgeon

You probably know that citizens of this fair nation who trace their roots back to China invented dishes that would please the palates of their new neighbors. Arriving in America during the California gold rush, they gathered in what would become Chinatowns and offered their delicious cuisine for sale, adapting old techniques to make menu items such as chop suey (which apparently translates to mean, “odds and ends”) and occasionally coming up with whole new things, like fortune cookies.

The same sort of thing happened with Mexican cuisine, which has become “Tex-mex” in many of its readily available forms. But while Britain has plenty of Chinese takeouts to choose from, we’re a little far from Mexico to have picked up on tortillas and salsa until recently.

What we do have, on the other hand, is our own imported cuisine that has become a staple of our national diet: curry from India. So popular is this spicy treat that it now contributes around $6.5 billion per year to our national economy.

It all began a few centuries ago, during Britain’s rebellious phase, when we felt sure that the rest of the world needed to be taught how to utter “I say” a lot and refuse to send back bad steak in restaurants. Purely for altruistic purposes, of course, my country decided it ought to own the whole world.

We gave it a darned good go. Starting out as a few overseas possessions and trading posts for our sizeable population of sea traders, it evolved into the largest empire in history. The sun never set on the British Empire, so they said.

So began the era of Pax Britannica (or “British Peace”), in which we declared ourselves the world’s policeman and set about making everybody else as much like us as possible.

I have yet to verify this for myself, but a nice gentleman did once stop me in Rapid City airport to thank my people for their work; apparently, on his travels, he’s only ever found decent plumbing in ex-British territories. I’d have preferred a compliment about my shoes, on balance, but I’ll take what I can get.

Our overseas forays included the moment in 1757 when the East India Company conquered part of the Indian subcontinent and later declared Queen Victoria to be the Empress of India. I don’t think she ever went there herself, but many of those who did fell in love with the exotic land and its treasures.

As early as 1733, you could buy a curry in the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket, London, and a recipe “to make a currey the Indian Way” appeared in a cookery book for the first time in 1747. It lost popularity when India had the audacity to rebel against foreign rule, but Queen Victoria brought it back into fashion thanks to her fascination with India.

We may not have an empire these days, which is probably for the best, but one of the most delightful aftereffects of our country-stealing ways is the melting pot it created in the bigger cities. In London, for example, I highly recommend a trip to Brick Lane, which is one of the main areas you’ll find immigrants from South Asia.

Today it’s an entire road of curry houses, stretching on for what seems like miles. In every doorway, you’ll find a smiling gentleman clutching a menu as he extols the virtues of his all-you-can-eat buffet as compared to the one the gentleman next door wants you to try.

It doesn’t much matter which you choose, they will all offer mouthwatering fare. Thanks to the rise of the takeout and the influx of new immigrants in the 1970s, there are allegedly now more Indian restaurants in London alone than in Delhi and Mumbai combined.

Like America has its chop suey and Tex-mex, we have plenty of Indian dishes on offer for which nobody can quite pin down the origin. One of these, chicken tikka masala, was described by a government minister in 2001 as “a true British national dish”, so it seems appropriate to offer this particular recipe.

You may need to order some of these ingredients online, and vary them according to how much spice you can endure without your tongue swelling. Most, however, I’ve found in the supermarket.

Cut four chicken breasts into bite size pieces and mix with four tablespoons of tandoori paste and two tablespoons of natural yogurt. Marinate in the fridge for at least a couple of hours.

Heat three tablespoons of oil in a deep frying pan and add a cinnamon stick, eight cardamom pods and a finely chopped onion. Fry for five minutes, then add a 1 ¼ inch piece of ginger (finely grated), two crushed garlic cloves, a teaspoon each of ground cumin and coriander, half a teaspoon of ground turmeric and between half and one teaspoon of cayenne pepper (this will have a large effect on how hot your curry is, so feel free to err towards the safe side).

After around a minute, add the chicken and its marinade and fry for three minutes. Now add half a can of chopped tomatoes and five fluid ounces of chicken bouillon, 1.5 teaspoons of garam masala (a blend of ground spices), the juice of half a lemon and half a teaspoon of salt. Cook on a low heat for ten minutes, until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, and serve on a bed of rice.

There you have it – a homemade curry. It’s a spicy treat that suits a cool, fall evening and also one of the things I miss most about my homeland, so please feel free to hand over any leftovers.