Whether it’s Indian, Thai, Malaysian or any other of the vast number of national curry dishes, there’s nothing Brits find quite as warming, refreshing and satisfying as a good curry, whichever the source. In celebration of the UK’s 18th National Curry Week, Produce Business UK takes a closer look at the different types of fruit and veg used and sought by more than 9,000 different curry specialist eateries operating throughout the country. In doing so, we discover the scope to push the boundaries further, especially considering many Indian regions are predominantly vegetarian
Curry is a very British word, I’m told. Almost half of Britain cooks curry at home at least once a week and spends, on average, £30 a month on curry supplies from supermarkets. We are so curry-mad, that curries, especially from India, have been shaped and sometimes created for, or by, Brits.
In the 1870s, curry was taken to Japan by the British, which facilitated its popularity further afield. From the biryani, which was designed for the soldiers of the invading Aurangzeb as a ready-to-eat food in times of war, to the Balti, said to be created in 1970s Birmingham to suit British palates, today UK restaurants of all cuisines are serving up their own twist on curry.
Declaring Britain as “the curry centre of the world”, National Curry Week (October 12-18) is actively setting out to encourage eateries and caterers, as well as the public, to celebrate the diversity of curry via events and fun challenges.
At the same time, National Curry Week believes Britain should give something back to those less fortunate. The organisers are therefore raising money for charities focused on hunger, malnourishment and poverty in South East Asia, like Find Your Feet, by inspiring large donations from online takeaway and delivery facilitator Hungry House.
Diversity is the spice of life
Such is the diversity of curry that National Curry Week ambassador, award-winning cookery writer, TV presenter and restaurateur Mridula Baljekar goes as far as to say that a typical ‘Indian curry’ doesn’t even exist.
“There is no such thing as an Indian curry,” says the north east Indian author of no fewer than 28 cookery books. “It’s simply different taste variations and different spices. I love seasonal produce, so I mix spices with whatever is good quality and freshly available.”
Of course, there are many different Indian curries that originate from various parts of the country, including: Punjabi, Moghul (or Mughlai), Kashmiri, Goan or south Indian, Hyderabadi, Bangladeshi, Rajasthani, Pakistani and Parsi dishes, as well as curries from other nations like Thailand, Nepal, South Africa, Japan and China, according to National Curry Week’s Colleen Grove.
The role of fruit and veg
“Fresh produce plays a big part of that, especially in areas that are predominantly vegetarian,” Grove explains. “The main fresh fruit and vegetables used in the dishes produced in this country are onions (pyaz), garlic (lahsun) and ginger (Adrak) – these three are often used together as the ‘holy trinity’ of wet curries and they form the basis of many ‘Indian’ dishes.”
Co-owner and chef at 220-cover restaurant Brilliant in London, Dipna Anand’s produce essentials are fresh and ground coriander, fenugreek leaves and her unique blend of spices, all from recipes handed down by the originator of the restaurant – her grandfather.
“Curry is basically a gravy, so the garam masala you use is very important and a guarded secret,” says Anand, who has worked in the family business since she was 18, producing north Indian Punjabi food with a Kenyan influence.
“I wanted to put a recipe for garam masala into my cookery book [Brilliant, published last year], but my father said no, so we listed the ingredients, but not the quantities. We dry our own spices and usually a garam masala contains around 12-15 spices. The key ingredients are red chilli, turmeric, cumin seeds or powder and fresh and ground coriander, as they give such different tastes and textures. It’s quite easy to get hold of spices, but the best quality is not cheap, which is the way it should be. Fresh coriander [to garnish] at the end, as well as Spanish onions and fresh tomatoes are also essential.”
Cookery writer Baljekar believes fresh fruit and vegetables “make the dish” in Indian cuisine, plus she can’t do without her supply of frozen grated coconut, both at home and when she owned a contemporary Indian restaurant in Windsor. “Take an aubergine,” she tells me. “I love aubergines and different traditions in different parts of India will cook it in different ways.
“In Bharti, Punjab, they smoke aubergines, then spice it and chargrill it, but a tandoori chef would smoke it and then remove the flesh and mix it with spices. Meanwhile, someone from north India would put it on a barbeque as it is, whereas in south India it would be cooked in coconut and roasted poppy seeds. And in the north east it would be deep-fried in spiced gram flour and come out wonderfully fluffy inside.
“Indian cookery also includes a lot of fresh fruit as well,” continues Baljekar, whose latest manuscript, Spice of Life, won the Best in the World at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards this year. In particular, she singles out the pineapple curry that is popular in Kerala, south India, which uses pineapple, coconut milk, mustard seeds, cumin, chilli and curry leaves.
What restaurants want from suppliers
When it comes to procuring curry ingredients, the supply chain has changed massively in the last 20 years in the UK. However, a lot of restaurants still rely on international Asian supermarkets or online retailers for more remote items, as well as top-ups and orders on the expensive side.
“It depends on what you are looking for, of course,” says chef Anand. “It used to be quite tough to get what you wanted, like okra, for example. But now it is easy to get these products from veg suppliers, and the same goes for a lot of other exotic veg that we used to struggle to source. However, we sometimes have to go to Kenyan specialists to get cassava [similar to a sweet potato] and we mostly have to buy them frozen from the cash and carry.”
Baljekar, who also found time in the 1990s to consult on 27 lines of Indian chilled ready meals for Tesco, says freshness is the key to supplying curry chefs and restaurants. “Cauliflowers can’t have black spots and an aubergine’s skin should be shiny and not damaged,” she explains.
“If I order online or over the phone I expect much better quality because it comes down to trust. A lot of restaurants have a problem with inconsistent deliveries though. They are not always on time and they aren’t delivered when promised. But as long as suppliers get their money on time, it seems to run smoothly. I have always just had one point of contact with a supplier who understand my needs, whether it’s meat, fish or vegetables.”
Which curry next?
With such widespread appreciation, some would argue that the UK’s curry market has become saturated, but Anand disagrees, adding that she has created new dishes to serve at her restaurant to celebrate National Curry Week.
“There is a huge audience out there,” she insists. “It is getting more and more popular: roughly six or seven out of 10 people will say a curry is their favourite dish. There will be trends and changes, but there is so much scope for curry. I would like to go back to basics and introduce people to more traditional north Indian dishes such as the lost dishes like kidney bean curry, rather than fusion cuisine, which tends to confuse people.”
Baljekar also believes the British public still has a long way to go when it comes to being completely educated about Indian food. She hopes the new National Curry Week TV Channel on YouTube, in which she will star, will make a difference, as well as the influence provided by partner companies – Amira Rice, Bhai Cider, Sainsbury’s and Kingfisher Beer.
“It is a bit sad that although Indian food is very popular in the UK, it is still viewed as a cheap cuisine,” she shares. “We use the same high quality meat, veg and fish, yet we are not seen as equal in the industry. It has improved over the last 20 years with people travelling, but we can’t quite get past that ‘lager-and-vindaloo’ reputation.
“There are so many different dishes in Indian cuisine but a lot of the offerings in UK restaurants are so dated, although there are some really good restaurants with Michelin stars now. We need to educate the UK’s palate and make people aware of all the different Indian regions.”
Essential fruits and veggies for curries
There are endless possibilities when it comes to incorporating fruit and vegetables into curries, but here are some must-have ingredients in high demand from produce suppliers:
Gourd: Used in Indian cooking; mainly the bitter gourds like karela – an hourglass-shaped gourd or lauki and parwal – pointed gourds.
Apricot: The Hindu name is khoobani and both fresh and dried apricots are used.
Amla: This is a large gooseberry-type fruit, which is also called the Indian gooseberry.
Sweet Indian chickoo fruit: Also known as Chikoo, Chiku, Sapodilla and Sapota.
Green papaya: Usually used in spicy Thai salads.
Mango: Features in Indian and Thai curries, both ripe and green.
Sweet Tamarind pods: Popular across the board in curries and they go well with sweet potato and fish.
Pomegranate: Appreciated in Thai and Malaysian curries.
Karonda: A fruit used for chutneys and pickles.
Figs: A favourite in Thai and Anglo-Indian curries.
Star fruit: Found in curries from Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India.
Jackfruit: Native to south India and South East Asia, this Indian tropical fruit can be as big as 90cm in diameter and is from the same family as the fig. It’s also popular in Bangladesh.
Kaffir lime leaves: Used fresh and dried in Thai curries. However, it’s still hard to get hold of fresh kaffir limes leaves in the UK.
Marrow and courgette: These feature a lot of Anglo-Indian dishes.
Coconut: Fresh, frozen, creamed, raw and in milk form – this is a staple in Indian, Thai, Malaysian and Sri Lankan curries. It’s preferred in a prepared form as it’s hard to prepare in large quantities.