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March 23, 2020

The Melting Pots

Photographed by Joshua Navalkar. Styled by Swati Sinha

London-based Rachael Krishna writes about Britain’s trademark curry houses and takeaway joints, thinking back on how their very distinct cuisine, despite being a largely Western innovation, deepened the connection with her father’s Burmese-Indian roots

As an immigrant, you take what you can get as a reminder of home. Fruit shipped from hundreds of miles away will never taste the same when split in the British air as it did in the hot balmy air of your auntie’s garden. But there’s only so long that you can thrive off British produce when you’ve tasted something more. You get excited when the small section devoted to ‘world’ food in the back corner of the supermarket offers up a bag or tin you haven’t seen in years, then promptly panic-buy the whole shelf and sprint out the door like a woman starved of flavour.

In the ’90s and 2000s, embedded deep in middle-class home-counties Britain, the best we had were our local Indian curry houses. My dad, born in Burma (now Myanmar) with Burmese and Indian parents, didn’t learn to cook until his 30s, possibly due to ingrained gender norms, or possibly due to the fact he had kids and a wife by age 19. He was thus more concerned with putting food on the table rather than with if this food was a deep reflection of his self. He was taught by my mum, who, while an avid fan of rice, was born in middle England and knew more about stews and pies. The resulting dishes that characterised my childhood — lasagna and rice, chilli con carne with curry powder — were far from any definition of authentic, but he wasn’t cooking for any lofty reason other than his need to survive.

Later, as my father grew into his mid 20s, 30s, and so on, he was a stereotypical city boy: drinking at lunch, socialising with other businessmen, and, of course, the peak of his masculinity was a Friday night trip to an East London curry house. Curry has, and arguably still does have, a reputation in Britain of proving one’s masculinity. Curry, always served with beer, creamy rich curry, full of calories, consumed by men on the night of the week the wives allowed them out to play. Spice was a sign of toughness; men never ate korma. A badge of honour was to be the man who was able to shovel a fiery vindaloo and keep it down.

When I talk about British-Indian takeaways or curry houses, I’m talking about a very particular kind of cuisine. Think silver foil takeaway boxes that look like they house dangerous bioweapons; white lids with unintelligible scrawls that bring to mind my mother’s confused voice, as she shouted from the kitchen, “I think it says C, who ordered C?” Even when the lids were removed, it was difficult to tell the dishes apart except for the few iconic ones; bright yellow korma, bright tikka, tandoor, or masala, and the emerald-green saags. Pilau rice always possessed pink highlights, and samosas, bhajias and pakoras came with chutneys blended smooth to within an inch of their life.

If you ate in a restaurant, you could expect even more metallic sheen from the cutlery precisely placed among elaborately folded napkins. Waiters employed sizzling plates, food carts and spinning chutney holders to make the dinner feel like an occasion. And of course, it was all finished off with hot towels and mini chocolates. Decades before ‘chai tea’ lattes and turmeric smoothies, this is how India was represented across the UK.

And, importantly, curry nights meant assimilation. My dad could go with non-Asian colleagues through the huge menus, and he could wolf down spicy dishes and chide colleagues who failed to match up to him. The curry house was my dad’s level playing field. He made lifelong friends this way, and they’d appear at our front door with him late at night, giggling from good food and beer with the menus from their chosen establishment tucked underneath their arms.

At home the local Indian takeaway and curry house was our community — our surname brought the owners to our table and extra mystery curries in our takeaway. I learnt to see South Asian food as special and significant for our family; we ate it on Friday nights after my dad had loosened his tie and my mum had shooed me to the kitchen to put a beer in the fridge for her. I could choose my own food! If I just wanted a plate of samosas, so be it. For birthdays I’d ask for Indian so I could fill myself with mountains of sweet pilau, washed down with lassi and finished with kulfi with a candle on the top — maybe a sparkler if the waiters were feeling particularly pyro that evening. Like the American Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food at Christmas, Britain’s answer to Indian food became our hokey celebration ritual.

With age I’ve discovered and come to love the whole scope of South Asian food; I crave sweet hot chai, comforting dahl, rich kheema and crispy dosas. In the summer, my dad, now retired and with hours of free time to cook, makes bright red tandoori chicken on our tiny barbecue. I love it all, and embrace the gorgeous diversity of the cuisine as reflective of my family’s home. But British-Indian takeaway was how I fell in love with spice, and how I fell in love with eating. It had the grand joyous feel that so many talked about with family meals; a table strewn with dishes that were bright jewel colours and the style of communal eating that I’ve come to love. Eating Indian takeaway cuisine was what made me feel proud in my roots before I knew what that meant, and like I wanted to share them with others.

Recently in the UK, classic Indian takeaways have faded in popularity — the greater representation and availability of a range of South Asian food has drawn people away from curry house staples. I’ve expanded my palate, but I visit curry houses less and eat takeaway less, which, when I think about it, breaks my heart. I miss the unique, slightly camp but always friendly atmosphere of curry house dining. They’re a dying breed in the UK, but for now, I know I can always return when I need reminding of the first Asian food I ever fell in love with.

My dad, however, still makes the minor trek every month or so to London, to join his city friends, now all old boys, for another curry and several more beers. Trends come and go, interest fluctuates, but identity — and lifelong friends made along the way — is constant.

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