September 23, 2009 / 7:12 PM / 8 years ago

Distinctly British passion for curry still evolving

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Food lovers, celebrities and restaurateurs feted the British passion for curry on Wednesday at the launch of the Brick Lane Curry Festival.

The tiny street in the east end of London is often called the "curry mile" and is home to more than 50 restaurants serving the mostly Bangladeshi-inspired versions of what Britons commonly refer to as curry or "Indian food" in reference to its origins in South Asia.

More than 30 restaurants in the lane served up spicy chicken, lamb, sweet-smelling sauces and rice alongside steaming vegetable dishes, fiery red tandooris and the indigenous chicken korma under a marquee in the street to judges attempting to choose the best Brick Lane curry.

Andy Varma, a celebrity chef and director of Food for V8 Gourmet Group -- one of the biggest "Indian" restaurant groups in Britain -- told Reuters that the modern obsession for a cuisine that's become particularly British grew out of a shared imperial history.

"It's an affinity with the Raj," Varma said. "There are three generations who have already got the taste and they brought it home."

Next week the lane will open up in earnest to the public for its festival from September 27 until October 10, offering food, culture, music, dance, snake charmers and traditional snack sellers.

Curry judge and television personality Nina Wadia -- who plays a character on the long-running EastEnders television soap opera -- and whose family comes from Mumbai said curry has become part of the national psyche in Britain.

"It's part of the make-up, not just British-Asian but British culture especially in the inner city," she said.

"I love the way British people take things to their heart and make it their own."

An example of that is the chicken korma dish, which most curry chefs will tell you was invented to appeal to the British diner seeking only a gentle flirt with the spices of the East.

BUILDERS TO BUSINESSMEN

Azmal Hussain, who owns three restaurants on Brick Lane, said business has remained steady on the curry mile despite the credit crunch and recession because it's a treat that remains affordable for everyone from builders to businessmen.

"This is British curry for British people," said the 57-year-old restaurateur who has been on Brick Lane for nine years. "My dishes come from my grandparents ... we just modify."

Standing outside his Preem and Prithi restaurants, Hussain said the high concentration from 50-odd other restaurants also means dishes need to be the best in Britain to lure the customers who crowd Brick Lane after a night out in the pub.

A short walk away at the Eastern Eye Balti house, two Englishmen and a Frenchman tucking into the crispy poppadoms said they all regularly went for curry for the convenience and the variety.

"In France, in Italy and Spain, they all eat their own food," said 32-year-old Frenchman Sebastien Beaux. "But if you come to London you don't see much English food."

But the evolution of curry dishes in Britain may turn to a revolution if the young guns of the lane like Rimon Nawsad and his friend Shah Ali have their way.

They want to draw British tastes away from the korma and the chicken tikka masala to more adventurous recipes that reflect traditional Bangladeshi food, while infusing them with influences from around the world.

"Our fathers and our fathers before them tried to improve curry for the British palate and now we want to educate the British palate to know what we eat at home," said the 27-year-old Nawsad who owns Spice restaurant.

For now, having a curry remains a tradition that Britons are keen to share with each other and visitors from abroad at the end of the night or as a main evening attraction so tempting it left visiting Canadian businessman Tony Lesiak groaning.

"I got taken for a curry last night," he told Reuters. "I ate so much I couldn't even fit a beer on top of it."

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