A Personal History of Indian Cuisine.Posted: March 14, 2013
Tandoori restaurant, Deptford. © David Secombe 2001.
It is 1975, I am 13 and, like most white British people of my generation, my experience of Indian food is limited to a small, local curry house. Remote, distant Cheam in the remote, distant 1970s offered few opportunities for culinary experiment and a trip to an Indian offered the prospect of an exotic night out. Visits to The Partition of India – or whatever it was called – were made in the company of my two elder siblings; I was taken there with some ceremony by my sister and no ceremony at all by my brother. (I was never taken there by my parents, who were not attracted by its charms.)
The suburban Indian restaurant is one of the cultural phenomena of post-war British life, signifying social change, and a broadening of the scope of what is considered our national cuisine. But the 1970s offers very few excuses for Proustian reverie; even as a teenager I was aware that my local Indian didn’t cut it, as the food was barely adequate and served by staff who seemed either torpid or desperate. I also knew that part of its appeal was its very inability to deliver the experience you were looking for; it confirmed my adolescent conviction that the suburbs were a pale shadow of the real, yet-to-be-discovered world. (Incidentally, the restaurant in question appeared to be popular with adulterers. This was my brother’s theory, and we would giggle at furtive couples in corner booths, whispering as best they could over the sitar tape whilst poking at bits of Bombay Duck. Adulterous or not, these couples were also seeking a dining experience that was clearly not forthcoming.)
By the early 1980s I had arrived in the flesh pots of south London; just a few miles away from provincial Cheam, yet Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting were home to tempting, ‘authentic’ Indian restaurants which delighted in their specific regionality – Nepalese, Goan, Bengali. Fabled establishments like The Concert for Bangladesh, Midnight’s Children, and Sherpa Tenzing offered dishes worlds away from the generic beige goo I knew from my sheltered youth. But you could still get caught out: during a meal at an unfamiliar establishment in Battersea, circa 1985, an ordinary-looking lamb passanda arrived at my table and, before anyone could say anything, the waiter produced a can of UHT whipped cream and sprayed foam all over it. It was a brilliant comic gesture, but it was supposed to be my dinner. Despite such misadventures, my local dining preference remained the curry house; I bypassed Nouvelle Cuisine and other foodie trends and stayed true to my suburban roots.
The ubiquity of Indian restaurants has generated an urban mythology particular to them. A sudden closure was darkly ascribed to the discovery of a skinned dog in the kitchen. Tales were told of a legendary establishment which offered a Chicken Bastard, a dish so hot that it was not intended to be eaten. ‘Witnesses’ spoke of an unwise party who took the challenge, goading the waiters who brought him his order, forcing it down with Carlsberg as kitchen staff emerged to watch, and of the ambulance that was summoned to take him to A&E. Such stories were clear evidence of cultural antagonism, but my own favourite tall tale is actually quite sweet, and is very possibly true. I knew a pair of Egyptian brothers who were my schoolmates at a boarding school on the outer fringes of London. It was said that at the end of term, they went into Leatherhead, ordered three dinners from the Siege of Delhi, packed them in their luggage (did they order poppadoms?), got a cab to Heathrow, flew to Cairo, and consumed the congealing banquet with their father as a festive, homecoming dinner: the ultimate Indian takeaway.
After decades of enjoying Indian food in almost every postcode within the M25, my love affair with it ended in a way my brother might have predicted. I became romantically involved with someone who remained very slightly married, and our lunchtime venue was a classy Indian in St James’s. The Cawnpore Massacre is one of London’s best restaurants, but its convenience for my beloved made it a kind of hell for me. As the months dragged on, I became all too familiar with the delicacies on offer, and the wonders of its kitchen paled against the looming inevitability of my defeat. To paraphrase Robert Shaw in Jaws, ‘I’ll never order Rhogan Josh again’.
© David Secombe 2013.