That curious flavour called ‘curry’

Danny Kingston Food Urchin mutton curry recipe

Mutton curry from Food Urchin

‘Curry’. It’s a term which can be debated endlessly, as idly or hotly as one’s demeanour demands. Appropriately for the fiery, spiced-up stews those five little letters call to mind, it’s a topic that both inflames tempers and ignites heated exchanges. ‘Curry’ may well be a lazy, catch-all, meaningless word; but it also speaks to the British psyche like few others can – hence charities like Find Your Feet harnessing it to cleverly raise cash for a cause.

In Britain, rightly or wrongly, ‘curry’ has become shorthand for almost anything that’s even slightly saucy and spicy; oft-considered ‘nectar’ to the vast majority. The most widely accepted linguistic origin of the term is the Tamil ‘kari’, which loosely translates as ‘sauce’ – and indeed, it’s thought that most mass-produced proprietary ‘curry powders’ are based on South Indian sambhar powder.

In America, too, ‘curry’ is the accepted name for a singular spicerack stalwart; a sunset-hued dry blend as omnipresent as the essential Cajun or Old Bay seasonings for keen cooks. If Food Network’s Guy Fieri spends as much time enthusiastically bellowing at you from the telly in your living room as he does in mine, you’ll know that it’s frequently the ‘spoonful of curry’ that maketh the dish.

So, like so many culinary ‘hot potatoes’, the true meaning – or non-meaning, for that matter – of ‘curry’ will always be disputed. But the fact that the matter will never truly be reconciled is music to certain ears – those of food companies with something spicy to sell and money to make. On the supermarket shelves, you’ll find the term embraced as a flavour in its very own right.

When you’re hawking a new food product, the sheer ambiguity of ‘curry’ is a real plus point. You can use precisely the spices you want, in whatever quantities should so suit. You can see the dodgy logic; call it ‘curry’ and no-one can call you out. We’re conditioned to merely expect fire, spice’n’ all things nice – after all, that’s what ‘curry’ is made of.

Vesta beef curry ready meal

And largely, that’s what you get from the majority of these ‘curry-fied’ concoctions. It all started with Vesta Curry – now known as the most anachronistic ambient ready meal one can encounter, but in their 1950s heyday, quite the way to get a little taste of India. If, y’know, India actually ate dehydrated rubbish wetted down into a sloppy, gloppy mess on the stovetop.

A pack of 2-minute Maggi Noodles can save any lonely evening, offering a supper for one that’s surprisingly sublime – as any Indian worth their sachet of Chatpata seasoning knows. But in Britain, one flavour packet you’ll find in Bachelor’s Super Noodles is ‘Mild Curry’. Fancy your meal in a mug? How ‘bout Bachelor’s ‘Cup A Noodle Curry’?

If you can’t even be bothered to use your noodle long enough to watch a pot boil, you can simply sluice a Pot Noodle with boiling water and wait for that ‘Bombay Bad Boy’ to soften somewhat. Or opt for ‘Original Curry’ – a flavour whose adjective almost certainly pertains to it being the ‘first in the range’ and not ‘the most authentic’. See ‘Trampy & The Tramp’s’ verdict of both here.

Bachelor’s ‘Mild Curry’ flavour also finds its way into the same company’s Super(?) Rice. A little more nice is Tilda’s ‘British Curry Rice’, concocted by chef Dhruv Baker and proudly proclaiming to be a quintessential contrivance of our green and pleasant land, rather than masquerading as an authentic Indian immigrant.

It won’t be long before any newly-arrived Indian immigrant encounters good old Heinz Baked Beans. Hopefully, though, they’ll steer well clear of the variety that comes already-curried. Don’t get me wrong, masala beans are a beautiful thing – but Heinz needs to know that a quick spot of home-pimping is the only way to go.

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Small babies have a way to go before they learn that Heinz Meanz Beanz – but in the meantime, that company offers a ‘Very Mild Chicken Curry’ in its ‘7 Months Mum’s Own Baby Food’ range. A little further upmarket, Plum Baby provides an organic Sweet Cape Curry With Beef’.

For children who can chew, there’s Ella’s Kitchen ‘Creamy Coconutty Chicken Curry’, and Tilda Kids’ ‘Mild & Sweet Curry’ rice. To be fair, these dishes are probably a better bet than many chilli-laden ‘curry’ concoctions out there. At least they’re introducing Indian flavours from an early age. And hey, they might lack salt, but often even the most over-spiced items manage to be under-seasoned.

Well-seasoned supermarket shoppers will be all-too-familiar with some of the ‘fast-fix’ shockers on the shelves. If you’re not amongst them, freeze in the freezer aisle awhile and eye up dubious delights like Bernard Matthews’ ‘Chicken Curry Mini Kievs’, and the ‘Greggs for Iceland Chicken Curry Pasties’ – though you’ll sadly no longer see the much-missed ‘Chicken Curry’-flavour Findus Crispy Pancakes, which made a brief return in 2010 following a Facebook campaign .

In fact, as large retailers go, Iceland seems to have the monopoly on ‘curry’ calamites. The flavour finds its way into everything, from the legendary ‘Chicken Tikka Lasagne’, to frozen ‘Hungry Man pasta‘ and a thin’n’crispy pizza. The retailer has even seen fit to create – and please take a moment to strap down your eyebrows lest they raise to the roof – the ‘Chocolate Chicken Curry’. Yes.

Iceland chocolate chicken curry

But actually, chocolate in curry’s not so shocking – it’s just usually a little more chocolate and a little less curry; as is the case with Cocomaya’s ‘Mumbai Curry’ milk chocolate and Duke of Delhi’s chevdo-crammed bars. The combination can be surprisingly successful; but I do wish they’d chosen a curry powder sans garlic for the former. Then, of course, there’s India Dining’s cross-cultural ‘Vishneaster’ Egg

If you like to keep your sweet and savoury separate, there are all manner of limited-edition curried crisps with which to cram your mouth full – notably, Seabrook’s’‘Desi Curry’ and McCoy’s ‘Rogan Oh-My-Josh’, ‘Lamb Vindaloo’ and ‘Chicken Jalfrezi’ varieties (Foodstuff Finds’ review here). If you took a walk over to the Walkers a few years back, you’d have spotted ‘Onion Bhaji’ crisps. Nowadays, if you’re nuts for nuts, try Walker’s Tiger Nuts in ‘Masala Curry’.

If you’re tipping out a tin for a speedy feed and are seeking spice, Tesco offers tinned mackerel swimming in curry sauce, whilst Frey Bentos pops an entire ‘Fiery Chicken Curry Pie’ in a canister. Further ambient aisle abominations include Uncle Ben’s Rice Time – ‘Medium Curry‘, Knorr’s misguided ‘Curry Flavour Pot gel’, and Great Scot’s ‘Red Lentil Dahl Mix’ – which oddly eats as if it includes not a single Indian aromatic.

Soup and sandwiches are the staple lunchtime diet of office workers up and down the country, not the divine dabbas eaten in India. In the UK, curry’s just not done at desk – unless, of course, it’s in the form of a carton of Asda’s non-specific ‘Chicken Curry’-flavoured chilled soup or a tub of Tesco’s curried ‘Coronation Chicken’ sandwich filler.

When you consider all these, Alex James’ short-lived ‘curry cheese’ for Asda really is the thin end of the wedge. Celebrity chef Simon Rimmer’s even come up with a brew he feels perfectly accompanies ‘a curry’. This carbonated concoction is called, lengthily and simply, ‘Simon Rimmer Presents A Beer To Go With Curry’. But WHICH curry is it suited to specifically??

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All and any, it would seem*. In fact, perhaps it’s actually apt; a ubiquitous beverage for a curious, catch-all term….

(*If you are interested in less-ludicrous beer-and ‘curry’ combinations, see sensible suggestions from Quilon’s Sriram Aylur here.)

What odd ’curry’-flavoured  foodstuffs have you encountered? I hereby invite you to name and shame – or politely praise below!

Main image: Food Urchin

 

 

 

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16 responses to “That curious flavour called ‘curry’

  1. To get the ball rolling, I spotted an Italian artisan dried pasta in TK Maxx yesterday… ‘curry fettucine’!

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  2. This must have taken AGES to put together (or do you have a ‘rubbish curry products’ file filed away in your head, somewhere?) I was hoping for a mention of curry sauce on chips btw

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    • Photographic memory; but also rather fun to research. That’s what we commoners commonly call ‘Chinese chips’ – that chip shop curry sauce comes from a whole different cuisine… 😀

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    • Ooh, I think Atul might have something to say at that suggestion! 😉 It actually went down well with a fair few folks I dined there with…

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      • Atul? Anyhow anything sweet alongside a savoury in indian food doesn’t really go was like a jam that should’ve been on toast with butter

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      • Atul as in Kochhar – Benares’s head chef! I defend to the death your right to that opinion, but I personally can’t agree with the idea that savoury and sweet can’t work together in Indian food – what about the Gujarati thali, where the sweet is served at the same time as the savoury dishes; Bengali cuisine where folks like a touch of sugar in all sorts; or the hundreds of chaat dishes which brilliantly blend savoury and sweet in a single mouthful?

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