The easiest way to answer this question is to start by looking at curry houses. Note that curry houses are not Indian restaurants in London. They are, rather, what people who have never been to an Indian restaurant in London is until they go to an Indian restaurant.
To navigate our way through the thicket of clauses above, we’ll look at an imaginary curry house on a hypothetical London high street. There are enough of them around, and we’ve all had some experience of their food. It comes in a metal dish, normally, and is distinguishable only by three things: the shade of red or yellow of the dish; the type of meat or vegetable floating in the sauce; and the level of heat experienced by the eater.
It is undeniably true that the diner in a curry house, whether he or she chooses a Korma or a Vindaloo, is opting for a meal mainly based on the perceived level of heat in the sauce rather than any specific flavours. This is nowhere truer than when you look at the difference between a Jalfrezi as served in a curry house, and a Jalfrezi as delivered to table by an Indian restaurant in London.
The curry house Jalfrezi is essentially a hot red sauce with some green chillies in it. This is combined with whatever meat or vegetable combination the diner orders – and has an overriding flavour of nothing, because the heat takes it all away.
The same dish, served in a proper Indian restaurant in London combines the charred flavour of expertly cooked vegetables and/or meats with a deep pungent bite, a combination of tomatoes, garlic and fresh chillies surrounded by the earthy flavours of a selection of appropriate spices. It has warmth that complements the tastes of the vegetables and meats used in the dish, without overpowering them.
This is not the only example whereby curry house food pales into insignificance next to the real thing. Taste, texture and aroma are just the beginning.
In a proper Indian restaurant in London, dishes tend to be tied to regions – just as they are in India itself. An Indian restaurant may choose to provide only dishes from one region – as is the case with places where all the chefs come from that part of the continent – or it may decide to take the best of regional cuisine from a number of areas and give the diner a selection of flavour styles to choose from.
This is true in particular of the Thali, a dish that is served all over India but which has specific regional variations to identify it. A Gujrati Thali is vegetarian and seasoned with the signature salt, sweet and heat combination familiar to the region. Thalis from other regions incorporate different spices and may include some meat dishes.
The Thali is designed to promote a healthy, balanced meal by providing controlled small portions of a number of dishes rather than a single large portion of one single element.
Shannen is a freelance writer based in Denbighshire. Shannen is a big fan of dining out and Indian restaurants having experienced some of the best Indian restaurant in London personally. Shannen enjoys spending time out in the garden and going to the cinema with her partner in her spare time.
Copyright Shannen © STI