Exporting curry to India might seem as futile as it once was to carry coals to Newcastle, but the subcontinent is proving an increasingly lucrative market for British chefs offering their own interpretations and ingredients.
Dev Biswal is among the UK names whose trade is taking off in the ancestral home of the curry. He has received backing from a group of businessmen to open a new restaurant next year and is also preparing to front a television cookery series.
But the executive chef of the Ambrette restaurants in Margate and Rye still has a few challenges to overcome with recipes including pigeon and venison – especially when it comes to cheese, as he discovered on a recent trip to India.
“One thing which didn’t go down well with one guest was a Kentish Blue cheese, which I will recreate paneer dishes with,” he said. “He ran to the washroom to wash out his mouth out and said he’d never tasted anything so disgusting.”
He was undeterred, however, and is far from alone in his ambitions. Another champion of the British curry is Enam Ali, chairman of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs, who has been offered a proposal from Kolkata to open a branch of his successful Surrey restaurant Le Raj.
Mr Ali, who supplied Indian cuisine during last year’s London Olympics, said: “The cooking process is different as in India they cook with a big pot like a Mogul dinner. In London, they have followed the French and English, cooking one dish individually. Bill Gates [the Microsoft chairman] said to me during the Olympics our lamb curry was better than in India.”
But will Indians welcome the rebranding of curry, or see it as patronising and another form of colonialism? Even the word curry is rarely used in India, and actually refers to the sauce rather than the dish itself.
Syed Ahmed, who recently hosted the Taste of Britain Curry Festival in Kolkata, is not worried. Such was the success of last month’s event that he has been invited back next year and will partner with the British Government.
Mr Ahmed, the editor of Curry Life magazine, said: “We had a fantastic response. UK Trade and Investment and us are working together to partner up with a hotel in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata to do a much bigger event in 2014. We did a lot of fusion dishes, experimenting with regional dishes like Yorkshire pudding – not using beef for religious reasons, but roast lamb with a spicy twist.”
But one of India’s leading food authors, Rashmi Uday Singh, is not so sure. “The British version of our curry would definitely not be accepted here. We are too used to the vibrancy of our hand-pounded masalas made to traditional recipes. There’s no question of the British version of curry being healthier… It’s just more bland and less authentic. “
This is echoed by Pat Chapman, the author of the Cobra Good Curry Guide. “The reaction of all of my Indian friends to the British curry is one of disdain,” he said. “I have my doubts that British cuisine will take off in India.”
Let the balti battle commence.