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Shopping: Taking pot luck on a bought-in curry

Do the new range of sauces tickle the taste-buds?
Take five foodie men, three hungry women and a kitchen in Clapham. Mix well, dilute with lager and add curry sauces one by one. Leave to simmer and remember to stir occasionally. When a colourful press release landed on my desk a few weeks ago describing The Curry Sauce Company, and its range of fresh and natural gourmet curry sauces, there was nothing for it but to call some in and invite round a group of curryholics to give it a serious testing against the competition.

From Booker prize-winning The God of Small Things to Fat Les and "Vindaloo", things Indian - and in particular curry - have never been more fashionable. Despite its very anglican origins, tikka masala is still apparently the most popular British curry dish, so this seemed the natural flavour to put to the test.

The tasting started off well. "That's fantastic" was Matthew's comment when the Curry Sauce Company's finest tikka masala hit his tastebuds, hastily followed by "no, it is good, really". Pascal thought it vinegary and Simon wondered whether the vinegar was concealing something. El liked the blend of spices and thought it had a good, natural texture, but less well received was the Marks and Spencer's sauce which was deemed by all as not particularly tempting. The sauce was perfectly pleasant but went down more like a strolling, spicy gravy than a fox-trotting, sharp sauce. Joe even asked whether it was curry.

Patak's tikka masala came in for a similar bashing from Joe, who compared it to baby-food. After several beers, Matthew was describing curries in terms of textiles, and this one was sadly a definite brown corduroy. Charlotte and Pascal agreed that it was bland and just tasted of masses of chilli powder, but Simon was the most scathing. "If I was served this in an Indian restaurant, I would send it back," he spluttered.

More popular was Tesco's fresh tikka masala. The consistency, although creamy (Pascal described it as "Italian Bombay"), had big chunks of onion in it that gave it a home-made feel, and the spices were more subtle than the rest of the competition so far. The "healthy eating" sauce was not a winner. It was variously described as sweet and sour (Matthew), hot- dog topping (Simon) and a dollop of artificial thickening (Pascal). Richard, who had been busy cooking his own curry, felt it was getting hard to tell the sauces apart, and suggested we should cleanse our tastebuds with something. Luckily Simon was on hand to pass him a cold beer.

On to the Tilda and Madhur Jaffrey sauce and, according to Simon, this is exactly the kind of thing he would bring home if he fancied an Indian meal. Charlotte described it as being a lot more balanced and back to the more appealing shade of the Curry Sauce Company's blend - some of the others had been a bit ketchupy.

Finally, for good measure, a Homepride curry (rather than tikka masala) cook-in-sauce was proffered to the testing table to see whether the comments were all just hot air. The judgement? It looked like toffee, was the wrong colour for tikka masala, tasted like school curry and, as Richard quipped, "the only place this belongs is on top of chips".

The truth is, a bought-in tikka masala will never taste as good as it will in an Indian restaurant, but, if you do want to have a go at home - and Richard's home-made "control" sauce on Wednesday evening was far more popular than any of the tested sauces - take yourself off to Leicester on 20-22 November for a Taste of Asia weekend (0116 254 7400 for details), and learn how it's done.

The Sauces

Tikka masala, pounds 23.10 for six pots, The Curry Sauce Company (01428 685440)

St Michael tikka masala, pounds 1.39, Marks and Spencer (0171 935 4422 for stockists)

Patak's tikka masala, 89p, Tesco (0800 505555)

Fresh tikka masala, pounds 1.49 , Tesco (0800 505555)

Healthy eating tikka masala, pounds 1.19, Tesco (0800 505555)

Tilda and Madhur Jaffrey tikka masala, pounds 1.49, Tesco (0800 505555)

Homepride curry sauce, 85p, Tesco (0800 505555)


Curry Kit

A TRUE curry experience demands the best so splash out on Mango chutney, pounds 2.95, and Pear and Cardamom chutney, pounds 2.95, both from Harvey Nichols, (0171 235 5000 for mail order) and serve your poppadoms on a sleek brass plate, pounds 10 from The General Trading Company (0171 730 0411)

ONE OF the rules of entertaining is to impress your guests with the proper equipment. If it's a balti or karhai you're cooking, serve it sizzling in a shiny silver bowl. this one is part of the Madhur Jaffrey non-stick Karhai cooking set, pounds 19.99, Argos (0870 6003030 for nearest store)

DESPITE THE poor performance of Patak's tikka masala sauce, Patak's Mild Lime Pickle, which costs pounds 1.59 from Planet Organic (0171 221 7171), can't be bettered. And, if you prefer variety in your condiments, Patak's does a whole range of pickles and chutneys including tomato and mango

FRESH INGREDIENTS are most definitely the way forward in Indian cooking but the great thing about them is that you don't have to travel far to find them. These green chillis, 79p for 20g, and large mango, 99p, are both available from your local Sainsbury's (enquiries 0800 636262)

It is a well known fact that curry and lager go together like bees and honey - for want of a better expression - but, as we're talking the ultimate curry here, the beer has to be Indian. A large bottle of Cobra beer is the perfect drink and costs pounds 1.30 from Bluebird (0171 559 1153 for mail order)

FOR THE perfect ready-made dessert, indulge in a large tub of Hill station Cardamom ice cream to share, pounds 3.95 from Harvey Nichols (0171 235 5000 for mail order). The flavour is delicious, thanks to being steeped overnight before freezing; and even those with the smallest appetite will be tempted

HELP SHED any connotations of lager-lout behaviour from the curry scene by investing in this set of horn bowls and rice spoons. New to their collection, they cost from pounds 6.50 through Bombay Duck (0181 749 8001) and, being both handsome and delicate, this is just the tableware you need

CONJURE UP images of sultry Indian evenings by dressing your dining table with a bunch of small and sweet Caribbean bananas, four for 69p, prepacked, Sainsbury (enquiries 0800 636262). The good thing is that, if your guests are not ice-cream fans, they will double up as dessert too

IF YOU are in a hurry then it's easy to neglect the details of a meal but, for the serious curryholic, there is nothing to beat a soft and fluffy pile of basmati rice gleaming up at you from your plate. A 2kg bag costs pounds 3.79 from Tesco (enquiries 0800 505555) and is money well spent

WHAT BETTER way to serve your high class pickles on than layer upon crispy layer of spicy poppadums, pounds 1.19 for eight, from Tesco (0800 505555). For the kitchen, Madhur Jaffrey's non-stick Karhai cooking set, pounds 19.99, Argos (0870 6003030 for nearest store) includes this large and useful pan