Of course, they can't really curry flavour

The royal cuisine of India will not fit between the two halves of a woolly sesame bun
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The Independent Online
LONDON'S Westbourne Grove, between gloomy Paddington and smart Notting Hill, has been jam-packed with Indian restaurants for over 30 years now. As the world has shrunk, so the range of tastes has expanded, and in these cosmopolitan days the road offers a more eclectic mix. In the course of a five-minute stroll the hungry passer-by can hesitate between Spanish, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Italian, South African, Austrian, Moroccan, Greek, Turkish and Lebanese food.

But the road still smells of curry: there are eight Indian restaurants within 100 yards of one another. Today, though, there are a couple of new kids on the block - or just round the corner. Some weeks ago, Burger King introduced a whimsical new line of spicy-sounding Masala Burgers for just 99p. They have proved popular.

"Yes, we get people coming in for them specially," said one of the salesmen at nearby Notting Hill. There's not much to them - a routine burger-in- a-bun with a couple of onion rings and a dab of savoury mayonnaise - but they are selling well enough for Burger King to consider putting them on its menu permanently.

McDonald's has responded by coming up with its own Indian menu, which it is promoting heavily on television. The adverts are fun - parodies of the comically stiff commercials that used to run in local cinemas - though of course they rely for this fun on the idea that real Indian food is somewhat naff compared to the chic new McChicken Korma.

I didn't notice Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant sloping off for a curry in Notting Hill. But Indian food is a well-established staple of British life. We all love vindaloo. The Asian sitcom Goodness Gracious Me has even been able to lampoon its role in our lives through characters who suggest nipping out for an English. There are 8,000 Indian restaurants; the best-selling product at Marks and Spencer is chicken tikka masala.

It is hard to believe that the new ethnic fast-food snacks will have a serious impact on the Indian restaurant trade as such, since these curryburgers bear only a notional resemblance to Indian food. But they are cheap, and not surprisingly the genuine Indian chefs are peeved.

"What has curry got to do with them?" said Zaheer Shafi at The Standard in Westbourne Grove. His restaurant was founded by a pair of friends in 1962. One went off to create the bulk-curry brasserie Khans, about two doors away; the other has remained, and still runs the kitchen downstairs, knocking out his original Butter Chicken to a faithful clientele which includes touring members of Pakistan's cricket team. Shafi is from Pakistan, but is happy to call his food Indian.

"It's king's food," he said. "It's from northern India, from the Moghul palaces. The Nawabs all used to have their own cooks coming up with special dishes. There are hundreds of recipes that are never used here: all the different pasandas and dahls. So it's a royal cuisine, whereas these fast food joints ..." He shook his head. "I mean, they're just American junk. We do a burger, if you want to call it that: it's nan bread stuffed with mushrooms or meat. And it's just greed to call what they do a korma. It has nothing to do with Indian cookery.

"They don't use any of the spices - garlic, ginger - that are healthy. They come up with these things to make money."

Mr Shafi was for some reason reluctant to join me for a Lamb McSpicy up at Notting Hill, so I had to go by myself. What to say? It was hideous, of course. But reader, I ate it.

And I tried like hell to imagine a lamb, or even a lamb-style flavour, though it was hard to taste much through the smear of toothpasty yoghurt in the salad leaves.

The vegetable samosas were hot little triangles of greasy batter wrapped round a smudge of what seemed like baby food, or tinned soup. And the Chicken McNasty - sorry, Korma - was an ugly beast: a pounded chicken nugget slapped into peppery pitta bread with a dollop of sweet mango gravy.

"I shouldn't mind, but it is insulting," said Mr Shafi. "It's as if Indian food is cheap junk, on a level with hamburgers. I could make them a great Indian burger. I can't tell you what it is, but it would be beautiful, and it would revolutionise the industry. I challenge them. They don't even have to put any money up front."

There's a long, moving history behind Indian food in this country. Every time we dip a poppadom into our dhansaks and dupiazas we can hear a faint echo of Robert Clive, Tipu Sultan, the Indian Mutiny, Amritsar, Gandhi and The Jungle Book. It isn't easy to find these resonances in a woolly sesame bun. If anything, the curryburgers symbolise a more modern imperialism: the plundering of far-off tastes.

Champagne marques go to law to defend their brand names against such corruption. Perhaps Indian chefs should do the same.

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