As Robin Cook announced last year, chicken tikka masala is now Britain's most popular dish. Twenty-three million portions are sold in Indian restaurants each year. For high-street retailers, too, it's a huge money spinner – Marks & Spencer food departments alone sell 18 tonnes of the stuff a week. It's a dish that was, in fact, created specifically to appeal to British tastes (try to order it in India or Pakistan and they won't know what you're talking about). But have you ever wondered what goes into this unctuous orange concoction? New research suggests that the contents of your average chicken tikka masala leave a great deal to be desired.
A survey conducted by analytical chemists Eurofins Scientific showed that almost half of London's Indian restaurants may be using unnecessary and potentially dangerous amounts of food colourings in the dish. Samples were tested from restaurants across London, and around 46 per cent were found to contain hefty levels of artificial colourings, including tartrazine, sunset yellow and ponceau 4R, which is banned in the US. The interim report says that in these samples, colouring levels were in excess of the 500mg per kg permitted by food regulations. High doses of such additives have been linked to asthma, rashes and digestive problems.
The study suggests that some restaurants may be chucking colour powder in rather recklessly, "either judged by eye, or spooned in". And it's not just the colourings in a typical Indian takeaway that give cause for concern. According to nutritionist Patrick Holford, author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible, "a chicken tikka masala is way too high in fat. It's not Indian food itself that's the problem – we could all do with eating more beans and lentils – it is the way it is prepared. There is no question that a diet steeped in fat increases the risk of cancer and heart disease."
Few would suggest that eating traditional Indian takeaways every night of the week would be a healthy option, but according to Tania Ahsan, the editor of Tandoori Magazine, Indian restaurants are unfairly singled out. "If Indian restaurants are producing food against regulations, that is wrong," she says. "But stories tend to focus on Indian restaurants more than, say, Italian restaurants, because Indian food is reasonably priced."
Most Indian restaurants have menus tailored to British tastes. And if customers demandluridly coloured dishes, then they only have themselves to blame for the results, Ahsan believes. "Historically, customers have wanted that almost nuclear red, glowing colour, and it's not possible to get that bright colour naturally," she says.
While it's unlikely that such sloppy, luminous concoctions will disappear from our nation's restaurants any time soon, we can all make healthy choices within Indian cuisine, at least as far as fat content goes. "As with any other food, some Indian dishes are going to have a higher fat content than others," she says. "Choose chicken tikka – boneless marinated chicken, barbecued or grilled – rather than masala, which is a richer, creamier dish."
Top Indian chef Udit Sarkhel also leaps to the defence of curry when it comes to the colouring controversy. "If you go to a bakery and buy a cake with a pink or green topping, it contains colourings," he says. "Sugar is not that colour. As long as colourings are used in sensible amounts, then they're OK."
So how can we tell between a good and a bad curry? "A garish red colour is not normal. It would point to artificial colouring," says Sarkhel. "Ideally a chicken tikka masala should be light orange, which would show that it contained paprika."
So there's no need to switch to Thai or sushi just yet. But remember, when it comes to curry, red can mean danger.
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