Let spices reheat bland ambitions

08 June 2006
Let spices reheat bland ambitions

We are often told how much we love spice. Asian restaurants are more popular in Britain than anywhere else in the Western world; curry, we are told, has overtaken fish and chips as our national dish. The explanation? Britain's spice-trading history and our willingness to assimilate foreign influences.

Why, then, when I go to my neighbourhood curry house, are most of my fellow diners feasting on chicken tikka masala and chicken korma? Why does the local Thai restaurant serve chicken nuggets with a vaguely spicy ketchup, followed by a green chicken curry so sweet it makes your fillings ache?

The truth is that what we really love is sugar, cream, coconut, tomato purée and anything crunchy and deep-fried. Spice hardly comes into it, unless you count chilli-laden vindaloos for the post-pub brigade.

Twenty years ago, when the first Thai restaurants appeared in Britain, the food was fresh, authentically cooked and exciting. Now, however, freshly made pastes have been replaced with mass-market sweet-and-bland. Vietnamese cuisine, equally exciting a few years ago, is heading the same way.

Many of the "new wave" of upmarket Indian restaurants are equally guilty. Sauces are toned down, chicken breast replaces flavoursome leg meat, boneless lamb stands in for mutton shank, and effete towers of dumbed-down, ladies-who-lunch, India-lite concoctions wobble on designer plates.

Where are the slow-cooked spiced gravies, the fugitive wafts of cardamom and ginger, the warm, pungent, earthy, scented treasures of Indian cooking?

Many of the restaurants which started as admirable showcases for authentic regional Indian cooking seem to have lost their bottle, or have been seduced into Michelin star-chasing prissiness.

Indian food does not have to be presented in a European style to achieve respectability. It should stand on its own as one of the world's great cuisines, and flick a couple of fingers at the tyre salesmen.

There are, of course, exceptions. And I accept that Asian chefs and restaurateurs have to make money, and perhaps authentic, well-spiced cooking does not go down as well as the ersatz cuisine that they and their customers have colluded in inventing.

"Neighbourhood" should not mean dull, bland and repetitive, however, and "upmarket" should not try to ape the worst excesses of French "fine dining".

Spices, after all, add much to the variety of life.

What's your favourite fast food?

Bill Toner, Former Aramark UK chief executive

"KFC. I like the tat and flavour of it, and still convince myself that it's slightly healthy - on the basis that it's chicken."

Iqbal Wahhab,owner,Roast

"The only fast food I eat is in Bomby on Juhu Beach. I have pani puri - a pastry shell in which there is a fiery water spiked with tamarind and chilli topped with chickpeas. You put it in your mouth and it explodes inside. It's wonderful."

Tim Bacon, managing director, Living Ventures

"I have a practilor passion for Indian food. I love the spice, the variety and the fact you can mix and match your dishes - it gives the meal lots of flexibility."

Brett Graham, executive chef, the Ledbury

"There's a place on Fulham High Street in west London called Fishers. Normally, I would never eat fish and chips, but this place does the best cod and hcips in London."

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