Walk in to any curry house in Britain and you’re likely to find a blueprint menu of the same dishes. Comforting for some, frustrating for others, but there’s a very ingenious reason why.
The curry house has been a mainstay of the British culinary scene since the 60s when the first significant wave of south Asian people settled in British towns. By 1980 there were roughly 3,000 curry houses in the country, a number that was set to explode over the following decade.
As Bee Wilson wrote in the Guardian, Manchester began to promote the largely Pakistani restaurants of its famous Curry Mile as part of a trade renaissance, and many cities followed suit. The balti was invented in Birmingam, the tikka masala in Glasgow. Shoreditch became home to hundreds of curry houses and by 2011 there were some 12,000 in existence across the country.
Chief to their success was a very economical way of making curry at scale. As Wilson remarks, “was any food ever so thoughtfully designed to please its audience as the early curry house menus? Each day, the chefs cooked up a gigantic vat of “base sauce” which could be adjusted to varying degrees of hotness and creaminess to suit the diners’ tastes”. That would then be drizzled in a pan of ghee, cooked meat and vegetables.
The sauce, which consisted of onions, carrots, ginger, garlic, turmeric and other spices in an all-purpose gravy could then be adjusted and turned in to a whole plethora of dishes. A menu’s worth, in fact.
Add a red peppers and green chillis and it became a jalfrezi. Add yoghurt, garam masala and almonds, the same sauce transformed into a pasanda.
And there you have the origin of the curry house menu.