When Indian food first invaded the British Isles it took a long time for the nation's palate to develop, distinguish and welcome the exotic blend of spices offered throughout Indian cuisine. The British now consume curry as part of their average diet and with over 15,000 Indian restaurants across Britain and over one billion pounds a year spent on Indian food, it's simple to see why many joke that curry is now the national dish.
Far from consuming the watered down Anglisized versions of Indian food that first invaded the area, restaurants now offer a wide range of authentic dishes from all over India. Food presented to discerning palates that are finally starting to understand and appreciate the vast combinations of flavor on offer when it comes to Indian cuisine.
As the Indian born chef Atul Kochhar, who owns the Benares restaurant in London, says, "Attitudes towards Indian food have changed quite a lot - the last ten years or so British people have travelled a lot more to India...People are recognising there is really is nothing called Indian food and that it's very very tribal, a very region orientated cuisine. British people have slowly started to understand this and people are now constantly questioning whether they're eating Punjabi food, Gujarati, Kerala or Tamil food."
Kochhar is known for his part in elevating Indian cuisine to a Michelin standard and bringing the food of his homeland to new heights. He was one of the first Indian chefs in London to get a Michelin star and he's flown the flag for authentic Indian cuisine throughout his career, vocally disagreeing, or as he says, 'cracking the whip' with restaurants who toned down on authentic tradition to please British palates. The chef now spends much of his time in London and India and says he has slowly noticed a shift in how the British appreciate foods from different parts of his country.
"The best thing that's happened in the UK is that people now recognize how Indian food should be. For example, Tandori chicken that could be the king of Indian food is not really the king of Indian food, in fact it's rarely found outside the North of the country but five years ago no one in Britain knew this."
Kochhar recalls the experience of a friend of his and chef at the South Indian Quilon restaurant in London. "I remember when the chef first opened the restuarant and he would litarally cry saying that people come and look at the menu and say 'what you're not doing nann? We're not eating here'. I actually understand it from a British perspective but it's sad for a poor chef who excels in South Indian Food. Naan wouldn't be served outside North India period. Even people in the South would see Naan as a foreighn food.
This was at the beginning for Quilon but now things have changed. The restaurant picked up its first Michelin star in 2008 and has retained the accolade ever since. Perhaps this one restaurant exemplifies the cultural change that's occurred throughout Britain. The start of a new evolution for Indian food where restaurants proudly display their region and the British people start to find a whole new level of appreciation for the complexities of the food on offer.
It's a cultural shift that Kochhar is more than happy with, "It's already happening that the British are starting to understand this distinction between different regions of Indian food and this is only going to continue to grow - that's a really heart warming thing for me."
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