Carrying coals to Newcastle is an old British idiom which means ” doing something fruitless or pointless”. Newcastle upon Tyne was a port noted for it’s coal exports ; to carry coals to Newcastle was therefore doomed to failure. I was reminded of the idiom by a recent news item about the Taste of Britain Curry Festival being held in Calcutta ( modern day Kolkata).
Indian food is very big in Britain and some so-called Indian dishes actually originated in England , among them Chicken Tikka Masala and Balti Chicken.IAccording to Syed Nahas Pasha, editor-in-chief of Curry Life magazine, Indian food employs more than 100,000 people in Britain and brings in over $ 6 billion ( yes ,6 billion dollars ) in revenue each year. In modern British novels , the characters are forever popping into the corner takeaway for a vindaloo or a chicken makhani. Indeed, Chicken tikka masala is so popular that some sources even claim it should be Britain’s national dish , displacing old favorites such as Fish and Chips ,Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding and Steak & Kidney Pie.
While the purpose of the festival, introducing Indian palates to British Indian cooking , is laudable I think some of its stated goals are wishful thinking. Syed Bilal Ahmed, director of the Taste of Britain Curry Festival, says the British curry is “healthier, has better ingredients, and is milder” than the Indian version. Partha Mithra , a chef from Chester echoes those sentiments saying “… (it) has less oil, less spices, less colour and less salt and sugar. That means you can eat more curries and that’s more money for us.” They, and some of their fellow chefs , hope that it is the beginning of big things for British-Indian food and that it may one day result in restaurants serving such food in India.
I agree that British Indian cooking uses better ingredients and is (perhaps )more healthful but I doubt that it will be anything more than a short lived novelty. I feel that Shaun Kenworthy( a British-trained chef now based in Calcutta) is on the mark when he says “I think people are so used to what they have eaten all their lives, to change it is almost a sin. The kind of yellow dhal (lentils) they have, or chicken makhani (mild curry), have to be cooked a certain way and they cannot be any different.” Anglicised versions of Indian food are just not going to cut it. An Indian customer said after sampling the food said ” Indians like their food to be spicy and they will find this a bit bland.’
Spiciness is one of the trademarks of Indian food ; otherwise, it’s just not the same. It’s like Korean kimchi , one of whose defining characteristics is it’s odor. A woman chef in Seoul developed a process an odorless kimchi. As far as I know , her product was not successful… without the odor, it just wasn’t kimchi. Same goes for Indian food, it just has to be spicy.
Indians may also find the prices to be higher than they are willing to pay.Fusion food , and this is fusion food, is generally more expensive than the traditional and I doubt that Indians, who are well known for their frugality, will shell out extra for it.
Indian fusion restaurants have been successful outside of India and I myself have been to one in Washington D.C. Rasika in our nation’s capital is extremely popular but the clientele , when we ate there, consisted of non-Indians and business types on expense accounts. The food was good and a couple of the innovative dishes were excellent but I don’t think I would go there on a regular basis.
British Indian food in Calcutta … Coals to Newcastle.