In a nation that has decided Indian food is to die for, Britain's fast-food chains are committing hurry curry.
Things are so lean for the burger business here that McDonald's, Burger King, Wimpy and other hamburger outlets have started offering their own quick-serve versions of traditional Indian curry dishes.
The advent of new menus like McDonald's "Curry and Spice" and Burger King's "Curry in a Hurry" reflects a fundamental fact of British gastronomy: Indian food has replaced traditional English offerings and American fast food as the first choice of family diners.
It used to be that the menu in any local pub or restaurant was as predictable as the year-round soggy weather. There would be bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), bubble and squeak (cabbage and potatoes), toad-in-the-hole (sausage in a muffin), English roast with Yorkshire pudding (roast beef with a popover) and, of course, fish and chips.
But when American fast-food chains invaded in the 1960s, the Yankee hamburger moved to the front burner. Today, with 930 outlets, the U.S. favorite, McDonald's, is Britain's largest restaurant business. American fast-food mores have become so mainstream that British children nowadays routinely ask for french fries when ordering what their parents know as "chips."
American burger stands proved such a bonanza that established British food firms decided to join rather than fight. Burger King and its famous Whopper may seem as American as apple pie, but the multinational chain is owned by Diageo, the British food and beverage giant that makes Guinness Stout.
In the 1990s, though, the hottest thing in British restaurants has been hot and spicy Indian and Pakistani food. Just 20 years ago, the whole nation had just a few hundred curry shops, mainly found in immigrant neighborhoods of London and other major cities. Today, there are nearly 9,000 curry restaurants scattered over the British Isles, according to the Asian Balti Restaurant Association. That's four times the number of hamburger outlets.
Indeed, the most common Indian entree in England, the association says, is a dish that was invented not in Bombay but in Birmingham. The ubiquitous "balti"--the name comes from the Punjabi word for "small bucket"--is a bucket-shaped bowl of meat, seafood or vegetable stew with a hearty curry flavor.
There are varying degrees of spiciness in balti dishes, ranging from the mild "korma" and "masala" to the pungent "Madras" and the nuclear-powered "vindaloo." Among the pub-crawling, beer-swilling twenty-somethings known here as the "new lads" and "new ladettes," it is a standard rite of passage to sit down with a group of friends and try to finish an entire bowl of vindaloo balti--an explosive concoction in which the curry flavor is overwhelmed by ferocious South Asian chili peppers.
"Vindaloo," in fact, has become a synonym for "powerful" here. Rowdy British soccer fans have adopted the word as their favorite cheer, which explains why major games are accompanied by raucous shouts of Vin-da-loooo floating over the stands.
"We are being rather clever when we serve this vindaloo," says Javid Choudhary, a Birmingham restaurateur who heads the association of curry shops. "The young people always want to try the hottest, and for that reason we are selling more beer. If you are eating vindaloo, you need lager."
It was inevitable that the big fast-food chains--in Britain, they prefer the term "quick-service restaurants"--would move to capitalize on the curry craze. "Curry is the U.K.'s favorite dish, even beating the traditional Sunday roast," says McDonald's spokesman Jackie Graveney. "Our new Curry and Spice range has been very popular."
Fast-food chains don't serve alcohol here, and their family-oriented clientele is not exactly the vindaloo-type crowd. Accordingly, Burger King's "Masala Burger" and McDonald's "McChicken Korma Naan" and "Lamb McSpicy" are all mildly flavored, compared with standard Indian-restaurant fare.
Still, my family of fast-food fans, who have eaten under the golden arches on three continents, found the lamb sandwich and accompanying vegetable samosas to be the spiciest items they've eaten in any McDonald's. The kids liked the new dishes--but will probably go back to burgers on their next visit.
All the fast-food chains report marked success with their hurried curries, despite outright sneers from fans of the real thing. "I appreciate the novelty of the McChicken Korma Naan," wrote food critic Kirsty Walker of London's Daily Express, "but I would rather eat concrete."
Comments like that are welcome, of course, at the Asian Balti Restaurant Association. "Yes, we are being flattered by the imitation," Choudhary says. "But if the competition puts out this bland and rubbery food, the real balti restaurants will not be worrying."