Wednesday, 6 September 2017
What is a Bradford curry?
It starts with a throwaway response to Niamh (Eat Like A Girl) who asked her Twitter followers about their favourite curry - Indian, Malay, Thai and so forth. Like a shot I was there - "Bradford curry, natch". At which point it got a little more difficult because Niamh asked the tricky question about whether there is something uniquely Bradford about a Bradford curry. Hence this little blog post.
Like everywhere else with decent curry in England, Bradford's curry comes originally from the cafes and restaurants that set up to serve the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian diaspora working in mills and factories, driving buses and cleaning toilets. Bradford's oldest curry houses - Karachi, Kashmir, Sweet Centre - have been around for over 60 years serving much the same food now as they did back then. The Bradford curry was probably born in these places - not just the odd habit of serving a plate of chips with the rogan josh or saag ghost but changes in ingredients and the currying of almost everything (although this results in the keema and chips with cheese that they serve at the fab MyLahore) but a slightly different type of curry from that you'll get elsewhere.
Most of Britain's curry is cooked by Bangladeshi chefs in restaurants owned by Bengali immigrants and their descendants. Bradford isn't alone in being different here (although we've some decent Bengali-owned restaurants like Moghul's in Keighley) but it's important to note that Bradford's 'Asian' population is overwhelmingly from a small part of Azad Kahsmir near to the city of Mirpur. The Bradford curry is a wedding of the tastes of these immigrants with the ingredients they could get in a Yorkshire mill city.
I had a beer with a leading Bradford chef (well I had a beer, he didn't), Omar Khan founder of OK's (or Omar Khan's restaurant) on Little Horton Lane opposite the ice rink. Omar was Wold Champion Curry Chef in 1995 with his take on that quintessentially British curry dish, chicken tikka masala. Omar was born in Pakistan but came to Bradford as a boy - he's a Bradfordian first and learned to cook here in the city. I asked him what made a Bradford curry different.
"The curries are all different. Those from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir are simple with only a couple of main ingredients. The Pathans have sweet, creamy curries. And further south the curries are hotter. The colder the climate the colder the curry!"
"But what about Bradford, " I ask, "What makes a Bradford curry?"
"Take my chicken tikka masala. Everywhere else puts cream in it..."
"Yoghurt?" I ask
"Sometimes that, yes. But I don't, that wouldn't be Kashmiri style. Keep it simple. About this much onion." Omar holds his thumb and forefinger about two or three inches apart - I guess a medium onion! He continues:
"Tomatoes. Two or three. Ripe. Garlic clove. Chili powder." (he doesn't say how much chili) "Turmeric."
I ask about spices.
"Put a whole clove or two in for more oomph. Cinnamon stick. Two or three peppercorns. You can grind these up if you want, but better whole."
"Jeera you need jeera. Just crushed."
I interrupt to enthuse. Jeera - cumin - is my favourite spice.
"Crushed in a pestle."
I'm not sure any of this qualifies as the recipe I promised Niamh. When Omar and I cooked this live on a stage at the World Markets Festival (really we did), we used fresh chicken rather than prepared with tikka sauce and the whole thing took about 20-30 minutes. We fed it to Gerry Sutcliffe, the then Labour MP for Bradford South and he's still living!
I guess the thing about the Bradford curry is simplicity. There aren't pages of ingredients just meat and vegetables cooked in spices and served with bread or rice. The classic Bradford curry is a child of Kashmiri home cooking - perhaps more meat and less vegetables than in Kashmir but still that sort of cooking. For me saag ghost - lamb and spinach - is the classic Bradford dish. And, like Omar's CTM, it's simple - no cream, no faffing about, just part-cooked lamb finished off with fresh ingredients and spices in a pan on the stove.
This might just be my take (helped by Omar). I guess I could talk to the other restaurateurs I know for some balance but I suspect defining the Bradford curry will always be a little elusive. It's partly the culture it grew up in - immigrants needing to eat after a shift, lads on a night out wanting to eat, young couples wanting a different but still cheap meal - and partly our memories of cheap formica tables, plastic chairs and no cutlery.
I'm sure other Bradford people will have their own views and experiences - favourites even and do share them - but in the end it's perhaps the shared experience of eating great, cheap food in unpretentious surroundings that defines the Bradford curry experience for most of us.