This month, How to Eat fancies a curry. Eat-in or takeaway? Dishes to share or your own main course? Washed down with beer or wine? And does anyone ever have room for dessert?
Loosen your belt, Britain! How to Eat - the blog seeking to establish an informal code of conduct for Britain's favourite dishes - is back, and this month (with apologies to my Word of Mouth colleague Sejal Sukhadwala), we're having a curry.
Of course, "curry" is shorthand for a vast, complex food culture, not a dish per se, but given the unique way it is enjoyed and eaten in Britain, it made sense to cover it as one. Below the line, please keep the chaat civil, the tone korma. Rogan joshing is fine. Gobi argy-bhaji will not be tolerated.*
* Puns writer's own. The Guardian cannot be held responsible for their poori quality.
Choosing a curry house
No, the supermarket won't do. And who among non-Asians has ever cooked a satisfying curry at home? However, identifying a curry house that is cooking fresh, clearly differentiated dishes is difficult. There are no hard and fast rules. These pointers, though, may help.
• It's south Indian. Bad south Indians must exist, but I've yet to eat in one. Instead, the sensitivity of the spicing in most Tamil or Keralan eateries is revelatory. From light, interesting rices cooked with curry leaves, cashew nuts, mustards seed and lentils, to the thali - the ultimate meal for the indecisive diner - you can't go wrong.
• There are women in the kitchen. A sign that you're in good (often Gujarati) hands.
• It is vegetarian and, therefore, will be working that bit harder to maximise flavour.
• It is a basic, no-frills cafe. It will be cheap at least, and with nothing going for it but the food, likely brilliant.
• There is a waiter outside touting for business.
• No one has bothered to blanch the onions for the "kachumbar", which is just raw onion, ketchup and chilli powder served with thin, cold poppadoms. Conversely, if your poppadoms arrive hot and glossy with a mint chutney, sour with anardana pomegranate powder, you are on to a winner.
• The menu includes innumerable curries both historic (biryani, dopiaza) and bastardised British (korma, tikka masala), with identical descriptions for each. No kitchen is that good; particularly one that sticks king prawns in a rogan josh and chicken in its vindaloo. Everything will arrive in the time it takes to cook some meat and add a jarred sauce.
• XXL naans; hot curry challenges; healthy emphasis on lean chicken breast; monomaniacal ghee reduction: all signs that a venue is - albeit in different ways - pandering to a know-nowt British audience. Give me a gaff cooking scraggy mutton on the bone and chicken thigh in rich gravies enriched with ghee over some modern, halfway (curry)house.
• Also, beware the award-winning Indian restaurant. There seem to be thousands, many touting gongs from unknown bodies, which date back years, if not decades.
Curry house v takeaway
I'm happy to eat in a curry house, of course. But there are significant issues that make takeaway preferable. For instance, there is the ubiquity of crap beers in many Brit curry houses - not just Kingfisher and Cobra, but Tetley Smoothflow too. Also, the bizarre way that, in restaurants that insist on serving everything in dinky metal bowls, you often get a far bigger portion, for lower prices, if you take away.
It is also a matter of comfort. Curry makes pigs of even the most self-disciplined diner. If, by the end of the meal, you still want to walk, rather than have someone cart you out in a wheelbarrow, then you really haven't got involved, have you? Which is why, until curry houses start introducing chaises longues for fattened guests, it will always be preferable to eat at home and - as you scarf the last mouthful of now cold lamb kulcha - flop back on the sofa, sated and burping gently.
Debrett's dictates that a takeaway should be served in china dishes with warmed plates (wide shallow bowls, surely?). But Debrett's can fu ... sorry, I'm forgetting my manners. Debrett's can do one. Clearly, the authors of its Guide to Entertaining Etiquette have never had to bath the kids, tidy the lounge, put a load of washing on, phone for the takeaway and pick it up in the 90 minute window before [insert your favourite TV programme] starts. Next they'll be telling me I've got to use napkins, not kitchen roll, and can't start by scooping up bits of curry with a poppadom (it's an Asian taco!).
When to eat it
There is a common misapprehension that the best time to eat a curry is when you're drunk. In fact, the best time to eat a curry is when you're hungover. There are several reasons for this: you can't be arsed to cook; you're craving carbs; the piquant flavours of a good curry will penetrate the muggy fug in your head like few other foods; eating something with a decent chilli heat feels restorative (erroneous endorphin claims or not); and it's a great excuse to crack open what you really want, which is a belated hair-of-the-dog beer. The existential gloom will lift rapidly and (as it's probably Sunday night), an hour later you will be having a heated debate about why are we still watching this bloody nonsense Homeland?
Curry is a two-and-a-half-course meal. Poppadoms, starters, main course, rice, maybe a side daal. But dessert? Who ever has room for dessert? In fact, it's a fascinating chicken and egg: which came first, bloated British curry eaters or the sad pineapple fritters and bought-in ice-creams which, in a curry house, make passing on dessert so easy?
Notwithstanding an early experience with Indian sweets in Rusholme (I'm still recovering from the sugar rush), I am aware there is a fine Indian dessert tradition of semolina puddings, halwa and shrikhand variations. But will I ever forgo that second seekh kebab to make sure I've still got room to try them? Never in a million years.
A note on sharing ...
Don't do it. Sounds good in theory - various main courses, so you can all try new dishes - but it never works. First, it leads to a mess of mismatched flavours/textures on your plate. Second, deep down, even supposedly adventurous British curry eaters are pretty conservative. Most people have one or two "safety dishes" that they order habitually and, even when they're meant to be exploring off-piste, people always want a core of those familiar dishes on the table as security.
Those dishes are then hotly fought over as people panic-eat, while the exotic stuff goes cold. Choose your own main, unless you're happy to be left with that paneer and aubergine/one-pot duck/hot'n'sour monkfish curry that no one was quite sure about.
It is not the case that with curry you get what you pay for. In many "contemporary" Indian restaurants, you're paying for the flashy lighting and high-back leather chairs. Moreover, I have little interest in the polite refinement of, say, Atul Kochhar's Michelin-starred food. But there are serious, authentic Indian restaurants out there where - hold on to your hats! - the food does justify topping £10 for a main course. Good curry is not necessarily the cheapest curry.
Brief menu highlights ...
Proper lamb rogan josh in a rich, glossy sauce fit for a Kashmiri prince. Expertly marinated adraki chops and juicy seekh kebabs. Pretty much any use of spinach and kasoori methi. The staggering depth of savoury flavour that a conscientious kitchen can draw out of something as simple as sambar (see also channa masala; various daals, particularly daal makhani; many chicken and lentil curries). Vadai and idli. Masala dosa: pancake of the gods; and its close cousin, topped uthappam. Revitalising rasam. The light, sweet'n'sour, singsong joys of bhelpuri and other Gujarati chaat snacks, such as cinnamon-spiked kachori. Keralan cabbage thoran or "beef chaps". Tawa-fried seabass. Keema curries - go on, admit it: it is the easy, unsophisticated option, but that minced lamb is like filthy, curried crack.
... and the lowlights
Okra: never welcome. Raisin- or date-studded, fruity peshwari naans, an unholy marriage of sweet and savoury. Likewise, rogue pineapple chunks in a dhansak. Dried-out chicken tikka with the obligatory desultory, never eaten side salad. Almost all meek'n'mild, creamily inoffensive curries in the tikka masala, korma and (snigger) nut-sauce field. Biryani: the deluxe curry, supposedly, but there is never quite enough sauce, is there? A handful of Goan restaurants notwithstanding, all those vindaloos that swap garlic and vinegar-based complexity (and pork!) for raw heat.
What to drink
Beer. Nothing too complex, just a proper lager or a pale, dry, crisply hoppy ale. It may be called India Pale Ale, but that big hop-bomb wasn't designed to be drunk with curry. Pineapple juice and tonic's cutting edge works, too. Water. No wine. Lassi I'll take the fifth on. I can't stick yoghurt.
If you've been to India and the food there was just ah-may-zing, and, like, totally different to what we get here, yeah? Please shut up about it.
So, curry: how do you eat yours?
Photo: A thali: the ultimate meal for the indecisive diner. Photograph: Alamy