Great British Memories (Notes from a return home) #2
#2 CURRYING FLAVORS (a.k.a traveling the UK Spice Route)
In the old days, when I flew British Airways back to the UK (before the airline went downhill), it was no surprise that they served us vegetarians a curry as our main in-flight course; after all, everyone knows that once exotic Indian food is now everyday British food, and this being British Airways etc. … But it’s something of a shock that the otherwise all-American Continental Airlines should act likewise. In fact it comes as a rude awakening, all too literally, when I’m aroused from my slumber on the last flight out of Newark to find a curry in front of me. The unspoken insinuation is clear: it may be 11:30pm at night, you may have eaten already, you may well be fast asleep, but you ordered a special meal, we went to all the trouble of loading it onto the plane and if we can’t actually force it down your throat, we’re damned well going to wake you up so you can face up to how much you’ve inconvenienced us. (And just to prove that we don’t take orders lightly, you’ll notice we’ve started charging you for your drinks. And your second suitcase. Be lucky we aren’t charging you for your curry, too.) Out of enforced obligation and a sense that there isn’t much else to do now that I am, indeed, awake again, I tuck in. Peas, carrots, rice, spice. Doesn’t sound too attractive, but it’s a passable curry, and it stays with me – in fact, it repeats itself – all the way to Manchester and across the Pennines to Yorkshire, where my mother picks me up at the local station in what is now early English afternoon. She asks if I’d like a home-made curry over the next couple of nights as a welcome home dish, and, Continental’s rendition still bouncing round my time-zone confused stomach, I politely decline. I’ll probably have my fill of them while I’m here, I state.
I’m not wrong. It’s only a few days later before I hook up with my nephew in Manchester and he takes me to an Asian franchise place. It’s not Indian, and it’s not exactly curry, but it reminds me that the English these days love their spicy food almost as much as their foreign pints of lager. And then I head down to the south coast, to my best mate’s house in Bexhill for a Saturday night out… Pagey’s a rabid meat eater but, as just noted, he’s also a best mate, so he has cooked up – alright, his wife has cooked up – a vegetable lentil curry for the night. We eat it in between visits to the pub(s), and I have to say, it’s great. The next morning, our friend Lee drives over from Brighton, and Pagey has already decided where we should go to celebrate: a Bexhill restaurant called The Gurkhas, serving Nepalese food, much of which is curried, and all of which is spiced (though moderately so, the menu stresses, purposefully distinguishing itself from its Indian neighbors). It is, not incidentally, fantastic, and if you ever find yourself in Bexhill, make a point of getting over there: it’s only a stone’s throw from the wonderful De La Warr Pavilion (which is hosting both Fema Kuti and Coca Rosie this spring), and though the décor is spartan to the point of bland, the food and service is anything but. In addition, it serves both Nepal Ice and Gurkha lager, the former of which is actually brewed and bottled in the mountains of Nepal (with English hops, I wonder?). If it was to my long-term benefit that I didn’t partake of one of these beers, given that I was driving back to London that same afternoon, it was certainly to my a short-term disappointment: non-alcoholic beer doesn’t wash curry down quite the same way.
Curry for dinner then, followed by curry for lunch. When I get back to London that evening, it’s almost comically predictable that my hostess Jeni has cooked up a pot of food to keep us going through the week: a vegetable curry. It’s endemic of something about the British. I’d say it’s an epidemic, but that would suggest there’s something wrong with it – and Jeni’s vegetable curry, just like my Bexhill friend’s homemade lentil one, and the Gurkhas’ butternut squash dish, is quite superb. It serves at least two more meals over the next few days. I’m beginning to feel like a proper Englishman once more.
Still, you can perhaps understand why, when I return to Yorkshire, and my mother picks me up at the local station, and asks if I’d like her to cook a curry over the next couple of nights, I politely decline. I’ve had my fill of them while I’ve been here, I state. And I could have an even bigger fill if I liked: over Easter Weekend, as I frequent Beverly town centre, I count no less than five Indian restaurants, more than there are Chinese takeaways, or British chip shops, or indeed, any other kind of national food representation.
We end as we start, on the flight back from Manchester, with the Continental staff bringing round the veggie “special”. This time they don’t have to wake me up to force-feed me, and this time I definitely don’t have to lift the foil to know what I am being served. It’s early in the day – a Monday, at that – and I don’t desperately like eating on planes anyway; I always wish I had the resolve to pack my own healthy food and not spend the flights that chase the sun west-ward by picking and eating at every snack put in front of me (and many that aren’t) and always feeling the worse for wear as a result. But I can’t help it. At this point, refusing to eat a curry would feel unpatriotic.