Of course in retrospect you have to wonder whether the locals hated the presence of the Royal Navy and deliberately presented them with something vile and inedible. We’ll never know, although my dad never spoke ill of the Ceylonese people, only of curry, all curries.
Obviously therefore, as a family, we never ate curry as I was growing up, but like most Englishman of my generation, as soon as I was old enough to eat out under my own steam (i.e. as cheaply as possible) I went to what we always called Indian restaurants, though we now know that they were run by people from all over the subcontinent. We’re talking 1970s, when the balti was still ahead of us.
Thinking about it now, the truly surprising thing is how consistent all English curry houses were back then. Chicken biryanis in London or Sheffield or Manchester or Birmingham all tasted amazingly similar. I don’t for a moment think they were authentic, but I suppose word must have gone out on some immigrant, culinary grapevine about how the English liked their curries, and the vast majority of restaurants cooked to exactly that standard, seldom lower, seldom much higher.
I do remember the first Indian meal I ever had in America – in a restaurant in Berkeley. The place was certainly run by Indians but the food didn’t taste at all like Indian food I’d had in England. It may have been more authentic, or it may just have been remodeled to local American tastes.
Here in Los Angeles today there’s by no means an absence of Indian restaurants but I don’t really seek them out, and when I do go to one, of course it doesn’t much resemble the curry houses of my youth, which is probably a good thing.
I probably go The Electric Lotus, in Los Feliz about once a year: “We at Electric Lotus are committed to preserving a culture, tradition and standard in culinary tastes that a Nawab would appreciate.”
I think that’s the lamb jelfrazi above, though it’s a little while since I took the pic, and in fact all the dishes came looking pretty much the same – I’m still not convinced that raw red onion is the very greatest garnish, but the lamb was good.
And of course in this town there’s plenty of curry that isn’t Indian. I’m still basking in my Japanophilia and for a while I’d been eyeing the Little Tokyo Curry House, in the Weller Court Shopping Center, downtown. It’s part of a chain, very bright and rather austere but quite Tokyo-looking. Mostly I wanted to go there for the pork katsu, but since it came with curry why not?
That’s my plate above at the front. I thought I was being authentic by having rice (it’s hiding under the pork) but the plate you see in the background is my companion’s which came with spaghetti and had melted cheese on top. I was struck with a bit of food envy – the cheese really worked, even if it felt a little like we were eating the food on some international space station. Here incidentally is a staggeringly complex graphic showing how curry got to Japan:
And just the other night I ate at Pimai – Sawaddee, Yindee Tornrup , (Hello and welcome !) on Franklin Avenue. It’s a Thai restaurant as you see (I do like a bit of corrugated metal):
I had the duck curry, which looked better it tasted (eat with your eyes) – kind of heavy on the duck skin, kind of light on the duck.
It wasn’t great but it wasn’t traumatizingly bad. And the Pimai has an incredible advantage that no other restaurant in L.A. has. It’s just half a mile from where I live. If only a few more restaurants could try to work on that.