Why is sugar the favourite ingredient in British Indian restaurants?

8 Mins read

From the 70s to 2023, we explore the journey of ‘authentic’ Indian food in the UK.

It is a hot autumn day in New Delhi, the air conditioning blasting cool air at full speed and my room is splashed with clothes, packing boxes and three large suitcases.

I try to fit my 24 years of life in these suitcases when my mother comes and hands me the masala dani (spice box). The traditional Indian box of spices with six compartments each for different types of spice. One for red chilli powder, one for salt, then coriander powder, dry mango powder, cumin seeds and turmeric.

It is a smaller and more portable version of what we have at home. She gives that to me with a teary smile on her face and wishes me luck for my new adventure and life in London.

Now talking to my friends in London, I realised I was not the only one who came to London with a spice box. As an Indian, that spice box is a sacred box that we all have and cherish with our hearts no matter where we are in the world. It is through that box that I and my many Indian friends try to find the taste of home, in faraway lands. Make this foreign world our own.

indian woman cooking paratha
Indian woman cooking paratha on a skillet [Pexels: Anna Pou]

And thank God for that because my experience with Indian restaurants in London has not been so great, to say it politely. “This dish is on the sweet side, you should order this instead,” or “You might not like it, get that” has been the response two or three times I ordered a dish at a British Indian restaurant in London.

From Elephant and Castle to Brick Lane, servers warned me before ordering a dish at a restaurant. As a North Indian, finding Indian dishes that were on the sweet side was as big a surprise as it was a shock. But was I the only one?

“My experience with British Indian restaurants has been okay-ish. But when it comes to authenticity, I’d have to give a sad five out of ten,” says 24 year-old Samah Kokan.

But I still had not completely given up on London. Searching for the taste of home and after hearing fantastic reviews about this particular Indian restaurant in London, I was excited. I with some friends made my way to one of the most famous Indian restaurants in London – Dishoom.

I found myself transported to the world of loud, bustling Irani cafes of Bombay. With a hint of modern design and sleek décor, along with old family portraits hanging on the walls to the Irani cafes must – red and white chequered table cloths, Dishoom was a hip and modern version or should I say London version of the Irani cafes of Bombay.

I sat down in a booth surrounded by diverse patrons from around the globe, with soft old Bollywood songs playing in the background, I rolled up my sleeves in preparation for having the best Indian food in six months. I was ready to introduce my Italian, Mexican and Brazilian friends to the world of earthy, spicy, umami Indian food.

More than that I was ready for my dal makhani.

So, we got down to the main order of business – ordering our dishes. We started with – no points for guessing – garlic and butter naan, along with the house black daal, jackfruit biryani and spicy lamb chops with mango lassi and oat milk chai for drinks.

MasterChef India’s judge and celebrity chef, Kunal Kapoor said in his YouTube video, “In Indian cuisine, breads are very important. A meal is incomplete without Naan, roti, paratha.” It is often said, that languages and cuisine change every 100 kilometres in India. But one thing that remains the same from Kashmir to Kanyakumari is the way we eat our food.

Indian dishes more often than not are accompanied by rice, or some sort of bread – naan, parantha, chapatti. While naan is the heavier, fancier, and indulgent version, roti/chappati made with wheat is more of a household star.

But if anyone asked me what I miss the most about Indian food in London, it would be the flavour, the spices. So, imagine how hurt I was when I dipped my not-so-buttery butter naan into the inviting pot of the house black daal and found it to be, not so flavoursome.

I was heartbroken.

The daal that takes a whole day of preparation, one-to-two hours to cook, two-to-three different types of lentils, a variety of spices from cloves, bay leaves, and cardamom to name a few and an array of aromatic ingredients from ginger, garlic, green chillies to huge dollops of butter, is a pretty difficult dish to turn bland; but while the colour was inviting and exactly like what I would have had back home, the taste of the daal was not.

“Black Daal really should not be tomato heavy and I was disappointed that no texture of the daal remained (and there was no cream garnish!). My partner is Indian and an excellent cook and we both had the same view,” said David Stocks in a review on Google. Another Google reviewer Bek Lewis shared, “Black daal was a disappointment. This is the dish I was most looking forward to but for me, it lacked depth of flavour. The overarching flavour of this dish for me was salt.”

At this point, I was desperate for the spicy lamb chops to do justice to its name. They arrived on a small plate, with a beautiful well-cooked colour, the lamb chops looked so promising that we all were mouth-wateringly ready but, “visually it looked spicy but it (spicy lamb chops) wasn’t that spicy or flavourful,” said Emily Music a MA student at UAL.

So, I went home to do a little more digging. A little more compare and contrast if you will and I found Dishoom’s recently released cookbook – From Bombay with Love. Scrolling through the beautiful pictures of Bombay and many of my favourite dishes I stumbled upon the recipe for mint chutney and to my utter shock, Dishoom had sugar in the ingredient list.

Mint chutney is a savoury, spicy, tangy condiment, often served with snacks like samosas or parathas. Never in my 24 short years on this round circle of fire had I even dreamt, heard, or read about adding sugar to a mint chutney.

And then I found sugar in the recipe of matar paneer one of our favourite dishes made with peas and cottage cheese. In all honesty, I had to sit with this information for a while before digesting it or accepting the fact that perhaps, it was how these dishes were always made.

But before accepting my defeat I wanted proof. And I found that not a pinch of sugar graced the ingredient list of India’s favourite chef, Sanjeev Kapoor’s recipe of matar paneer. I could finally breathe.

indian spices
Indian spices and aromatics. [Unsplash: Ratul Ghosh]

As per, India sits proudly in the second position as the country with the spiciest food in the world. We are the people who eat green chilli raw as a side dish with our food. But when we talk about spices, chillies aren’t the only thing we add. Indian dishes are made with a variety of spices and herbs to give them that delicious depth of flavour and also for their medicinal properties.

As per Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine, spices, while giving a dish an earthy, warm flavour also have healing properties. Every spice used in a dish has its own healing properties while also having its unique taste.

Explaining the importance and role of spices in Indian dishes, author, and ex-hotelier Pratyush Singla states: “Turmeric, a bright yellow spice is known for its health benefits, and has anti-inflammatory properties. Cardamom is a fragrant spice that has a floral flavour and is commonly used in Indian sweets like kheer and ras malai, as well as savoury dishes like biryanis and curries. Coriander seeds are used to add a fresh, citrusy flavour to dishes, Fenugreek, a slightly bitter and nutty adds depth and complexity to a dish and is known for its ability to lower blood sugar levels.”  

So how and when exactly did the flavourful, spicy dishes from India, specifically start to taste sweet in the West? It was in the 19th century that England first saw Indian restaurants popping up but it was in the 1970s when the Indian cuisine opened its arms to the English clientele.

“Most of the restaurants in those days were run by Bangladeshis, who had come over in the 70s,” says Roopa Gulati, a food writer in London. “They were interested in putting a roof over their head. And there is this willingness because you need to feed your family. You will cater to your customer base.”

The chefs then slowly adapted their dishes to suit the white palette, and presented an anglicised version of the Indian dishes to their growing customer base. “What happened is you knew what sold and you did that. And the staff would very often eat a totally different meal,” Roopa continues.

Roopa completed her graduation at Corden Bleu, London before moving to New Delhi where she would work at Taj Hotel as a chef for over two decades and go on to have her own cookery show on Star TV. Now back in London, Roopa is a well-known food writer and author with over three decades of experience in the culinary industry.

According to Buttfoods, “Bangladesh immigrants today run 85-90% of the Indian restaurants in the UK most of which still rely on tried and tested anglicised favourites such as vindaloo or tikka masala which is neither authentic nor traditional Indian food.”

vegetables and raw aromatics
Vegetables and raw spices like ginger, tomato, and turmeric, to name a few. [Pexels: Elina Sazonova]

Shedding light on the practice of anglicising the dishes to suit the white palette and how it started: “In the 70s, students going to universities would often visit these curry houses out of curiosity. And the sauces would be high in fat and sugar content. It’s our nature. We love things that have fat in them. We love things that have, sugar in them. And if you buy any Indian ready meal, it is incredibly sweet. I think part of that is pandering to your customer base and it is their version of what they expect,” Roopa explains.

While anglicising the dishes to suit a wider palette is one of the reasons to add sugar to Indian dishes, it is not the only one: “A pinch of sugar to any dish can fix the taste, if it’s sour or savoury dishes, a pinch of sugar can hold all the flavours together and give it a good taste,” says Chef Jomon Kuriakose, executive chef at The Lalit London.

The correct recipe, measurements and techniques are the essential parts of any delicious dish. But one thing that trumps all others and has the power to alter the taste of any dish is the ingredients. From plump tomatoes to fresh spices, ingredients used in a dish can make or break a dish.

“If you look at the raw ingredients in India, the flavour of green chillies in India is floral, the ginger has so much flavour. The garlic is sticky because it is just so aromatic,” Roopa tells me while comparing the ingredients you can find in India to the ones we get in Britain. “Here, if you’ve ever tasted a tomato, you could do nothing with it. Even tinned tomatoes here, have a sharpness, right? So, a quick shortcut to cut the acidity is with a bit of sugar.”

Understanding the world of different ingredients can bring to a dish, I shared my initial shock with Roopa regarding the chutney recipe in Dishoom’s book to which she replied: “I do add sugar to my Chutney, which I wouldn’t do in India, but I feel that the acidity of the coriander that you get here is more pungent.”

Sharing his experience with the ingredients in London, Chef Jomon told me: “We used to have overripe tomatoes in India, but when we came over here, the tomatoes were extra sour and were less sweet in nature. So, for that, we had to add extra sugar or honey.”

Talking about how the different varieties of vegetables can change the flavour of the entire dish and how to overcome that, the chef adds: “The vegetables that we get over here are not the Indian vegetables. For example, we get Spanish onions here. So, it doesn’t have that extra flavour that we get in India. So, to overcome those things we may need to add extra sugar.”

We live in a world of fusion, with new generations coming up and adding their own spin to the dishes while also working towards attaining the taste of the home, we hang in the balance and enjoy the flavours of the world.

Featured Image by Rajesh TP via Pexels CC.

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