October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again. —Hal Borland
When I think about my ex-husband, I prefer not to think of him or our marriage in terms of failure. We are both happier now, after all. Instead, I prefer to think of all the things I learned from him that made me who I am—all the PG Tips teas with milk or ESBs or Eric Cantona highlight reels or Alan Partridge shows or The Scousers sketches I would never have learned to appreciate otherwise. I count British curry among those things.
Growing up in Houston, the first curries I was exposed to were full-on Indian curries—the curries my Indian friends' parents made for dinner at home, or those my father took me to eat in the burgeoning Little India district back when it was only a few sweet shops, grocers, and jewelry stores on Hillcroft. I still remember my first taste of Anita Jaisinghani's spicy curries at her first location of Indika, in a little house with a turret off Memorial Drive, and how my swollen lips burned pleasantly for an hour afterward.
Had it not been for an Englishman with no tolerance for the kind of heat enjoyed by Indians and Texans alike, I would probably never have learned to love a good British curry—muted in its spiciness, perhaps, but with much more emphasis on being a good, cold-weather comfort food.
It was at The Bull & Bear Pub in far west Houston where I had my first plate of chicken curry while sitting at the bar ("while sat at the bar," as my ex would have said) and watching a televised Manchester United match. My ex was giddy to see a chicken curry on the menu, and ordered it with a request for a bottle of "brown sauce" on the side.
The shredded white meat in the curry that arrived was coated in a sauce that bore the same flavor as its golden saffron hue, accented with cardamom, turmeric, ginger, and nutmeg. As with all things British, carrots and peas were thrown in for good measure, all of it served atop a pile of—what else?—chips. The steak fries soaked up the curry as a pile of white rice would, but with the added benefit of being more easily eaten with your hands. It wasn't love at first sight, but I could see the appeal—especially on that cold December afternoon.
Over time, I came to truly appreciate a sturdy British curry, as much for its intrinsic value (though I still relish a lip-blistering curry from Himalaya) as for the story behind its popularity. Though some Indians worry that Britain is dumbing down their cuisine, there's no denying that Indian food is to Brits as Chinese or Italian (or even Tex-Mex these days) is to Americans: anglicized, yes, but "ethnic" food that's been absorbed as part of the mainstream—and often grabbed to-go or in ultra-casual eateries. "In the last half-century, curry has become more traditionally English than English breakfast," wrote Geraldine Bedell in The Guardian over a decade ago. And things have only heated up since.
Brits found that the food created in the warm climates of India—which range from humid subtropical to tropical wet, from semi-arid to arid, but almost always quite warm—worked equally well in chilly, rainy England. Those colonialists of determinedly bland cuisine—a cuisine which once provided me with meat pie surrounded by three different styles of potato in a Cheshire pub—were entranced by the spices found on the Indian subcontinent they attempted to subdue, as long as those big, strong, bold spices could be tempered a bit for the relatively weak English palate. These days, British tastes may have expanded—indeed, the new "national dish" is no longer the sweet and creamy chicken tikka masala but the comparatively fiery chicken jalfrezi—but that love of muted Indian flavors still runs through Britain like the Thames.
Over at The Queen Vic—which we recently spotlighted in our October issue as one of the 50 restaurants that's defining Houston dining—you can try both old and new British curries, as well as British Indian food with a decidedly Gulf Coast flare: a "Goan guacamole," for example, that's a very Texan version of an avocado chutney, or lamb kebab burger topped with blue goat cheese from Dripping Springs. On the new fall menu, which The Queen Vic released a few weeks ago, you'll find my own current favorite: Mum's Chicken Curry.
The curry clocks in at $17, which is a tad expensive given the proximity of Little India to Upper Kirby—but Little India doesn't have any restaurants offering The Queen Vic's array of craft beers or creative cocktails, like the "Blueberry Lassie" I tried recently, which employs Bols Yogurt Liquer (yes, this is a real thing that exists!) to great effect with muddled blueberries and vodka and actually manages to mimic the tart, lactic sweetness of a fruit lassi. The other bonus here is that the Mum's Chicken Curry, unlike the other curries on The Queen Vic's menu, comes equipped with an order of oven-blistered naan bread and tangy, cucumber-laced raita, which you normally have to order alongside your curry for a few extra bobs.
Like the curry at fellow pub The Bull & Bear, this Mum's Curry lacks a kick of heat. But that's not to say it doesn't pack a punch of Indian flavor—chef/owner Shiva Patel would surely have it no other way. There is plenty to consider in each bite: some dusky hints of garam masala here, some bright notes of ginger or turmeric there, some autumnal cloves and nutmeg throughout.
It's an ideal dish for a fall menu, and one that flooded me with fond memories of British curries past—even pleasant memories of dumping Bisto Chip Shop Curry sauce on top a pile of chips in a pinch when a craving for the silly stuff struck and I was stuck at home, a trick learned from my ex. And here, on the first day of October, the curry served as a reminder that one day you may just find some old pain of an equally old wound has faded, leaving only happy acquaintances and perfectly lovely memories, simple and clear.
The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen, 2712 Richmond Ave., 713-533-0022, thequeenvicpub.com