Well, think how good it goes together on a basic level – yer average high street after-hours curry house, a nice, saucy, spicy madras or balti with several pints of crisp, cool lager. And then, be honest – you know that’s not as good as curry gets. Anyone who has Indian roots, family or friends knows that what we get when the pubs are shut bears only a faint similarity to traditional Indian food. And you also know that while that lovely, cold pint of imitation-pilsner might hit the spot, and while it might represent the reality of nine out of ten pints of beer drunk around the world, it only represents a tiny sliver on the wheel of beer flavours that are out there. Just think what matching really good Indian food and really good beer could be like…
Today I finally cashed in my birthday present from last year – a half-day curry cookery course with Renuka Patel, who runs Ren’s Kitchen, where you learn how to cook Indian food, Indian style. Ren is full-on, totally passionate about what she does and will not let you out of the door until she’s sure you’re as keen and enthusiastic as she is. You spend a few hours cooking a menu that’s based totally on your likes and preferences, and leave laden with dishes to wow your expectant other-half or mates when you get home. Until today I always wanted to amke dishes that tasted as good as they do in a curry restaurant. Now I know how to make them taste better. If you fancy yourself as a curry maestro, you need to go on this course. However good you think you are, you’re not as good as you will be when you’ve finished.
And I’m not just saying that because we had a great conversation about beer and curry matching, and may be doing some work together in this area in the future. I’ve already done some work on this as part of a team at the Bombay Brasserie restaurant, who are introducing a beer list, and have been on UKTV’s much-missed Great Food Live talking about the same subject.
And it’s just fantastic.
Curry is not just curry – decent dishes don’t just work on a scale of heat; spices combine to create a myriad of complex, layered flavours that will constantly twist and turn and confound your taste buds. And the sheer variety of beer styles and flavours means the capacity for experimentation is endless, with the chance of finding something extraordinary only ever a sip away.
One unique aspect of beer and curry matching is the simple beauty of the fact that even your bog-standard pint of Carslberg or bottle of Cobra fits the bill. Beer is almost always served cool (not necessarily chilled) and the carbonation means it’s always going to refresh and revive your palate. With this as your baseline, the chances of something really not going are virtually nil. And you can build on this baseline by looking for flavour marriages and contrasts that change and enhance the flavour of the curry, the beer or both. The links two paras up give some indication of what’s possible.
And today, as I was making a mess of cooking my own chapattis and getting a scolding for not concentrating, we hit upon another very powerful reason why these two are made for each other.
What I’ve always loved about beer is that it is the most sociable drink in the world. All alcohol acts as a social lubricant, but beer is a leveller far more than any other; a democratic drink, both wherever you go around the world, and whenever you look at it in history. All the rituals around beer, all the baggage that goes with it, are designed to enhance sociability and sharing.
And Indian food is exactly the same – it’s arose out of the idea of huge family meals. It’s accessible and unpretentious. We don’t just go to curry retaurants after a few beers because they’re the only ones open – it’s also about the easygoing atmosphere, and the nature of the food itself – big dishes in the middle of the table, everyone sharing poppadums and tearing off chunks of naan, passing round, laughing and talking. I’d bet a year’s earnings that curry restaurants are noisier than any other culinary establisment, and rightly so.
And with that, I’m off to heat up my spicy lamb kebabs and try them with a Zatec pilsner; my gorgeous chicken with a Grolsch Weizen wheat beer, looking for a marriage with the heady, intense aromatics of both; and I might chuck in an IPA with the vegetable dish just because – well, you’d be stupid not to really.