The Heat is On

It’s midnight in Brick Lane and a curry tout and a young Bengali are squaring up for a fight. The young man is bigger, dressed in a white, open-necked shirt on a dark, chilly night; his opponent wears the tout’s burnished uniform, a black leather jacket. They posture like professional wrestlers, bouncing forwards, chests first. White shirt advances to the point where he can feel the tout’s breath, but the tout will not give ground.

If the East End has been gentrified, Brick Lane does not know it. And if elsewhere the Anglo-Bengali hybrid that we call “Indian food” is undergoing a makeover with Michelin stars and chilli fire tempered by fusion, Brick Lane does not know that either. This is still the land of Cobra beer and chicken tikka masala, served ad infinitum in more than 60 restaurants and cafés stretching from Whitechapel to Shoreditch. For two weeks, I eat my way up and down Brick Lane and in and around its darker, quieter side streets. I meet every tout in the East End. Twice.

In fact, I am buttonholed by a tout outside the Famous Curry Bazaar while I read a newspaper story headlined “Watch Out for Tikka Touts” on the restaurant’s signboard. “Set lunch,” he rasps, “£5.90 a person, meat or vegetarian.” There are waiter/touts, there are owner/touts, and there are straight-down-the-line career touts. They act as if curry were barely legal, and it was little known that you could buy it in Brick Lane.

The midnight quarrel I witness is broken up by brothers and friends, but the aggressive vigour of some of the touts borders uneasily on a challenge. They have three basic strategies. The first, and least intrusive, might be called “the cuckoo”: the cuckooing tout pops out of his doorway like a bird from a clock, says his piece and slides back again. The second, and most common, manoeuvre is “the body check”, a basketball-style defensive play in which the tout walks backwards in front of punters, mirroring their lateral movements to block their passage. The touts’ most impressive ploy, however, is “the helicopter”. A tout performing the helicopter rises out of the body check, spreads his arms, pivots on his back foot, and whirls around, scooping diners off the pavement and into his curry house.

Azmal Hussain, the head chef at Preem and Prithi, is an outsider on the strip. Like most first-generation East-End Bengalis, he was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Unlike the rest of them, he trained in Sweden, and ran that country’s largest chain of Indian restaurants. He says touts from other restaurants have often loitered outside Preem, steering customers away. Which is a shame, because in an ocean of identical restaurants, he promotes something a bit different – low-fat curry cookery. He is puzzled and repelled by the British taste for chicken tikka masala. His restaurants do serve the dish – he’s no fool – but, he says, “I wouldn’t eat it if you paid me. You have half a cup of almonds, then half coconut, lastly you put cream on it, and sugar… It’s about 1,800 calories. 1,800! You should eat 500 to 700 calories! And three almonds is enough for all day.”

Hussain runs Monday-night curry cookery classes at Preem and Prithi. The night I join in, he has 14 students, including a Canadian couple, four Japanese women, and seven Londoners from an activities-based social club. My own contribution to Anglo-sub-continental cuisine has long been overlooked. Directionless after university, I spent two years on the dole in the West Midlands, living off supermarket lager and the cheapest cuts of meat. It was then that I created “scrag madras”, one of the tiny aristocracy of dishes – such as Spam and Brain’s Faggots – that tastes exactly how it sounds. My curry “sauce” never quite achieved the liquidity traditionally associated with the word, and the scrag lay forlornly on its madras like a fish on pebbles.

Hussain taught me how to make it swim. He slices onions for bhaji like a mechanical guillotine, his thumb gliding away from the falling knife as if it is being pulled along by an invisible string. When I try it, the onion rolls under my fingers like a cricket ball, until a classmate kindly points out that I have forgotten to chop it in half.

When Hussain transfers the bhaji mix into a pan of hot oil, it slides elegantly from his hand, but it seems to acquire a higher relative viscosity when the class attempts the same exercise, leaving soft battered fingers all around. While the bhajis sizzle and spit, Hussain effortlessly prepares pakora for 14. He claims pakora mix is Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe, and quickly produces a huge bowl of Kentucky Fried Cauliflower.

He squeezes shish kebab mix into sausage shapes, using only his right hand. “Indian men never use their left hand for cooking,” he explains, then admits, “actually, they don’t cook at all.”

We eat the entrées, then return to the kitchen to make a curry, using a generic recipe that is the base of many of Preem’s dishes. Hussain takes over almost all the work, slicing and simmering the chicken breasts, pinching and blending the spices. At first, the onion, ginger, garlic and tomato base of the sauce does not look much like curry, but when the onions are browned, he tips the mash into a liquidiser, and it emerges as a rich, aromatic broth.

A liquidiser! The single step that would have raised scrag madras from dole fare to delicacy. If only I had known. Or even owned one.

Curry cookery classes are held every Monday night, 7-10pm at Preem and Prithi restaurant, 124 Brick Lane E1 (020-7247 0397).

– published in The Times (UK), 2 July 2005