Introduction to BIR cooking

Introduction to BIR cooking

Dan Toombs
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing

My friend Monir Mohammed, owner of Mother India in Glasgow and author of the brilliant cookbook of the same name told me about his youth and the Glasgow curry-house scene at the time. At just 16, he was working front of house in a local curry house and a lot of the clientele were abusive and much more interested in continuing drinking and causing trouble than they were in the food.

At the time, most curry-house owners were solely interested in making money, and the staff had to simply put up with the abuse. Ingredients from the subcontinent were expensive and difficult to come by but chefs used what was available to develop dishes that would appeal to the general public. Fast service and low overheads were key to a restaurant’s success. The base sauce, for example, was developed over time for speed and economy.

All over the UK, Pakistani and Bangladeshi chefs entered the field not because they wanted to be chefs but to avoid having to work in factories. A chef was judged by how quickly he could cook and not by the quality of his cooking. If there was a speedy chef at one restaurant, others would try to poach him. If a restaurant was busy, others would copy their menu. Chefs and other staff would move from restaurants and take their recipes with them, which they would pass on to chefs at the new restaurant. Many found it more lucrative to set up on their own, and the cycle continued. Over the decades, the basic recipes became standardized throughout the UK. When you order a chicken tikka masala, you have a good idea of what you’re going to get.

These days, it is much more important for the food to be top quality and tasty. Attention to sourcing quality ingredients and creative cooking is what makes the difference between a good and bad restaurant. The classic British recipes are similar but the ingredients are more exotic and fresher, and more chefs really love what they are doing.

So the pioneers of British Indian cuisine gave us a love of Indian food. They helped create an industry worth at least £3.5 billion per year in the UK. New upmarket and expensive authentic Indian restaurants with highly trained chefs have inspired many high-street curry-house restaurateurs to offer delicious authentically cooked, quality food, while still offering the same famous curries their customers love.

I feel that great-tasting BIR food is 90% down to the products you put into it and 10% down to how it is cooked. I’m going to show you how to cook these famous recipes. All you need to do now is follow a few simple rules and you’re in for a treat.

Rule #1

Only use the freshest ingredients you can get your hands on. Even the best chefs in the world can’t do much with stale spices and poor-quality meat and vegetables. We are so lucky to have excellent farmers’ markets, butchers, fishmongers and spice suppliers here in the UK. Use them.

Rule #2

Take an afternoon to make the base ingredients. Out of all of these recipes, only the base curry sauce needs to be made from scratch to get that awesome texture, aroma and flavour that is the BIR curry. Others like garlic and ginger paste and the spice blends can be purchased commercially. Remember, though: fresh is best and you will notice a difference in the end result.

Rule #3

Add the ingredients in the order I’ve specified.

Rule #4

Have fun! Choose a time to cook when you really feel like cooking. You’ll enjoy it much more.

Rule #5

Other than rules one through four, there are no rules. Along with the recipes, I’ve included many alternative ideas for making them your own. Just go for it! If it sounds good, it probably is.

Equipment and presentation

No special ‘Indian’ cooking equipment is needed to prepare these recipes. You will probably already have everything you require to cook. This is a list of useful utensils, pots and pans that will come in handy both for cooking and presentation:

6-litre heavy-based saucepan with tight-fitting lid

3-litre heavy-based saucepan with tight-fitting lid

Food processor

Spice grinder or pestle and mortar

Blender (jug or hand-held)

Large stainless-steel frying pan

Large wok

Large roasting tray with a wire rack

Pressure cooker

Large mixing bowls

Wire mesh spoon

30 ml volume long-handled chef’s spoon

Good-quality chef’s knife – please don’t go for one of those inexpensive knife sets! If you’re on a budget, get one good-quality chef’s knife and you’ll have everything you need

Measuring jug

Barbecue with flat skewers – the skewers are optional as you can always cook on the grill, but skewers add a lot to the presentation

Spice dabba – this is a large, airtight container that holds several smaller containers for storing spices. They are designed for the home cook and wouldn’t be used at most restaurants. Any airtight containers will do for storing spices

Balti pans, karahis and/or haandis – these are totally optional but do add a lot to the presentation of your meal. They can be picked up quite inexpensively at Asian shops and online. More on that in the balti, karahi and haandi recipe section.

Your ingredient mission control panel

Every BIR chef has their most important spices, pastes and sauces within easy reach so that they can dip their chef’s spoon into them and take out what they need as they cook. To watch a professional chef do this is quite impressive. Often they are cooking many different curries at once. With some practice, you will be able to do this too.

You will use a lot of different ingredients in the following recipes. I have included a list in the ingredients section. Some ingredients, however, are used more often than others.

Here’s a list of ingredients that most chefs have in close proximity:

Mixed powder

Garam masala

Tandoori masala

Garlic and ginger paste

Chilli powder

Ground cumin

Ground coriander

Ground turmeric

Dried fenugreek (methi) leaves

Coconut flour

Ground almonds

Spice pastes (depending on chef)



*A good dose of salt helps bring out the flavours of the spices. Many people are reducing their salt intake these days, but a generous sprinkling of the stuff is needed to brighten up any curry. The amount you use is a personal thing so I haven’t included exact measurements in most recipes. Even when used liberally, your homemade curries will probably have one heck of a lot less salt and taste much better than those ready meals found at the supermarket.

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