Tastings School - Be bold with beer

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Be bold with beer

There's nothing wrong with a quality lager as an accompaniment to Indian food, but as Ben McFarland reports, there are other options

Diners in the United Kingdom and a host of other countries have been in the throes of a love affair with the food and flavours of the Indian sub-continent ever since colonial pen-pushers and members of the armed forces returned home with tingling tongues and tales of a gastronomic world full of spice and all things nice.

The Brits gave India the Civil Service and in return India gave Britain curry. All in all, not a bad swap really. Today, more than a quarter of Brits eat a curry at least once a week, either at home, in the curry house or the pub, while approximately half of the population go Indian every fortnight. Chicken Tikka Masala, a curry incidentally concocted by the British in the Raj, is now the United Kingdom’s favourite dish and in the last 20 years the number of Indian restaurants in the UK has tripled to more than 9,000.

In nearly every single one of these establishments, lager is the default tipple of choice. Popular wisdom dictates that wine, the delicate little flower that it is, is far too elegant to put up a fight against the power and piquancy of Indian cuisine.

Lager, in contrast, is as synonymous with curry as Ghandi is with flip-flops. The origins of lager’s affiliation with Indian grub are a little shadowy. Some attribute it to the King of Denmark who insisted on drinking his beloved Carlsberg when he visited London’s Veeraswamy restaurant in the mid 1920s.

A more likely reason, however, is that lager’s meteoric rise coincided with that of the curry house. It’s certainly not a historical link.

Indians don’t drink any beer, or for that matter wine, with their food. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the Brits.

Generally, you can drink any beer you want in an Indian restaurant as long as it’s lager. It used to be Carlsberg or the long-forgotten Elephant (which tasted suspiciously similar) but, in recent years, Indian ‘style’ brands have come to the fore in the shape of the ubiquitous Cobra and Kingfisher, brewed-under-licence by Charles Wells and Shepherd Neame respectively.

Their presence on the table owes more to a perceived cultural identity than any multi-layered synergy with the nuances of the spicy food. India may brew a lot of beer but it doesn’t have a style all of its own. Like other parts of the world, Indian brewers tend to speak the worldwide language of lager, albeit a sweet dialect thereof.

In a quest for perceived authenticity, the vast majority of Indian restaurants stock only Indian-style pilsner beers and nothing much else. This lack of choice behind the bar is all the more remarkable in light of the sweeping changes currently taking place in the Indian kitchen.

The last few years has seen pan-Indian cuisine take huge gastronomic strides away from stained tablecloths and stale poppadums towards Michelin stars, swanky décor, sharp-suited sommeliers and a price list that could makes your eyes water faster than a particularly pokey King Prawn Madras.

In gastronomic circles, subcontinental is no longer a byword for substandard and the new wave of high class Indian eateries such as London’s Mint Leaf and the Cinnamon Club are as far removed from your run-of-themill local curry house as Delhi is from Deptford.

However, this epicurean enlightenment has seemingly yet to reach the beer list. A quick straw poll of the beers available at half a dozen designer Indian restaurants revealed a distinct lack of variety and imagination. (Those in the hall of shame include Mint Leaf, Moti Mahal, Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and the Cinnamon Club as well as Nottingham’s Men–Saab).

Not one beer list veered off the lager piste, the maximum number of tastealike lager brands stocked in any one restaurant was four and arguably the most leftfield brew available was the Mexican Negro Modelo at Mint Leaf and even that was described by the assistant manager as ‘Spanish’.

The exception to this rule, however, is the most magnificent Quilon, an equally classy curry establishment specializing in South Indian Keralan coastal cuisine and situated in the shadow of Buckingham Palace.

Highly regarded executive chef, Sriram Ayur, has personally selected a eyebrow-raising selection of beers to go with his range of dishes which focus primarily on fresh fish and deliciously delicate marinades.

“I find it sad that, irrespective of the style of food, when you go to a restaurant there is a fantastic wine list but just two beers,” said Sriram. “I didn’t want to be one of those restaurants. We wanted to offer something more exciting than just a couple of household lagers.”

As well as the mandatory Kingfisher ‘a great all rounder – subtle and refreshing yet unobtrusive’ – the beer list encompasses a wide range of styles and countries. There’s Little Creatures Pale Ale from Freemantle, Australia, brewed using fresh whole hop flowers and boasting a lovely sweet finish; the lush, light and cloudy Petra Colomba wheat beer from Corsica; Brooklyn Lager from Manhattan, wonderfully floral with a rich caramel sweetness; the tantalizing Lindeboom Pils from Holland; and flying the flag for Britain, an Organic Ale from the St. Peter’s Brewery in Suffolk.

“When you eat good Indian food you should not have to call the fire brigade,” warned Sriram.

“The beers that we serve are not there to fight fire but to enhance the flavours. A stout, for example, could never go with this kind of food as it overwhelms the palate.

“Generally when we eat Indian food we eat a few dishes together and mix and match. So, it’s a safer bet to opt for a beer that gets on well with a wide range of dishes,” he advised.

“When we chose beers we wanted to bring an array of different styles but at the same time we didn’t want anything that would be overly dominant when matched with food. “What we’re always looking for is a balance.”

Certainly, some of Sriram’s beer and food suggestions showed more balance than a tightrope-walking mountain goat. Highlights included the sweet Brooklyn lager working with caramelised shrimps, the light Lindeboom providing a foil for the char-grilled sole and the softly-hopped Little Creatures cutting through a rich and succulent lamb biryiani like a knife through Ghee butter.

“Beer and curry has a kinship but that doesn’t mean you can match any beer with any curry,” said Sriram.

“The notion that Indian food has to be rich, spicy and heavy in cream is a completely wrong.

“It’s a very delicate and subtle cuisine and deserves better than just being washed down with bland lagers.”

Putting the ‘Indian’ in to IPA

Any investigation into the intricacies of Indian food and beer would not be complete without a sneaky peak at India Pale Ale (IPA).

IPA, of course, is a particularly pertinent partner for the piquant, the peppery and, dare one say it, poppadums. For back in the 18th century, IPA was specifically created for the expatriates and memsahibs in the Indian empire.

It was heavily hopped for flavour, for aroma and, most importantly, for enduring the lengthy and balmy three month sea journey up and down either side of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope and all the way to Bombay.

To withstand the vagaries of such a tumultuous trip, IPA was brewed rather strong, too, with the ABV rarely dipping below 6%.

It’s little surprise, with accessible lager so popular, that few brewers have hitherto dared to produce IPAs with the same levels of strength and heavy hop character of yesteryear.

The Meantime Brewery of Greenwich is one of a growing number of exceptions, however. Brewer Alastair Hook has proudly breathed life back into London brewing history by unleashing an IPA that would not have tasted out of place in the sweltering days of the Raj.

With more than 2lbs of Fuggles and Goldings hops per barrel and an ABV of 7.5%, the Meantime IPA boasts the credentials to withstand the power of practically any sub-continental cuisine.

Other IPAs worth considering when faced with a robust ‘Ruby Murray’ include Old Empire from Marston’s. This is a dryhopped IPA in the traditional Burton style complete with buckets of hops, Burton’s subtle sulphuric slant and an ABV of 5.7%.

The United States microbrewery scene is simply awash with heavily-hopped IPAs.

While there is neither the time nor the space to provide an exhaustive list, the efforts of Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head Brewing Company and Bridgeport of Portland are well worth tracking down.

If lip-smacking palate-scraping hoppy beers aren’t your bag then, fear not, as there are plenty of more approachable IPAs available that can complement more delicate examples of Indian cooking.

Coniston Bluebird, a Champion beer of Britain in 1998, is a case in point.

It might only be 3.8% and it might only have one hop – Golding – but Bluebird’s orange-tang works magic with mango chutney, its bitterness not too overpowering and its sessionable qualities are second to none.

In his enlightening tome on the joys of beer and food –The Brewmaster’s Table, New York brewer Garret Oliver argues the case for India Pale Ale: “Not surprisingly, India Pale Ale is quite good with Indian cuisine as it brandishes the cutting power to slice through creamy dishes like chicken tikka masala” the book states.

“These beers are sturdy enough to handle powerful spices, and their hop flavours will meld with the coriander, cardamom and curry common in Indian food.”