Tastings School - A very British dish

Tastings School

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A very British dish

Few things are as well matched as beer and curry, but is it as simple as that? Sally Toms finds out

Beer and curry is widely believed to be one of the best beer and food combinations on earth, especially by the Brits. We just can’t get enough of it.

There’s a certain amount of delicious irony in the fact that today, there are more people in India speaking English than people in England, and more people in England eating chicken tikka massala than people in India. But then, it’s not exactly an authentic dish… We don’t seem to mind; India’s culinary delights have been served in the United Kingdom since the 18th century and Britain now has more than 8,000 curry houses.

We’ve had long enough then to sort out what we like to drink with it, and lager seems to be our weapon of choice.

And deservedly so, but there are a plethora of beers out there and some other truly mindblowing combinations to be discovered.

So, to point us in the right direction, Beers of the World was invited to a special Indian food tasting at the Bombay Brasserie in London, hosted by Coors.

Until fairly recently the brewer has been synonymous with mass-produced, mainstream lagers, but has now made room for a stable of ‘specialist’ beers that will make you sigh with happiness. Here are some of the highlights:

Kasteel Cru, 5.2% alcohol by volume (ABV) with chilli and coconut poppadom.

The spiciness of the chilli completely overwhelms the delicate Champagne notes of this beer (made with Champagne yeast). But with a plain warm poppadom, the combination is mindblowing. It picks out a kind of bread-dough quality to the beer and makes a great snack.

• Fresh scallops marinated in honey and ginger juice and grilled, served on a bed of burnt garlic and red pimento puree • Crispy fried shrimps tossed with mustard seeds, curry leaves and green chillies
• Lasooni fish fried in garlic batter

The beers:
Grolsch Weizen (5.3% ABV)
Wheat beers are typically refreshing and always go fantastically with spicy food. You could hardly do better than this. Produced from 60 per cent wheat and 40 per cent malt, Grolsch Weizen is a fairly typical German wheat beer. Unfiltered (it’s recommended you roll this beer before you pour it, so the sediment is shaken up) the proteins and yeast give Weizen its soft, fruity taste. It works with all the fishy dishes we were served as a starter, but particularly the scallops. And the shrimp. Hell, and the fish.

Little Creatures Pale Ale (5.2% ABV)
A unique pale ale from Australia. Whole hop flowers are used in this brew to give an oily citrus and honey aroma, with a good balancing bitterness. Wonderfully drinkable on its own, and even better with the scallops. Both have sweet honey notes in common but the scallops bring out a spiciness in the beer that was not evident before.

Goose Island IPA (5.9%)
India Pale Ales (IPAs) have a historical association with Indian food, given that the brews were excessively hopped to preserve them in the two to three month sea journey to India. It is likely they were used to wash down a curry by the Raj long before Brick Lane was ever built.

These beers generally had a high alcoholic content and this one from Goose Island brewery in the United States is a good example. The mega-hoppiness generally stands up well to intense flavours, but the bitterness can sometimes get in the way. With the roasted garlic flavours of the fish, however, it becomes a perfect partner.

• Lamb roganjosh: tender pieces of lamb cooked in a traditional masala
• Chicken biryani: chicken and basmati rice cooked in a sealed pot. Served with raita and daal
• Chicken tikka makhani: chicken tikka from the tandoor immersed in a spiced creamy butter sauce

The beers:
Worthington’s White Shield IPA (5.6% ABV)
One of the most historic examples of an authentic IPA and current champion bottle conditioned beer in Britain. It has a powerful hop presence, as you’d expect from an IPA, and a marmalade-ish bitterness that contrasts with all the flavours. It is also very fresh tasting, as it is bottled with live yeast, and really refreshes the palate.

Palm Speciale (5.4% ABV)
This deliciously sweet amber ale is the flagship beer of Palm Breweries in Steenhuffel, Belgium. It has a syrupy quality that isn’t too cloying thanks to a malty, warming whisky-like flavour Want more? continued... that counters the sweetness. It really excelled with the rogan josh, complementing the meaty lamb flavour perfectly.

Grolsch 5% ABV
A clean, biscuity lager with hints of red apple and sweet onions. A good lager to drink with curry as it is less fruity than a lot of others. It goes particularly well with milder dishes such as the biryani.

• Baked yoghurt with black cherry
• Mango kulfi

The beers:
Timmermans Péche Lambic, 4% ABV
Take a sip of this beer and your will think “wow this is sweet, these aren’t going to work together” – but you’d be surprised. The excessive sweetness of the beer and the dessert almost cancels each other out, almost like a dessert wine. Even if you would normally find fruit lambics too much (and the peach is much sweeter than a kriek or framboise), it becomes instantly palatable with a similarly sweet dessert, such as the kulfi.

Liefmans Kriek, 6% ABV
The sourness of the kriek works better with the yoghurt (which is also a little sour). The cherry notes in both hold hands across your tongue. If you like your dishes to complement each other, than you couldn’t really do any better! But if you like contrast, then this isn’t it.

Jaipur IPA, 5.9% ABV
This on the other hand, has bags of contrast – works better with the yoghurt than the the overly sweet kulfi.

Want more?

Alright, it’s all very well reading what someone else had for dinner but what about the rest of us? What should we reach for on a Saturday night, when you’ve ordered in your balti or your jalfrezi and switched on the goggle box? We test a few more beers against some standard curries to find out…

The lagers:
Cobra (5% ABV)
Kingfisher (4.8% ABV) The IPAs:
Marston’s Old Empire (5.7% ABV)
St Austell Proper Job (4.5% ABV)
The wild cards:
Wychwood Beewyched (5% ABV)
Hop Back Taiphoon (4.2% ABV)

1 Korma: A very mild, sweet curry with dominant flavours of coconut and cream

The lagers: Lager is the ubiquitous choice in most curryhouses. The clean crisp flavours cut through the overly sweet coconutty korma, to cleanse the palate. It really is a good combination. You will usually find Cobra or Kingfisher in your local tandoori, maybe both if you’re lucky as both lagers score highly. Cobra has the slightly stronger flavour of the two – and the judges were divided as to which was better. The Kingfisher works best with milder dishes, and the Cobra with stronger.

The IPAs: Though these are both IPAs, they work very differently with the Korma. Old Empire contrasts too much, and although Proper Job is also an IPA, it has a Cornish twist. It works slightly better with this dish simply because it’s a modern version of the style: paler, sweeter, more citrussy. Old Empire is more savoury somehow, it has that familiar Burton tang of sulphur that jars with this sweet curry.

The wildcards:
Beewyched has its own agenda in this pairing, it wants to do its own thing. The lemon peel notes in the Taiphoon work better and on the whole it is a light and refreshing combo.

2 Balti: (medium) dominant flavours of tomatoes, cardamom and onions.

The lagers: Kind of overpowers the Kingfisher but the Cobra handles the spiciness well.

The IPAs: Old Empire suddenly becomes fruitier, the lighter one of the pair. Taste lingers over the spice, complements each other well, whereas Proper Job suddenly becomes bitter.

The wildcards: sweetness of the Beewyched contrasts better with a spicy dish than it does with the milder korma.
The Taiphoon becomes quite bitter.

3 Jalfrezi: (h-h-hot) dominant flavours of chilli and not much else. This curry makes you cough and sweat and pretty much annihilates the taste of all the beers. But interestingly, they all go quite well with this hot curry because they are comparatively cool and refreshing.

The lagers: You can taste little difference between the Cobra and Kingfisher at this stage, because the dish is so powerful.

The IPAs: The hoppyness of these beers are not quite powerful enough to be equally matched, but at least put up a fight long enough to last a few seconds. Old Empire particular is smooth and cooling.

The wildcards: Bizarrely, the honey beer is one of the most successful candidates. The sweetness of the honey seems to neutralise the hotness for a fraction of a second. The citrus in the Taiphoon also has a cooley effect.

The Bombay Brasserie Courtfield Close, Courtfield Road, London SW7 4UH
Dishes created by Sriram Aylur