Curry for the Laddies

Chicken tikka masala (shown with onion bhaji, right) is the most popular dish in England.
Troy Fields

The grilled chicken has lots of flavor, but the sauce is bland. In fact, the chicken tikka masala at London Sizzler Tandoori Bar & Grill tastes like barbecued chicken chunks floating in Campbell's cream of tomato soup flavored with curry. Except that the colors are all wrong.

The formerly white chicken meat has been dyed a disturbing salmon color. And the chicken has, in turn, tinted the masala sauce a shade more reminiscent of lipstick than tomato sauce. Don't worry, my dining companions assure me, these weird hues are the norm in the signature dish of the British curry house, chicken tikka masala (or CTM, as it's known over there).

My tablemates, both of whom lived in England for an extended period, have come along to help me understand what's going on at this new restaurant at the intersection of Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway.

British Indian food is inspired by Punjabi cooking, but in fact it's its own distinct subgenre. Onion bhaji, a sort of Indian onion fritter, is now found in nearly every pub in Britain. Sometimes it looks like the blooming onion from Outback Steakhouse, and sometimes it looks like a mess of onion rings. Here at London Sizzler, the onion bhaji resembles an onion-studded hush puppy, made with chick-pea flour instead of cornmeal. It's a little greasy, but it tastes okay dunked in lots of chutney.

Butter chicken is a lot like CTM, but a heavy dose of the clarified butter called ghee has been addedto give it a richer and creamier texture. "They didn't cook it long enough," one of my English-educated dinner guests notes. She uses the butter chicken served at Khan's restaurant in London as her gold standard. That version features chicken that's been cooked long and slow so that it melts in your mouth, she says. London Sizzler's butter chicken is made with chunks of white meat that are still quite firm.

My tablemates agree that the lamb vindaloo is suitably spicy. I find it piquant enough, but with a bit too much tomato sweetness. When you set the CTM, butter chicken and vindaloo side by side, you see how similar these British curries are. Each is essentially a tomato sauce with meat chunks in it.

The hottest thing on the table isn't a curry at all. It's an African dish called chicken pili pili. The chicken chunks with lightly caramelized onion slices and incendiary tomato-chile sauce are delivered on a sizzling metal plate that will look familiar to anyone who's ever eaten fajitas in Houston.

But chicken pili pili turns out to be an unfortunate choice for the "sizzler" treatment. The smoke coming off the heated platter contains so much chile pepper oil that the entire table immediately begins coughing and gagging. "Pepper gas!" someone at the table screams. When the noxious fumes have died down and we finally get a chance to eat the dish, we all agree that the African pili pili peppers, sautéed onions, grilled chicken and tomato make a terrific combination. And the crispy, hot nanbread, with lots of charred bubbles, is right up there with the best you'll taste in Houston.

The owners of London Sizzler are nonresident Indians who were born in Zambia and educated in London, and are now manning the kitchen here in Houston, our waiter explains. Hence the African dish on the menu, which also features Russian shashliks, Pakistani kabobs, Tex-Mex nachos, and fish and chips.

I tried the fish and chips with another friend from London on a previous visit. The fish was a square, frozen, breaded fishcake of the Mrs. Paul's variety. My companion described it as "ghastly." Several other dishes from the same section of the menu, such as quiche and steak-and-onion pie, have been eliminated from the menu since that earlier visit.

Ghastly fish and chips and all, London Sizzler has become an immediate favorite of the British expat community in Houston. Looking around the modest dining rooms, I'm amazed at how many people of Indian ancestry are eating here. There are, after all, lots of excellent Indian restaurants in Houston. But my Anglophile buddies remind me that a lot of Houston's British expats are Indian-British. And they love the British version of Indian food, too.

British curry houses are to Indian food what Tex-Mex restaurants are to Mexican cuisine. And just as Tex-Mex standards like fajitas, margaritas and nachos are now popular in Mexico, so have British favorites like chicken tikka masala become increasingly common in India.

Chicken tikka, also known as tandoorichicken, is traditionally marinated overnight in a mixture of yogurt, ginger, garlic and other spices. In India, the natural red dye found in cockscomb flowers was once added to color the marinade on festive occasions. Red food coloring is now used for that purpose, and in Great Britain an intense red seems to be the preferred color. After marinating, the chicken is cooked in a tandoori oven, or grilled. (My dining companions use a George Foreman grill at home.)

The tandoori mixed grill at London Sizzler includes a juicy chicken tikka, which is red on the outside, but not nearly as intensely colored as the chunks in the CTM. The lamb tikka is moist though very well done, and a ground lamb kabob is spicy but a little dry. The attractive-looking tandoori shrimp are watery and flavorless.

Legend has it that chicken tikka masala was invented in an Indian restaurant in Scotland when patrons complained that the tandoori chicken was too dry. They asked for a curry sauce to douse it with. But tandoori is not traditionally served in a sauce.

It's easy to envision the insulted Indian chef spitefully opening a can of cream of tomato soup, sprinkling in the barest modicum of Indian spices, nuking the mess, and cynically sending it out to the offending table. And it's just as easy to imagine that the British blokes would love the stuff.

Chicken tikka masala (or "massala," as they spell it in England) went on to become the most popular dish in England and a much-debated symbol. Traditionalists hold it up as evidence of the decline of the British Empire; multiculturalists see it as cause for celebration. In April 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook immortalized the dish, as well as its creation myth, in a famous speech.

"Chicken tikka massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences," Cook said. "Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy."

London Sizzler has a pool table in the bar, television sets tuned to sporting events in every dining room, and a soundtrack that ranges from Scottish rap to Punjabi bhangra. I caught some of a Yankees-Mets game one night at dinner, and the Russian tennis player/fashion model Maria Sharapova playing at Wimbledon another day at lunch.

What's with the televised sports?

"It's part of the 'lads' night out' tradition," my dining companion explains. British curry houses are favored as male hangouts because the pubs close at 11 in Britain, but the curry houses stay open late and usually serve beer. When you go out drinking with the boys, you always end up at a curry house, and you usually order the hottest thing on the menu, he tells me. (Must be a lad thing.) While a combination pub, sports bar and Indian restaurant may seem a little odd to Houstonians, it makes perfect sense to expats of the British Commonwealth.

If you come here looking for authentic Indian food, you are bound to be disappointed. But if a greasy onion bhaji, a shocking pink CTM, and a couple of Newcastle Brown Ales eaten by the light of a big-screen TV is your idea of living large, London Sizzler is the place for you.

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