When Marks & Spencer introduced Indian ready meals to British supermarkets in 1981, few might have predicted that the pioneers of mass-market tikka masala would one day be called out for creating dishes “bastardised to the point that they are unrecognisable”. Yet the Indian food writer Mallika Basu, author of Indian Cooking for Modern Living, says M&S’s curry kits are “at best upsetting, and at worst, offensive and callous”.
Basu caused a stir last week after she tweeted from an M&S food hall: “I grew up in Bengal, head back regularly and I have no idea what Bengali Turmeric Curry is. With celery seeds, tamarind and coconut no less. Can someone please enlighten me?” She also had harsh words for the Punjabi Pilau Kit. “What nonsense…” she wrote. “My dead grandmother just turned in her grave.”
Followers joined in the criticism, with @DeccanTiffin saying: “Don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this. Shows total ignorance, contempt for their customers and a lack of respect for the cuisine they are purporting to be experts in.”
Others came forward with different complaints. “Recipe and cultural appropriation,” wrote the Pakistani food writer Sumayya Usmani. “I’ve given up getting upset about it. Pet peeve is ‘peshwari naan’. It’s Peshawar.”
Sejal Sukhadwala, an Indian food writer, had strong words for one of M&S’s supermarket rivals: “It’s like Tesco’s ‘Gujarati Curry Paste’ in the spices section,” she wrote. “There’s no such thing: nobody in Gujarat uses a curry paste.”
Food historians note that dubiously fused “Indian food” has long been a staple of British curry houses and supermarkets. Vindaloo, Peshwari nans, baltis and the like may be a far cry from fare served on the Indian subcontinent, but they have become part of the national cuisine.
“Curry powder was easily available in the late 18th century,” said food historian Annie Gray. “Curry was a standard dish for using up leftovers for the middle classes in Victorian Britain.”
But the modern appetite for exotic foods has brought consumers “delights” such as chai tea latte (which, translated from Hindi and Italian, means: tea tea milk), poppadom crisps and curry bites.
A Market researcher Mintel reports demand from consumers for “authentic regional” food – with Indian street food tipped to “be the next big thing”.
Basu, an ambassador for the government’s Food is Great campaign, believes food should be created without alienating the communities it comes from.
“Marks & Spencer are so high profile, they should know better,” she said. “You wonder if they consulted any Indians in the development. We have a vibrant food and drink industry, and innovation is at the heart of it. The UK is the capital for Indian food outside India. We have a responsibility to do justice to the real thing.”
A spokesman for M&S said: “The curry kit was developed to be a traditional Bengali malai turmeric curry, a celebratory dish, popular with the British population in Kolkata.
“The range was launched last September under the experienced eye of Cathy Chapman, head of product development, who was the first to introduce chicken korma, chicken tikka kebabs and pilau rice to the weekly shop.”