Lassi comes home
IPA is so-called from the days when shiploads of British beer were sent to expatriates In the Indian empire
Sometimes, only a curry will do. Indian flavours and textures meet appetites no other food can satisfy appetites aroused, perhaps, by a chota peg (a Hindified term for a small whisky) or, more suitably, by a gin and "Indian" tonic.
The aromatic juniper in gin tickles the palate, while the dilutant more urgently amuses it. The quinine in tonic water was originally intended to ease the fever of malaria. But being bitter, it stimulates the gastric juices and so provokes hunger.
In this respect, quinine - which is extracted from the bark of a tropical tree - is matched only by the resiny. oily, acidic cone of the hop vine. At least 20 or 30 British brewers still produce a style of beer known as IPA. The initials, meaning "India Pale Ale", puzzle some drinkers. The term derives from the days when shiploads of British beer were sent to expatriates in the Indian empire. These exports were brewed with extra hops because the plant is a preservative as well as an ingredient of aroma and flavour. The hefty hopping helped stop the beer going sour on its long and warm sea journey. None of today's IPA brews has the intense hoppiness required then, but some are still very appetising.
Fuller's India Pale Ale, from London, has an aromatic suggestion of lemon pith and a spritzy crisp, dry finish. Usher's India Pale Ale, from Wiltshire, is scenty, with a grassy, seaweedy gritty dryness. In the most famous home of the style, Burton upon Trent, Marston's makes the nuttily dry India Export Pale Ale. Whitbread's brewery, in County Durham, produces the spicy, aniseedy Fuggles Imperial IPA, named after the type of hops used. In Edinburgh, the Caledonian brewery produces Deuchar's IPA, full of the refreshing appetising orange-skin flavour of Styrian hops.
A few beers followed by a curry is surely the most British observance of our age. But once you are hungry, what should you drink with the meal? "Beer" or "lager" is the usual, uselessly vague, advice.
Indian lager might seem the obvious choice. Despite religious and cultural inhibitions, the subcontinent has large and powerful brewing companies. But their products have no distinctive local accent other than perhaps to be on the sweet side. Three lagers with Indian origins are now produced in Britain. None has much flavour Lal Toofan ("Red Storm"), from Usher's, is lightly flowery, Cobra, from Charles Wells, of Bedford, has become firmer and drier in recent years; Kingfisher, from Shepherd Neame, of Kent. I find slightly musty.
To stand up to spicy foods, a richer style of lager would be preferable. The amber-red, aromatically malty type traditionally made for Munich Oktoberfest would do the trick but that is hard to find today, even there. In the days of flock wallpaper, every neighbourhood Indian restaurant served the modestly characterful Dortmunder Actien Bier. Now, they all seem to offer the blander Carlsberg. Is this decided by some Indian Mr Big? Even the fashionable spots have predictable beers.
Until something more characterful is on offer, I think I'll stick to the yoghurt drink Iassi. I also remember, nostalgically, the rosewater-tasting sherbert drink I once risked in Calcutta Shorbat gulab, anyone?
Published Online: FEB 28, 2000
Published in Print: AUG 9, 1997
In: The Independent
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