British immigrant Simon Ghorbani and wife Alison Blackwell bring British curry—which is quite distinct from the traditional Indian dish—to Santa Cruz with their pop-up restaurant Keep Calm And Curry On. They held their first event in April, and their next one will be at Pacific Avenue’s Pop Up on Aug. 18. They even make naan from scratch. Ghorbani tells us about his cooking style and his plans to expand the menu.
What is British-style curry?
The defining characteristic is a high caramelization, because it’s cooked at such high heat. The meals are cooked quickly, so they’re sweeter and thicker than Indian curries. Indian curries tend to be lighter and subtle, whereas British curry tends to be a bit of a kick in the face.
Where’d it come from?
There’s the myth of the tikka masala where a guy in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow was served chicken tikka—which is grilled pieces of chicken—and he said, “I want some gravy with this.” The myth is that the chef took some canned tomato soup, put some cream and spices in it and served that as a gravy and tikka masala was born. I don’t think that’s true. But the idea is that Bengali immigrants came over. They weren’t Indian at all, and they were making curries, but they had to do a short order. Curry needs to be cooked for a long time, so what they would do is make a stock. Then they fried up the dry ingredients at a very high heat and built the curry with this already-made stock. The curries all basically taste the same. You go from one curry house to another, and they have their own specific taste. They had a reputation for being greasy. But then it blossomed and people got creative. Now it’s a blossoming industry. It’s British food. People go for a curry on a Friday night. It’s like a taqueria is here.
Does your menu change at each pop-up?
We are trying to explore. I don’t want to be tied specifically to British curry. There’s a much wider world of spices out there. I’m half Iranian—I’d eventually like to do different kinds of spices, which is lacking a little in Santa Cruz. I want to run the whole gamut from Middle Eastern to North African to Southeast Asian. So far we’ve done two dishes, which are chicken tikka madras and a pork vindaloo. The famous one is chicken tikka masala. But actually madras is the standard curry in British curry houses. It’s not creamy. It’s tangy and sharp. Personally I think chicken tikka masala is a very boring curry, which is why I chose to go with madras.