Any spice is right

A curry purist may find that authentic Indian food is a creative process

I am addicted to Heston Blumenthal's BBC2 series In Search of Perfection. The addiction is odd, because this is the TV cookery series most remote from anything that might happen in my kitchen. Perhaps that remoteness explains my interest: knowing that I am never going to embark upon nine separate processes over several days in order to make a curry, I can view the show as entertainment, and relax. Nigella, Jamie and Rick make me feel that I ought to try to emulate their repertoire. It helps, too, that Blumenthal is an engaging chap who persuades you to find his obsessiveness amusing.

Perfection, in Blumenthal's kitchen, has little to do with authenticity. His spaghetti bolognese uses star anise: not a favoured ingredient with Italian cooks, and which was a disastrous addition when I tried it. Then there is his chicken tikka masala - a dish created, says legend, when a chef at an Indian restaurant in England, dealing with a complaint that the tikka was too dry, poured over it a sauce concocted of tomato soup, curry powder and cream. Blumenthal mentioned that story, but he was not bothered about whether the dish had classical roots. Strangely, given the anglicised origins of chicken tikka masala, he went to India for his research and found that the most useful model for what he wanted to create was the celebrated butter chicken at the Moti Mahal in Delhi.

He certainly took on board the calorific theme. Blumenthal's chicken tikka masala has an olive-oil rub, and then a marinade including yoghurt, ghee (clarified butter) and more olive oil. The chicken is brushed with ghee before roasting. The sauce has a ghee base, along with cashew-nut butter and melon seeds - fried in ghee. You finish the dish with yoghurt, coconut milk and butter. It is a heart attack in a bowl.

But no doubt it's a sublime way to go. Who cares about authenticity? The butter chicken recipe that Blumenthal sampled was not a classic dish, but first served in 1947. Indeed, as Lizzie Collingham points out in Curry: a Biography (2005), Indian food has long been a bastardised phenomenon, taking in influences from numerous sources. There are regional dishes quite different from the curries (mostly created by Bangladeshis from Sylhet) that we eat in our local tandoori houses; but they are also evolving creations. The food you eat when you go to India is more authentic only in the sense that it developed in that country.

Cooking at home, I do not worry about whether purists would frown on my curries - or about whether my use of the generic term "curry" is inappropriate. I am happy to use spice mixes, particularly a selection of the delicious mixes from a firm called Seasoned Pioneers. The last curry I made had that rich quality familiar from Indian restaurants; the secret was leftover sauce from an oxtail stew. It included star anise.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered