According to a report from consumer analyst NPD group, Indian restaurants and takeaways are facing hot competition from the supermarkets. Apparently, ethnic restaurants have suffered a decline of 123 million visits over three years. Meanwhile supermarket sales of readymade Indian curries have soared.
But can a supermarket product really compare with the recipes, processes and spice blends used in an Indian restaurant?
Curry Life decided to find out. We invited 20 ‘judges’ comprising chefs, caterers, restaurant critics, cookery writers, supermarket employees and a few curryholics to exercise their taste buds in an exclusive Curry Taste Off!
The aim was to sample, compare and judge ten different versions of
’s favourite Chicken Tikka Masala
and (less favourite) dish of vegetable curry. Eight dishes were from the major
supermarkets and two from the typical Indian takeaway down the road. All
tasting was anonymous and tasters had no idea which curry came from where. And after some serious slurping, concentrated
chewing and inward digesting, we got some very interesting feedback. Here are
the judges’ comments (in no particular order), with the final rankings revealed at the end … Britain
Chicken Tikka Masala and Rice
£3.89 400g SCORE: 75
Chicken content: Diced chicken breast 14% (rice was 13%).
The verdict: Our tasters were united in liking the creamy flavour, although the curry was generally judged to be a bit on the bland side. Cumin and cardamom spices were discerned. Comments included: “The meat is very smooth but a bit dry.” “Nice level of spice.” “Creamy and pale - possibly too pale to be authentic.” “Good spicy aftertaste.” “Chicken seems a bit processed but the sauce is lovely!” “Very nice - creamy and tomatoey, but not full of flavour.” “I can taste spices but it’s more like a Korma.” “Chewed on a cardamom pod!” wailed one taster, whilst another got a strong taste of cashew nuts.
Chef’s comment: “Bland to start with, then a nice hint of spice. Well balanced flavours. Chicken a bit soggy – probably cheap chicken was used in this dish.”
- Asda Chicken Tikka Masala with Pillau Rice - £1.50 450g SCORE: 58
Supermarket description: Marinated pieces of succulent chicken breast in our spicy, creamy sauce with tomato, yoghurt and a touch of chilli.
Chicken content: Cooked marinated chicken breast (28%), Chicken breast (96%) (pillau rice 36%).
The verdict: Testers were divided on this one – while some loved it, others found little to praise. Comments ranged from an enthusiastic “Authentic taste, enjoyed it”, and “Really tasty! This has got to be the ‘real’ curry!” to “Chicken is like mush, poor quality – tastes very processed”, “very bland!!!”, “wishy washy”, and “watery”. “The sauce is nice but I didn’t really like the texture of the chicken as it was bit mushy”, said one. Another taster commented that was more like a casserole than a curry. “It lacks spice and flavour and has a strange consistency.” At the end of the day with a price tag of £1.50, it’s surprising the dish did so well.
Chef’s comment: “No texture to the chicken. The dish didn’t look appetizing and tasted a bit like spicy baby food! I didn’t like the finely chopped vegetables but it was nice and flavoursome on first taste.”
- Chicken Tikka Masala from Indian takeaway £8.95 approx 650g SCORE: 85
The verdict: Astute tasters recognised the bright red colouring was indicative of the authentic takeaway dish. Most enjoyed it and liked the buttery flavour. The meat was generally thought to be of better quality and it had obviously been cooked in a tandoor oven with skewer holes evident. Comments included: “Nice smell and taste.” “Chunkier pieces of chicken but too much turmeric.” “Enjoyed this one!” “Sweet coconut and spices but chicken is dry.” “Quite sweet; nice meat.” “Chicken is dry but has a nice flavour.” “Good colouring, tastes authentic.” “Possibly a bit too sweet and coconutty,” wrote one taster. Someone else complained about the “coarser texture” and “synthetic colour” whilst another described the dish with an enthusiastic, “Mellow and morish!”
Chef’s comment: Nice texture to the chicken and it actually tasted and looked like chicken! This one has a real authentic tandoor flavour. Quite a mild curry but very pleasant and quite sweet – the taste of coconut is a little overpowering; but it’s also spicy and hot.”
- Marks & Spencer Chicken Tikka Masala £4.00 400g SCORE: 66.5
Chicken content: Cooked marinated chicken 40% (87% chicken breast).
The verdict: M&S claim to sell over 18 tonnes of
’s favourite dish a week. The
most expensive of the supermarket bought meals, tasters found it “wishy washy”
and criticised its creaminess. “I can taste heat but not spice” was one comment.
“It’s creamy but has a bit less flavour.” “Poor taste with a strange wheaty aftertaste.”
“Too much garlic!” Several mentioned the taste of cumin seeds, and cardamom
flavours. Praise included: “Has texture of real meat”and “mild but has a nice
tang”. However, some tasters thought the opposite: “Chicken tastes modified”
said one, whilst another simply wrote “Yuck!” Britain
Chef’s comment: The chicken has a good texture. It’s quite spicy but a pleasant and quite creamy curry.
- Sainsbury’s Indian Chicken Tikka Masala £3.60 400g SCORE: 78
Chicken content: Chargrilled marinated chicken breast 35%.
The verdict: The natural flavours of this dish proved to be a hit. “This is definitely not supermarket – yes I like this one,” wrote one mistaken tester. Other comments were: “Warming and spicy.”“Creamy with a hint of spices.” “Not much flavour here, just spice.” “I like the look of this one! Nice texture of meat.” “A bit more heat would make it very good”. “Tangy aftertaste”. “Nice and flavoursome.“ “Fairly spicy, not very colourful.” “Nice bit of heat” and “hotter!”. “Tender meat” was noted more than once. “It’s more smoky and herby tasting as well”, said one taster. “Thicker sauce, maybe too thick,” wrote another.
Chefs Comment: Good texture of chicken. Again, I found the sauce a little thick and heavy. Nice spicing. I liked the texture of the chicken and flavour but the texture of the sauce lets it down for me.
- Tesco’s Indian Chicken Tikka Masala - £3.20 350g SCORE: 71
Chicken content: Marinated chicken 51%
The verdict: Again, testers found the dish a bit bland though they commented on the good texture of the chicken. It was generally judged to be less creamy. Feedback was as follows: “Nice flavour, just a hint of spice.” “A bit oily.” “I can taste coconut and mint,” (neither ingredient was in this dish.) “The sauce is lovely”, “tasty, fairly spicy.” “Herby.” “Has a look of a Korma,” wrote one tester, “It’s too mild for me,” complained another. “The chicken seems very processed. Not much flavour. Nice, creamy texture but not enough spice,” was the final conclusion.
Chef’s Comment: A bit bland but the texture of the chicken is good.
- Morrison’s Indian Takeaway Chicken Tikka Masala £3.25 385g SCORE: 62
Chicken content: Chicken breast 28%
The verdict: “Brilliant! Jolly nice, a bit coconutty.” “Watery sauce, chicken tastes rubbery.” “There is hardly any chicken and the sauce is too thin.” “Not much flavour, horrible chicken.” “I eat more supermarket readymade meals than curries from takeaways so I’m more used to their taste,” one tester was heard to comment.
Chef’s comment: Too watery and bland. The chicken tastes more natural than some but is still a bit synthetic with a strangely smooth texture.
- Marks & Spencer’s Vegetable Curry £2.90 SCORE: 76
The verdict: Surprisingly, several people thought this was the authentic takeaway dish. Comments were highly complimentary with the vegetables receiving praise for their chunky size and taste. Comments included: “Very tasty, nice spice level. “Vegetables are good consistency.” “Vegetables seem like they’ve been frozen.” “Great cauliflower!” “Don’t usually choose veggie curries but I could go for this!” “Nice big chunks of vegetables.” “Sharp spice taste – definitely supermarket.” “The vegetables are more chunky, but not a lot of taste.” “Excellent! Very tasty, exotic. Got to be authentic!”
Chefs comment: Vegetables are nice and crispy and can identify what everything is. This dish is nice and spicy too.
- Tesco’s Takeaway Vegetable Curry £3.50 SCORE: 41
The verdict: No-one seemed to like this dish, with one taster labelling it as the “worst curry ever!” The general opinion was that the consistency was too mushy. Comments were: “Moist but not very tasty.” “Not much taste.” “Seems to be made with frozen veg.” “No spice.” “Very tomatoey.” “Doesn’t look appetising, veggie bits seem to have a liquorice taste.” “Veg are a bit soft.” “Not for me!” “Very little flavour,” and finally … “Me no likey!!”
Chef’s Comment: The vegetables are soggy. I’m not over impressed with the flavour. Medium spice but lacked body.
- Vegetable Curry from Indian takeaway £5.95 approx 650g
The verdict: Comments were not all full of praise, although there were plenty of positive remarks: “Veg mushy.” “Unpleasant aftertaste.” “Nice aftertaste.” “Too much of one particular spice, not sure which.” “Smooth, nice taste.” “Hot but not too hot.” “Love this one! Nice and spicy.” “Bitter taste, frozen veg again.” “Good spice on the whole.” “Tasty, lots of veg – best of the veg curries.” “Very spicy must be the real thing.” “Quite hot.” “Good after spice taste.” “Gloopy! If this is authentic I will eat the raw chillies (not my hat),”
Chef’s comment: Something is lacking with the flavour. It has nice spice and is quite hot. I’d like to see some more exotic vegetables rather than carrots, peas and potatoes, though I can also identify celery, butternut squash, sweetcorn and maybe spinach in there. I find the aftertaste quite unpleasant although other people seemed to like it.
HERE ARE THE FINAL SCORES (IN ORDER)
Chicken Tikka Masalas
- Indian takeaway 85
- Sainsbury’s 78
- Waitrose 75
- Tesco’s 71
- Marks & Spencers 66.5
- Morrison’s 62
- Asda 58
- Indian takeaway 78
- Marks & Spencers 76
- Tesco’s Takeaway 41
From this tasting session at least, it seems you still can’t beat the real McCoy from the local Indian takeaway if you are looking for quality; fresh, natural ingredients; flavour; authenticity, and a real tandoor taste.
But supermarket curries have a few things in their favour, notably the price. They also possibly have less ghee content – most of the ones we tested used rapeseed oil which has less unhealthy saturated fats than all other cooking oils. Surprisingly, they used mainly natural ingredients, no additives or flavours were involved. Only the Asda product contained modified maize starch. Ingredients included separate, sometimes in the case of Waitrose, whole spices and cloves. Cashew nuts were used in some supermarket dishes (Waitrose, Morrisons, Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s) rather than less expensive desiccated coconut. On the downside, many supermarket curries contain over half a teaspoonful of salt – more than half the recommended daily intake – and there’s no getting away from that synthetic tasting chicken which, in all cases, did not seem to have been separately cooked in a tandoor.
When we look at the vegetable curry, in this tasting at least, the M&S product follows close on the takeaway’s heels, with a significantly lower price tag. However, it should be said that although the takeaway products cost more, the portions at approx 650g were almost twice the size of some supermarket meals, with enough to feed more than two people.
So, should Indian takeaway operators be worried? According to Guy Fielding, Director of Business Development for the NPD Group, ethnic food may not be perceived as the everyday good value it once was.
He continues: “To compete with the supermarkets ethnic operators need to change the price value equation by introducing deals and promotions that resonate with consumers. The recession has made consumers more discriminating in the choices they make. Ethnic operators will need to get more sophisticated about the deal and the promotion element of the business if they are to turn this decline around.”
Some of our Tasters:
|Lisa Anderson, Owner of Finer Catering|
|Testers and staff from the Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School who took part in the tasting session.|