Contemporary British Literature

A year’s worth of Samad softly inclining his head at exactly the correct deferential angle, pencil in his left hand, listening to the appalling pronunciation of the British, Spanish, American, French, Australian:

            Go Bye Ello Sag, please.

            Chicken Jail Fret See wiv Chips, fanks.  (White Teeth, 46)

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a relatively recent novel, written when she was still in college and published in 2000.  This was one of the books we read in my modern British Literature class, which contains many elements of postmodern literature, including an interest in hybridity and, in this case, a questioning of colonialism.

In the novel, Samad Iqbal is a man born in Bangladesh who now lives in Britain with his wife and works as a waiter in an Indian restaurant.  This quote gives a description of a day at work, where Samad has to listen to customers mispronounce many of the Indian dishes they serve:  Gobhi Aaloo Saas – Go Bye Ello Sag; Lamb Dhansak – Lamb Dawn Sock, later on in the novel; and Chicken Jalfrezi – Chicken Jail Fret See (Shackleton).


By looking at the references to food, and how people pronounce them, we get better insight not only into the historical relationship between India and Britain, but also the contemporary reciprocal influence.

Before 1947, Britain had ruled the Indian subcontinent since its colonial beginnings (Buettner, 872).  As Asian immigrants began to settle in Britain and open new restaurants, the reception was mixed, but in the 1960s and 1970s, curry began to gain gradual acceptance and popularity.  Because of the need to thrive in a white-dominant society, “many establishments opened or adapted their offerings to attract a white clientele and spread from areas with large immigrant concentrations to become a nationwide presence” (Buettner, 879).  This blending of traditional Indian cuisine with Britain’s preferences can be seen in many of the dishes served, like Chicken Jalfrezi.


Jalfrezi is believed to be created during British rule, or the Raj, of India by Governor General for the state of Bengal, Lord Marcus Sandys (India Curry).  The word “Jhal” means “spicy” in Bengal, and Lord Marcus Sandys was known for enjoying spicy Indian food.  In order to use all of the leftover food from before, the British reheated the leftovers as a stir fry, and thus Jalfrezi came to be and has been gaining popularity ever since.


A new poll in 2011 found that Chicken Jalfrezi has become the most popular choice in Britain’s Indian restaurants, even over Chicken Tikka Masala (which is considered one of Britain’s national dishes) (Hall).  This trend is thought to be due to Britons’ evolving and more adventurous preference for spicier foods.  We can see this budding development in White Teeth, even though it is not exactly pronounced correctly.  Still, the novel emphasizes the merging of Indian and British culture, not only through the history of Chicken Jalfrezi, but also with the addition of chips, or fries to the dish.


I had never made Indian food or curry from scratch before this, and I had never had Chicken Jalfrezi before, either.  When looking for a recipe, I found one on BBC Good Food, and I figured that this would be perfect, since the quote from White Teeth is about Indian food in Britain.


There were a lot more steps to making it than I thought, from marinating the chicken in spices, to creating the sauce, to making the stir fry vegetables.  However, each step allowed for more flavor to come into the dish.  The sauce was so good on its own, even without the chicken or stir fry!


I got some frozen fries to include, just to see what it would be like to eat “chips” with chicken jalfrezi.  The fries were good to dip in the sauce, but I ended up sticking mainly to eating the Indian food with rice.  I really liked the taste of it, and it was not very difficult to make, so I would highly recommend it to whomever is feeling as adventurous as the British with their evolving taste in Indian food!


Chicken Jalfrezi


The sauce:

  • 1/2 a large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 green chilli, chopped
  • 1 tin plum tomatoes
  • 1/2 pint of water
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric

The meat & veg:

  • 2 or 3 chicken breasts, diced up
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 a large onion, sliced
  • 2 red chillis (optional)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala (spice mix)
  • a handful of fresh, chopped coriander leaves


1. Take the chopped chicken and coat it in the cumin, ground coriander and turmeric then leave it to marinade in the fridge while you make the sauce.

2. To make the sauce, fry the roughly chopped onions with the garlic and green chilli in a large pan until browned. Add the water to the onion mixture and simmer this for around 20 minutes.

3. While that is simmering, put the plum tomatoes in a food processor and give it a good whizz – aim for a smooth consistency. Heat another large pan and gently fry the ground coriander, cumin and turmeric in a splash of oil for about a minute. Add the tomato ‘sauce’ to this pan and simmer for around 10 minutes.

4. Next give your onion mixture a good whizz in the food processor and add it to the spiced tomato sauce. Give it a stir and simmer for 20 minutes. You can make large batches of this sauce and freeze it for later use.

5. Fry the marinaded chicken in oil and stir continuously. After a few minutes, turn down the heat and add the other half of the chopped onion, the red pepper and chillis. Stir this until the onions and pepper soften (and the chicken is cooked, of course).

6. Add the earlier prepared sauce to the cooked chicken and simmer for around 10-20 minutes. Just before you dish it up, stir in the garam masala and chopped coriander leaves. Serve with basmati rice or naan bread.



Buettner, Elizabeth. “’Going for an Indian’: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain.” The Journal of Modern History, 80.4 (2008): 865-901. Online.

Hall, James. “Move over masala, jalfrezi is now our favourite curry.” Telegraph.July 21, 2011. <>

India Curry. “What is Jalfrezi?” <>

Shackleton, Mark. “More Sour than Sweet? Food as a Cultural Marker in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Salman Rusdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” The Electronic Journal of the Department of English at the University of Helsinki, 3 (2004). Online. <>

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.


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