Having run a restaurant for 12 years, Khadim Hussain has written a book on curry culture on Teesside, where he lives. He talks to Women's Editor Sarah Foster about our favourite dish.

ENTERING the home of Khadim Hussain in central Middlesbrough, I'm greeted by an aroma. Sharp and pungent, and with a burst of spice, it hangs heavily in the air. Of course it's curry - who could mistake it? What's slightly strange is that it's 10am.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Khadim has, after all, devoted a book to the spicy foodstuff. Sitting next to me on the sofa, he charts his love for it. "I was trained as a chemist - I worked for ICI as a research assistant - then I was made redundant," he says. "So in 1990, I opened my own restaurant, The Cleveland Tandoori on Linthorpe Road, which I ran until 2002. We were the first ones to come up with the name. Everything else was Ali Baba, Taj Mahal and things like that."

As he comes from Pakistan, Khadim, who's 48, had wanted to include this in the name - but he was made to compromise. "I wanted to put on 'Pakistani restaurant' but my brother said 'you can't. People won't understand it,' so we put on 'Pakistani and Indian'," he says.

He freely admits that what he served was rarely authentic. "What we were doing was Indian food but when you say Indian food, it doesn't all come from India," says Khadim. "The dishes served in Indian restaurants are a mixture from all over the world. Chicken tikka masala is British. It was invented in London in the 60s, not in India."

This doesn't come as a revelation - the dubious origins of what is Britain's favourite meal are widely known. Yet the bastardisation of the curry goes deeper than this. It was in his restaurant days, while explaining this to diners, that Khadim first thought of writing a book. "It stemmed from the conversation at the restaurant, when I used to say that the food was not authentic Indian and people would say 'why don't you write a book?'," he says. "Once we closed the restaurant down I thought 'that's a good idea'."

So Khadim, who's now a factory worker, enrolled on a creative writing course at Teesside University. His initial plan was write a history, but he was soon talked out of this. "My training was in chemistry - I was a scientist - and as a scientist, you're taught you can't really write," he says. "After attending the course, Bob (Beagrie, a local writer who co-teaches it) said we really needed to have a social history. It ended up as my personal experiences. I managed to interweave the history of Indians in Middlesbrough and the curry."

What came to light was a colourful tale; how different cultures intermixed and how the curry evolved. "What surprised me was how early the Indians were in this town," says Khadim. "Middlesbrough started in the early 1800s and the Indians came as soon as the port opened. The first Indians were here in 1890."

As he explains, the early foreigners came on ships, in whose kitchens they learned to cook. They worked as sailors, or lascars, and brought their cuisine to Teesside's shores.

Yet the very first curry house wasn't Indian. "The first curry served was not by an Indian, it was by an Arab sailor," says Khadim. "We believe it was in the 40s during the Second World War. It was at a restaurant called Paradise over the border (the local term for St Hilda's). Then there was the Bongo Club. That used to be called Caf Kenya and that served curry as well."

Of course, the sailors would want to eat this but did anyone else? Khadim surprises me by saying they did. "When the British went over to India in the late 1600s they started eating it," he says.

"The thing about curry was that it was something different - and then curry powder took off - so when the sailors came over, it was something that people were aware of. It was nothing new. Curry was around even in the restaurants in (London's) Haymarket in the 1800s."

So what were the early versions like? It seems we'd find them quite familiar.

"What they did were things like vindaloo, madras, that sort of thing," says Khadim, confirming their lack authenticity by adding: "If you were to go to India and say 'can I have a madras?' they would say 'what on earth are you on about?'"

I wonder how such meals grew up - was it just by chance? Khadim is slightly more cynical. "You would never go into an Indian house and eat anything that hot," he says. "It was a way of making the curry cheaper and easier to make because you can't taste anything."

And how we let ourselves be duped. All curry houses had to do was evoke our egos. "What they said was 'you've got to be macho to eat really hot curry'," says Khadim. "It was great publicity - you didn't need television, radio, or anything. We still have it here.

"If you go south the curries are milder than they are in the North because you have to be macho living here. You get things like phal, which is all chilli powder. It's like eating molten lead."

So the curry grew in popularity, with more and more of us tucking into it. According to Khadim, it reached its height in the 1980s. "In the mid to late 80s it really did take off," he says. "There was a curry house on just about every corner. They were open late and they were cheap. You could taste the food even when you were drunk and there was always beer available late."

Yet to characterise curry thus is to do it a disservice. Of course, as Khadim is quick to acknowledge, it also tastes pretty good. "Basically, it's very tasty," he says. "To make proper curry takes about two hours and you need fresh spices as opposed to powdered. Nobody in an Indian home would use powdered stuff. Everybody makes curry but even housewives are known for making certain dishes. Nobody can match them. I think you find that a lot of people here make curries - you'd be surprised."

But with the rise of the ready meal in the early 1990s came a decline in curry house trade. "The reason why most of the takeaway curry houses closed down was because of the availability in supermarkets of ready-made curry," Khadim explains. "The curry boom was stopped by supermarkets and ready meals."

In the long term, however, he claims that this was no bad thing. "What has happened now is that the good restaurants and takeaways have survived and the others have closed down. The customers have become more aware of food - they know what to expect as opposed to going and getting what's given. We've now gone over to the designer restaurants."

The nice thing for him is that today's youngsters - he has a son who's 20 months old - can sample all the world's cuisines. "Mostly kids have grown up with curry now so, to them, it's not foreign," he says. "It's how pizza and chips are for Asian kids. In Linthorpe Road, we've got everything at the moment. It's great because it's giving you an opportunity to taste things and, after a while, you learn what you like best."

As Khadim eyes the fragrant meat dish his wife brings in, it's pretty clear what gets his vote.

* Going For A Curry? A Social History by Khadim Hussain will be launched at a stall at the Middlesbrough Mela, in Albert Park, from noon-5pm on Sunday. Copies of the book, priced £8, will be available on the day and afterwards from Indian restaurants, local book shops and the website www.northernpublishers.co.uk