Undoubtably, the food from the Indian subcontinent is one of the great world cuisines.
The range of styles, traditions, techniques and ingredients is vast. Its influences manyfold.
The ancient Greeks, Persians, Portuguese, Danes, Dutch, French, Chinese and British, all left their mark on what constitutes Indian food today.
The Moghul Emperors, with their pursuit of the aesthetic ‘good life’, raised cooking literally to an artform, as “the most noble and consequential” of the six pleasures.
The Portuguese brought key ingredients from the Americas which are now synonymous with south Asian cuisines – potatoes, tomatoes and of course chilli. The classic Goan vindaloo traces its roots back to the Portuguese carne de vinha e albos or ‘meat with wine and garlic’.
The origins of the very word ‘curry’ are lost in time and disputed. The term is unknown to the hundreds of languages and dialects that proliferate across the subcontinent. The strongest claim is the Tamil ‘karil, a broth made with butter nuts, and a plethora of herbs, spices and fruits, notably cardamoms and ginger. Karil was transformed by the Portuguese to ‘caril’ or ‘curree’, which the Brits learned as curry.
Today, curry is merely a shorthand for an infinite variety of spicy dishes from the Caribbean to Japan.
The earliest published curry recipe in English was thought to be The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse in 1747. The first edition of her book used only black pepper and coriander seeds for the seasoning of “currey”. By the fourth edition of the book, other ingredients such as turmeric and ginger were called into action.
Queen Elizabeth I granted the first charter to London merchants trading to the East Indies in 1600, hoping to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade. Throughout the British colonial era in India, from 1600 to 1947, local cooks modified traditional recipes to suit the tastes British palettes. These made their way back to the motherland when civil servants and military personnel returned home. By 1748 Sotlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in Piccadilly was adverting ready-mixed curry powder. By the 1850s British cookery books were calling for a spoonful of curry powder in many dishes.
The first Indian restaurant, Hindoostane Coffee House, was opened in London in 1810 by Sake Dean Mahomed, a former captain in the British East India Company. He went on to become ‘personal shampooing surgeon’ to George IV and William IV.
Queen Victoria, styled ‘Empress of India’ after 1876 was introduced to Indian cuisine by her ‘Munshi’, Abdul Karim. Thereafter she ate curry every day, with great relish and in considerable quantities, until the end of her life, 25 years later.
The forerunners of today’s modern curry restaurants first appeared in the dockside areas of London’s East End. These were cheap guest houses catering for Sylheti merchant sailors on shore leave, while their cargoes were being discharged. Evening meals of spiced stews soon attracted seamen of other nationalities, in search of a cheap, tasty meal. And so, the first curry houses appeared on these shores.
Today around 90% of British curry venues are still owned and managed by people whose families originate from what is now Bangladesh, from the city of Sylhet.
During the UK’s economic boom of the late 1950s and ‘60s and shortage of labour, the British Government turned to its colonies to fill the vacancies. The regions of what is now modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh provided a willing workforce to join the ‘rag trade’ in London and the textile mills and factories of the Midlands and North West.
Many arrivals intended only to stay a short period, to earn far more than they could back home, before returning to invest in a business or property, or enjoy a comfortable retirement.
Carlsberg lager was widely available in curry restaurants thanks to Prince Axel of Denmark. The Prince attended the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Whilst there he visited the Veeraswamy (London’s first high end Indian restaurant) run “pop-up” at the Indian Government Pavilion. They managed to break the J. Lyons’ catering monopoly. Throughout the exhibition, the restaurant served an average of 500 curries a day.
Veeraswamy in London catered to a largely European clientele, mostly ex-Indian Civil Service and Indian Army officers. Prince Axel later visited the Regent Street restaurant, bringing a barrel of Carlsberg with him. It proved popular and the restaurant started importing it. The restaurant acted as something of a training ground for waiters. Eventually leaving to open their own restaurants, they also served Carlsberg, until the likes of Kingfisher and Cobra captured the market.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, curry restaurants became the venue of choice for pub goers and night clubbers, after closing time
Owners and their staff often had to endure considerable customer abuse, in order to survive, during those times. To make matters worse many ‘customers’ thought it was acceptable to ‘do a runner’ without paying for their meals.
Thankfully those days are behind us, but the we should recognise the debt we owe to those who persevered and created the industry we know and love today. That why British Curry Day is dedicated to them
However, despite facing some hostility and racial tensions, many arrivals integrated well. were welcome by their communities and were pleasantly surprised how even different religions (Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists) from India, living together peacefully. More so than back home. Many settled here permanently, regarding it as a land of opportunity, free from corrupt officials, with universal social justice and equality, where everyone has access to decent healthcare and a good education.
Many chose to open restaurants, at a time when eating out was relatively expensive for working class Brits, and when cheap cafés closed early. Pubs rarely sold food.
Those early eateries often bore no resemblance to what we are familiar with today. Menus featured British staples – prawn cocktail and tomato starters, roast meats. Customers demanded something different – but not too different – to what they knew. The nibbles that had previously accompanied the sherry aperitifs, were swapped for poppadoms – a snack in India, but never a pre starter. Prawn cocktail morphed in prawn puree. Chips become Bombay potatoes.
Owners began wall papering their venues with red flock, which was unknown in India, but commonplace with the dining rooms of gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s.
To cope with customers differing demands for heat in their curries, restaurant owners adjusted the chilli and invented dishes such as Chicken Tikka (mild) Madras (medium hot) Vindaloo (very hot) and Phall (a joke curry, served to late night drunks, keen to demonstrate their manliness).
Restaurant chefs developed the ‘base curry’ technique for serving a wide variety of dishes, in a busy restaurant, quickly. Frowned upon by some, this is a ‘blank canvass’ method adopted from classic French chefs (who trained many British apprentices), reliant on their stock pots. The French themselves had several colonies in India, most notably the coastal city, Pondicherry, on the Bay of Bengal.
Further examples of how British Asian influences are now firmly embedded into everyday life, is the enormous range of ‘ethnic’ foods and ingredients now stocked by supermarket chains and small independents. Hospital and school menus invariably include a curry. British Indian snacks, such as Chicken Tikka Masala crisps, abound.
British Indian Restaurant [BIR] cooking has its critics, describing it as “inauthentic.” Such claims miss the point. The essence of running a hospitality business, it to serve and satisfy the customer.
The curry industry understands this. Recipes and cooking techniques are not frozen in time – they evolve. As the public demand is for more plant-based dishes, small plates or gluten-free items, restaurants will deliver them.
In the meantime, British Asian cooking continues to develop. Children who are raised on Chicken Tikka Masala, for which every chef has their own recipe, are now developing a tasty for spicier dishes and requesting hotter variations of “Britain’s National Dish.”