What is British curry

It’s time to recognise the pioneers of British curry

The inaugural British Curry Day takes place on Thursday, December 3, with the aim of celebrating the heroes of the “greatest culinary movement” the nation has ever witnessed.

In the 1960s and 70s a generation of Indian restaurateurs and chefs started a culture-defining story, a story which has propelled chicken tikka masala into the number 1 spot in the list of Britain’s all-time favourite dishes, knocking the much-loved fish and chips off the perch.

You see many people are unaware that many of the classic curries, including the chicken tikka masala, balti, jalfrezi, madras and chicken vindaloo, were made in Britain.

The origins of a new culture

Going back to where it started, 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. Queen Victoria was an early adopter, a keen fan of curry.

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. 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.

The start of something new

But it wasn’t until midway through the twentieth century that British curry truly arrived and the pioneers really made their mark.

During the UK’s economic boom of the late 1950s and 1960s and a 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. They started to open restaurants.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these 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.

Eating out was relatively expensive for working-class Brits, cheap cafés closed early and pubs rarely sold food.

A food evolution

Traditional and authentic Indian cuisine, with its spices and exotic favours, was blended together with an increasing demand for new flavours along with conversative British tastes to create a new set of dishes.

Customers demanded something different – but not too different. 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).

Tikka came from India, but for the British people used to roast chicken, it was too spicy. So, then chefs began adding some tomato puree and cream and gradually the chicken tikka masala emerged. What is interesting is that different chefs will cook this truly national dish slightly differently, with some more sour, some very red, some rather sweet and others packed full of tomatoes.

The onion bhaji is another classic example, adapted from onion rings and shaped like a cricket ball. Chips become Bombay potatoes. Next up take the reinvention of poppadoms, from a snack in India to a starter in the UK paired with chutney.

Talking of starters, the prawn cocktail inspired the development of the prawn puri, which does not exist in India, with the Brits becoming increasing bored of the 1960’s favourite and Indian restaurants going on to emulate the dish with another Anglo-Indian creation.

It’s time to salute the British curry pioneers

Enam Ali MBE is the founder of The British Curry Awards and Spice Business Magazine and launched British Curry Day to ensure and truly establish the legacy of the curry pioneers.

He said: “The current phenomenon that is British curry and its culinary prowess and wide-reaching influence on British society, to the culture-defining story of its history. We now export curry to India and it’s down to our forefathers, the true curry pioneers. British Curry Day is a tribute to them. Such a strong story should be preserved. We salute them.”

So, please join us and celebrate the true heroes of British curry and celebrate British Curry Day and share the #BackTheBhaji on social media.