Keep Korma & Curry On:
The History of Curry Part I
(From India to the Curry Houses of Great Britain)
Curry Part I Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the first in a two-part series on things you didn’t know you didn’t know about the history of curry. Forged in India, and distributed by the British, curry has formed its own identity outside of the cuisine of its Indian origins.
So if you want to know about the origins of your favorite curry recipes, who opened the first Indian restaurant in London, or why the term “Ruby” means curry in Britain, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.
EAT MY GLOBE
KEEP KORMA AND CURRY ON: THE HISTORY OF CURRY
(Part 1 – From India to The Curry Houses of Great Britain)
So the other day, I went into a library.
Yeah, and I said to the lady behind the counter. . . I said, “may I have a Chicken Vindaloo?”
And she looked at me and she said, “Sir, this is a library.”
And I said, “Oh gosh, I’m really sorry.” I said . . .
[Whispering] “May I have a Chicken Vindaloo?”
That is. . . . oh.
I made that up.
Actually, I can believe it.
I think that’s funny.
Okay. Well, that sums it up.
So let’s. . . Let’s get on with it.
Hi everybody I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s part 1 of a 2-part episode, we’re going to look at something that is very close to my heart. Something that not only connects me to the half of me that was generated from my father’s Indian heritage, but one that is also very important for my own identification as someone who has spent a good deal of their life living in the British Isles. In fact, this subject is part of an industry that contributes about £5 billion to the UK economy every year.
It’s a subject about which there is much debate and confusion, not only about its origins, but also about how its meaning has changed as it has moved around the world. And, it is also a subject that has key dishes that have been recreated in many different forms and become an essential part of many different cuisines. It’s also a subject about which there is a great deal of controversy and accusations of cultural appropriation of regional Indian cuisine by international interlopers -- primarily British -- with some authors, such as the legendary Indian cook, Madhur Jaffrey, declaring that the very use of the word was, quote, “degrading.”
And yet, it is a cuisine -- and yes, I do believe it has become a cuisine in its own right, quite apart from its place of origin -- that has become beloved of UK diners, and so much part of British culture that one of its star dishes, Chicken Tikka Masala, has been declared Britain’s national dish.
And, in 2009, the Indian restaurants that sold this cuisine were calculated to add about £3 billion to the UK economy.
So, what is it that we’re going to talk about today on Eat My Globe?
Well, today, of course, we’re going to tell you all about the fascinating history of Curry.
In today’s episode, we will look at how the notion of curry came to exist, and how it moved from its origins in India to becoming arguably the national cuisine of Great Britain. That may seem like an odd statement but follow along and you’ll see what I mean.
Let’s start at the very beginning, what exactly is curry?
Well, our friends at Merriam-Webster have two definitions. The first,
“a food, dish, or sauce in Indian cuisine seasoned with a mixture of pungent spices.”
That will make a good starting point for discussing the origins of curry.
While the second,
“a food or dish seasoned with curry powder”
is a good starting point for looking at how curry has gone on to be understood up to the current day.
In the excellent, short but spicy book, “Curry: A Global History,” author Colleen Taylor Sen gives her own definition saying,
“a curry is a spiced meat, fish or vegetable stew served with rice, bread, cornmeal or another starch. The spices may be freshly prepared as a powder or a spice paste or purchased as a ready-made mixture.”
In Jayanta Sengupta’s essay in the book, “Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History,” co-edited by one of our friends, Professor Paul Freedman, along with his colleagues, he defines curry as,
“a spicy stew of meat, fish, or vegetables, cooked in clarified butter or oil, with a large array of dry roasted whole or ground spices, frequently involving onions, ginger, and garlic, sometimes including tamarind and/or coconut milk or flesh, and typically eaten with rice.”
All of which I think gives us a few good starting points.
The word, “curry,” itself is derived from a word in the Indian language of Tamil. This is a language from the Dravidian family of languages spoken primarily in India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is also a language that is prevalent in Singapore, South Africa, Mauritius, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Fiji. The language is currently the main language of around 66 million people in the world, and is considered a “classic” language – an honorific that is declared for languages that have an ancient history, their own independent tradition and have a recognizable body of literature in that language.
The anglicized word, “curry” – C U R R Y – is derived from the word “Kari” – K A R I – in Tamil. This is a word that literally means “charcoal” in Tamil [Ed Note: கரி]. When I spoke with noted food writer, Nikhil Merchant, he said it would be used in a culinary sense to mean “blackening” a dish over charcoal. The term would not be used on its own, but rather be used to complete the name of a dish.
Alan Davidson suggests in his encyclopedic work, “The Oxford Companion to Food,” that the term refers to a spiced sauce, the sort of which were served in South India with rice. In a sense, it was a word that referred to a dressing that was added to meat, and fish, and vegetables. It’s also interesting to note that this dressing contained black pepper – not chilis, which we’ll discuss later.
The word was then adopted by first, the Portuguese, then the other early colonists to India – the Dutch and the British – to be a representation of all of the above styles of dishes. The word was anglicized – that is, made more easy to pronounce in English – over time and became the word “curry” with which we are so familiar with today.
So now that we’ve looked at the origins of the word, “curry,” the next obvious questions should be how this specifically Indian range of dishes began to be exported around the world, and not only that but also to become noticeably different in each place they are found, and different from the food found in India itself.
Well of course, we should begin by acknowledging that long before the first colonial powers began arriving on their shores, India already had a rich and varied cuisine. The earliest people of the region that we are aware of would be those of the Harappan civilization, often known as the people of the Indus Valley, which occupied the region from around 2500 B.C.E.
Situated in what would now be Pakistan, the main staples of the Harappan cuisine were beans, wheat and barley, alongside many lentils, peas and chickpeas. They also ate beef, mutton, fish, turtles and buffalo. Most interestingly for our discussion, the Harappans were people who are known to have used some of the earliest trading routes that we are aware of, to exchange goods primarily with the Mesopotamians. It was a trade that would have brought luxury goods into their territory, which would have included spices.
Also interesting is that recent archaeological research on kitchen pottery from the small settlement of Farmana – about two hours drive from Delhi – has shown that some of the dishes prepared included elements of turmeric, ginger and garlic. These are discoveries that have led some scientists to dub some of the dishes prepared in the Indus Valley to be a form of “proto-curry.”
Another great influence on Indian cuisine that in fact overlapped the arrival of some of the first European colonists would have been the occupation of much of Northern and Central India by those from Western Asia and Central Asia known as the Mughals. The name, “Mughal,” came from a version of the Persian word for Mongol, who are a tribe from Central Asia and was once led by the famous – or infamous – Genghis Khan, as I was told how to pronounce it when I was in Mongolia one time. Zahir-ud-Din Mohammad Babur, the first of the Mughal emperors, invaded Northern India in 1526. After defeating the local ruler, Ibrahim Lodhi, the Sultan of Delhi, Babur founded what was to become known as the Mughal Empire.
The Mughal Empire lasted for over three centuries until the last of the ruling dynasty was exiled by the British in 1858, following what was known as the Indian Revolt. During that time, they brought with them many elements that we still think of as Indian today, including some of the most magnificent art and architecture – Taj Mahal, anybody? – and of course the impact their Muslim cuisine had on the areas they occupied. Some of the most well-known Indian dishes that we think of now – including Biryanis, Pulaos, Khichri and Falooda – have their origins in this period. And, you will still see them on the menus of many Indian restaurants. Often, these dishes were meant for the aristocracy of the Mughal community, and would therefore be dishes using expensive ingredients, nuts, dried fruits, and creams.
Other trading relationships too had an impact on the Indian communities from North to South.
However, I would argue that for our conversation, that is about the notion of curry, it was the arrival of colonial settlers that had some of the most profound impact. It was, for example, the colonial settlers, particularly the Portuguese, who introduced the regional cuisines of India to a slew of new ingredients, dishes and cooking styles. These were ingredients that had been encountered by explorers from places such as Portugal, Spain, France and later Britain, on their expeditions to the Americas, and again form part of that process about which we have talked so many times on Eat My Globe [Ed. Note: Fish & Chips, The History of Chocolate, Interview with UCLA Professor Teofilo Ruiz, and The History of Beef Part I among others], the Columbian Exchange – the process by which cultural and agricultural elements are transferred from one location to the next by the process of “contact ” or colonialization.
In terms of dishes that were introduced, you could look at one of the classics of the Indian restaurant menu, the Vindaloo, one of my absolute favorites. Nowadays, we might think of that as the stereotypical “hot” Indian dish that is known for its mouth searing qualities, rather than what it was originally. The word, “vindaloo,” is actually a localized version of a Portuguese dish called, Carne de Vinha D’alhos, a dish of meat – usually pork – marinated in vinegar – made from wine – and garlic.
The Franciscan priests who had set up missions in Goa, one of the first Portuguese colonies in India, would use a vinegar fermented from palm trees, and add local flavorings such as tamarind, cardamom, cloves and long pepper. They would also add another Portuguese import, the chili pepper.
I have a wonderful recipe for vindaloo which was given to me by a chef in Goa during a visit there some years ago, which I think is probably very close to what the early colonists might have eaten. It’s posted on the recipe page of my website at Simon Majumdar dot com if you want to give it a try. Do let me know if you do. It is delicious.
In terms of the ingredients that were introduced, there were many that would be considered as quintessential to a lot of Indian dishes today. These would include tomatoes, potatoes and probably most important for all of us, the ingredient I mentioned before, the chili pepper.
It may come as a surprise to many for whom the notion of Indian food without at least some heat from chili is unthinkable, that it is not a plant that is indigenous to the country and was not originally used in the cuisine. The warmth in dishes came from traditional black pepper, and we actually take the name pepper from the Hindi word, “Pippali.”
In fact, the chili peppers originated in the Americas, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years and long before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World. The peppers originated in the regions that are now parts of the states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Veracruz in Mexico and were first encountered by European explorers when they set sail to find a route to Asia in search of spices and particularly highly valuable pepper.
Christopher Columbus encountered them on his second voyage to the New World. He first saw chili at Hispaniola – now Haiti and the Dominican Republic – where he wrote about “Aji,” the native name for the chili. In his journal, he said,
“The pepper which the local Indians used as a spice is more abundant and more valuable than either black or melegueta pepper.”
He also adds,
“No one eats without it because it is very healthy.”
Just as his mistake that he had landed in India led him to name the area he had reached as the “Indies,” so too did he mistake the chili he was encountering as a form of pepper, because of the warming sensation it gave when eaten. So he named it “pimienta,” the Spanish word for pepper.
The Portuguese ruled over parts of India for some considerable time – from their first arrival in 1505 until as recently as 1961, when they finally vacated Goa. They were joined by other colonial powers from Europe, including the Dutch, the French, and again – most importantly, I would argue, for the story of curry – the British.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I issued a royal charter for the formation of the East India Company. This license gave this soon-to-be leviathan company a monopoly over the burgeoning spice trade, particularly in the East, Southeast Asia and India. Originally, it began solely as a trading organization, but by the middle of the 18th century it had become what Britannica calls,
“an agent of British imperialism in India from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century.”
This began in earnest in 1757, when the East India Company’s army – yes this trading company at one point had an army which, at its height, comprised nearly 260,000 men, almost twice the size of the British standing army at the time. The Company’s army moved from its role of simply defending company property to becoming involved in the political machinations of India. They sent 3,000 men to help seize control in Bengal. In return, the leader of the forces, Robert Clive, became Governor of Bengal and was allowed to collect taxes, which he used to ship Indian goods and send them back to Britain.
This was, in many ways, the true starting point of the long reaching British influence in India. The East India Company would be in charge until 1858, when the British government took over all control of India from the Company, because a year prior – in 1857 – Indians revolted in a bloody uprising due to the Company’s oppressive actions and abuses of power. This takeover by the British government heralded the period known as “The British Raj,” or British rule, which began in 1858 and ended in 1947, when India gained independence from Great Britain.
It would be fair to say that the British had already been developing a taste for the food from this region for some time. And expats returning back to Britain from India craved the cuisine of India.
In 1747, the first recipe or “Receipt Book” for a curry appeared in a cookbook, “The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy; Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published,” authored by, quote, “By a Lady,” which has since been identified as Hannah Glasse. It was a famous cookbook that was a bestseller for decades after its initial publication, and one that, as well as this recipe, contains one of the very first recipes for Yorkshire Pudding, one of my other favorite things in the world.
In the first edition published in 1747, the recipe featured only the use of coriander and pepper. It was not until the fourth edition, published in 1751, that turmeric, ginger, and other ingredients we might associate with curry were included. It’s also interesting that up until the 1770 edition, rice was cooked in the actual curry, rather than served alongside it. The 1770 edition recipe seems quite similar to what we might prepare today.
“To make a currey The Indian Way. TAKE two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a quart of water, for about five minutes, then strain off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and fry them together till they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate: strew all these ingredients over the chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream, and the juice of two lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper, and turmerick must be beat very fine.”
Sounds delicious, right? If you do give it a try, let me know. I might give it a try myself.
Back in India, the East India Company, with their armed backing, began to take over administration for almost the entire subcontinent and started to run their new territories with layers of bureaucracy that involved thousands of local administrators, who became known as “Indians or Anglo-Indians,” and their leaders or governors, who became known as “Nabobs.”
Initially, these people would have lived pretty much as Indians, using Indian institutions, such as the Indian courts to oversee their new territories, and they would have taken Indian wives. However, over time and with the advent of the British Raj, the British began to display themselves more like a ruling class.
The British sampled the food that was available to them in their new homeland of India. This would have worked in two ways.
In the first way, the British would have experienced the varied cuisines that they encountered in India. These included some of the unusual types of cooking, and the use of whole spices and masalas – or powders of various spices ground together – which would have been specific to each dish and contain different ratios of the most used spices such as coriander, cumin, fenugreek, pepper, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. They would also have encountered the Muslim dishes that we talked about earlier that had been introduced to India by the arrival of the Mughals in the 16th century.
It was these dishes that the British began to describe under the universal umbrella term of the word, “curry,” despite the fact that the dishes served to them might have had individual names like Korma, Rogan Josh, and many others. The term, “curry,” would have been one that they adopted from the Portuguese, who had first encountered that word “kari” that we talked about right at the beginning of the episode.
The second way the British sampled food in their new homeland would have been through anglicized versions of some of the dishes that they encountered in India, using the basis of that Indian dish and changing the ingredients to suit their western palate. Perhaps the most famous of these are a soup known as Mulligatawny Soup, and a breakfast dish known as Kedgeree.
Let’s first talk about Mulligatawny Soup, another one that I really like. It’s gone out of fashion. I think we need to bring it back. It’s a spicy broth that was once described by the rather wonderfully named Colonel Arthur Robert Henry Kenney Herbert in his book “Culinary Jottings for Madras” as “invigorating.” You can just imagine a Victorian English Colonel saying, can you – “invigorating, my boy, invigorating.”
The word, Mulligatawny, is like the word, curry – a garbled version of two words from Tamil: Milagu-tannir, which combination translates to “peppery water.” One of the first uses of the word came from a song from 1784 that has the following lyrics:
“[I]n vain our hard fate we repine . . . on Mullagheetawny we dine.”
Over the rest of the 18th century, the dish became a huge hit at Anglo-Indian grand functions during the Raj. Its origins are hotly debated, but the one that I find most appealing is that soup as a starter was quite an unknown concept in India until the arrival of the Europeans, who asked for one. The local cooks took an existing recipe for rasam or broth that had been used as medicine for upset stomach. Specifically, they took a rasam called “molo tunny,” which had a water mixed with black pepper, chilis and tamarind. It’s still used at the end of the meal as a digestive aid and prescribed to treat other digestive ailments. The cooks then supplemented this “molo tunny” with whatever rice, meat or vegetables were to hand. However it happened, the dish was a huge hit, although it took on many versions. By the beginning of the 19th century, it was already becoming known back home in Britain and is mentioned in 1822 in William Kitchiner’s book, “The Cook’s Oracle,” where he says of the soup,
“it is a fashionable soup, and a great favourite with our East Indian friends, and we give the best receipt we could procure for it.”
The other dish that has become well known is also one of my favorite breakfast dishes – although not one that, admittedly, I don’t make very often these days – called Kedgeree. The word comes from “Kichari,” which is a dish that is still popular in India today made of basmati rice, mung beans and spices. The British liked the comforting nature of the dish and altered it to use eggs, fried onions and fish – with the later addition of smoked haddock. This, too, found its way back to Britain and at the end of the 18th century, we can see one of the first mentions in a Scottish cookbook by Stephana Malcolm that was published in 1790, where it is spiced with cayenne pepper and referred to as,
“Kedgeree – A Breakfast Dish.”
By the middle of the 19th century, there are numerous cookery books containing recipes for curries of different styles that would have been published both in India and back in Britain.
One of my particular favorites is the wonderfully named,
“Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book; Comprising Numerous Directions for Plain Wholesome Cookery, Both Oriental and English; With Much Miscellaneous Matter Answering for All General Purposes of Reference Connected with Household Affairs Likely to be Immediately Required By Families, Messes, and Private Individuals, Residing at the Presidencies or Out-Stations.”
Phew. Had to catch my breath a bit there. That was hard to say in one go, on one breath.
This was a book initially published in 1841 but the link we have is the 1850 edition published in Madras and written by a Dr. Robert Flower Riddell. In this work, as well as giving an advice on how to deal with the differing castes of servants, how to look after horses and stables, and offering a range of western style dishes, he also has a chapter – the 28th – on what he calls “Oriental Cookery,” which he describes in the Index as offering,
“preliminary remarks on Curries, Brianes, Pullows, Ashes, Kubabs, Cakes, and Chutnies; with various receipts for making the same.”
This book is definitely interesting to read and is available to view on the Library of Congress website – the link will be in the annotated transcripts of this episode.
Under that umbrella term, “curry,” the British did have subdivisions that would classify the particular curry they were eating under headings such as, “The Bengal,” “The Madras,” “The Bombay,” which implied that they did have some understanding of the regional differences of Indian cuisine. Although as Lizzie Collingham says in her book, “Curries: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors,”
“The Anglo-Indian understanding of regional differences was however rather blunt. They tended to home in on distinctive, but not necessarily ubiquitous, features of a region’s cookery and then steadfastly apply these characteristics to every curry that came under that heading.”
This homogenization of curries under set headings was also further compounded by the fact, as Collingham also points out, that British officials in India tended to be moved around on a fairly regular basis, as frequently as every two years or so. As they travelled, they would take their preferences for curry styles and ingredients that they liked, which would frequently then be included in the dishes from that new location. This created a set of dishes that would be instantly recognizable if you were in the upper reaches of the Indian territories or down in the Southern states.
That cuisine became what Collingham calls,
“the first truly pan-Indian cuisine, in that it absorbed techniques and ingredients from every Indian region and was eaten throughout the entire length and breadth of the subcontinent.”
Although she does offer a caveat to this by saying that it was a cuisine that could not be described as nationally Indian as it was one that was only really ever eaten by the British themselves. It was, as I like to say, that curry is a cuisine born in India, matured in Britain, and then sent around the world.
So, now we have seen where curry was born. Let’s see where it matured and head to Britain.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can, get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, this is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board that so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on the historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you have enjoyed the podcast of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many, many more in the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep on listening.
There are a number of elements, I would argue, that can be used as evidence that a cuisine from one culture has been adopted by another culture, and can be argued to have become a ubiquitous part of that recipient culture.
Is it eaten when dining out?
Is it prepared at home?
Is it written about in magazines and books, particularly, of course, recipe books?
And have the terms used in this cuisine become part of everyday language?
By the middle of the 19th century, and even a time before, many of these elements being present were certainly true of Britain and their initial and continuing love of curry.
As far as preparing and eating at home, we’ve already seen from the first recipe we discussed from 1747 in Hannah Glasse’s bestselling book, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” that there was already a taste for food from India, particularly as it offered a change from the relatively bland food that was on offer in Britain at the time.
This continued throughout the 19th century with a wide variety of informal recipe books. Initially, these were put together by those who had been in India and had transcribed recipes from their Indian cooks, or those like Stephana Malcolm – who gave us the Kedgeree recipe – who were based back in Britain, but who had kept a correspondence with family members in India. Later, as more Anglo Indians began to return from India to Britain, more formally published books began to appear, although the recipes therein were closer to the Indian originals than what we might see today.
By the mid-19th century, we see two of the most famous cookbooks of the era both containing numerous recipes for curried dishes.
In Eliza Acton’s “Modern Cookery for Private Families,” published in 1845, we see recipes for curries including, quote, “a dry currie,” end quote, “a Common Indian Currie,” end quote, and dishes that, while not Indian in origin, were “curried” with the addition of spices. These included oysters, sweetbreads, eggs and even macaroni.
In Isabella Beeton’s, “Book of Household Management,” the first edition published in 1861, there are also many curry recipes, including one for “curried rabbit” that has some rather unusual potential additions.
“A little sour apple and rasped cocoa-nut stewed with the curry will be found a great improvement.”
The sour apple presumably acting as a souring agent as tamarind might be in India.
By the way, we’ve talked about Isabella Beeton quite a lot on Eat My Globe including during the interview with my friend, Alton Brown, the Host of Good Eats and Good Eats: The Return, so please do check out that episode, as well as on our episode on The History of Breakfast Cereals and The History of Lobster. So if you haven’t listen to those yet, go and give them a listen.
Alongside the recipes for curries these famous women offer, we also see early recipes for curry powders. Eliza Acton, for example lists one for a, quote, “Bengal Currie Powder.”
We mentioned earlier in the episode that in India, cooks would have prepared powders of spices or “masalas” for each of the dishes they were cooking. These would have been different for each dish, reflecting a different amount of each of the spices they needed. They would have been mixed with water, oil or dairy, such as yoghurt, to prepare a paste. They may also have been dry to be fried with meat, onions, garlic, etcetera, to form the base of a dish. You may also have heard the term “garam masala,” which literally translates from Hindi as “Hot Spices.” This is a spice mix that can vary from region to region and is usually added to add aroma.
Back in Britain, however, despite the recipes offered by people such as Eliza Acton, there was not always, I suspect, the time nor the inclination to prepare these curry powders at home, particularly when store-bought ones were economical. However, there was still a desire to achieve a similar if not always authentic effect.
The first advertisement for curry powders appeared in Britain in 1784. It was addressed to
“Persons of Rank, Traders of all Nations, and Servants.”
And it goes on to say that the curry powder is brought to Britain from the East Indies by the famous Solander. This is probably a slightly cheeky reference to Daniel Solander, the Swedish Botanist who is now best remembered for his travels with Captain James Cooke. The advertisement goes on to say,
“It is exceeding pleasant and healthful - renders the stomach active in digestion – the blood naturally free in circulation – the mind vigorous, and contributes most of any food to an increase of the human race.”
I knew there was a reason I love curry.
The curry powders tended to be a mix of spices such as turmeric, coriander seed, pepper, cumin, and fenugreek. Very similar to what might be found in a general curry powder you would buy at the supermarket today. Although, they may have been given names to represent those different regions of India – just as Eliza Acton had her “Bengal Currie Powder.”
As well as these curry powders, other ingredients that were available in India but not in Britain, began to be replaced by those that were more easily obtainable. Apples and sultanas – which are dried white grapes in the UK or golden raisins in the US – being the two most common.
And with this, we really start to see the beginnings of “curry” as its own creation, quite outside of its original Indian heritage, and become part of British cuisine.
As I mentioned, as well as its preparation in the home, part of the role of creating a new cuisine, I think, is about how it is served outside the home such as in restaurants, canteens and the like.
Curries had been appearing on the menus of dining establishments in London since the last few decades of the 1700s, when returning East India Company “Nabobs,” who did not have the funds to bring a cook home with them, would try to satisfy their need for Indian fare at the growing number of coffee houses, such as the Norris Street Coffee House in the Haymarket in London, which is known to have been serving curries since 1773. The mistress of the coffee house took out an advertisement on the 6th of December 1773, in which she declared not only that she sold,
“True Indian curey paste,”
but also that would,
“at the shortest notice [send] ready dressed curey and rice, also Indian pilaws, to any part of town.”
So, there you go. Indian take-out and delivery was a thing even at the end of the 18th century.
The first dedicated Indian restaurant in London owned by an Indian opened in 1810. It was known as, “The Hindoostanee Coffee House,” and was situated at 34 George Street – which has since been renumbered as 102 George Street, near Portman Square. If you are ever in London, there is still a plaque on the wall to remember it. The owner of the coffee house was Mr. Sake Dean Mahomed, who was born in 1759 as Sheik Din Muhammad in Bihar, India. He joined the East India Company at the age of 11 and rose to the rank of Captain and was a trainee surgeon. He befriended one Captain Godfrey Baker during his time in the company. When Baker retired, Mahomed returned with him to be his house manager in Cork, Ireland. Mahomed married an Irish girl named Jane Daly from a wealthy family and became the first Indian to have a book published in the English language when he published his work, “Travels of Dean Mahomed” in 1794.
His restaurant was advertised in The Epicures Almanack in 1810 calling it a place,
“for the nobility and Gentry, where they might enjoy the Hookah with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection.”
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts the restaurant was not a success and was forced to close in 1812 leaving Mahomed a declared bankrupt. In 1815, the Epicure’s Almanack, noted
“At the corner of George Street, there was until very lately an establishment on a novel plan. Mohammed, a native of Asia, opened a house for the purpose of giving dinners in the Hindustanée style, with other refreshments of the same genus. All the dishes were dressed with curry-powder, rice, Cayenne, and the best spices of Arabia. . . . Either Sidi Mohammed’s purse was not strong enough to stand the slow test of public encouragement, or the idea was at once scouted; for certain it is, that Sidi Mohammed became bankrupt, and the undertaking was relinquished.”
However, just in case you are too worried about him, here’s another of those fun facts that we like to give you to bore people with at dinner parties here on Eat My Globe. Sake Dean Mahomed, was not only the person who opened the first Indian-owned Indian restaurant in Britain, but he probably introduced the notion of “shampooing” to London society – this involved a steam bath and a therapeutic massage, where “shampoo” – based on the Hindi word for “champi” or head massage – was applied. After the failure of the restaurant, he moved to Brighton and opened his own “bath” and washed the hair of the nobility, including the Prince of Wales, later George IV. He also published another book called, “Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the Use of Indian Medical Vapor Bath” in 1822.
And as for that failed restaurant of his, Mahomed may have just been ahead of his time. In June 2018, an example of a handwritten menu from the “The Hindoostanee Coffee House” – which included dishes like Pineapple Pullaoo, Chicken Currey, Lobster Curry, and Coolmah of Lamb or Veal – sold for £8,500 or the equivalent of $11,344. Not a bad little thing for a curry menu.
Anyway, back to curries.
Curries became increasingly popular in Britain when they became the rumored favorite of Queen Victoria. She had already been a collector of all things India when her husband Prince Albert was alive. In 1877, she was declared, “Empress of India,” which began to consolidate British passion for all things Indian. In 1887, she took on a new person to her staff known as Abdul Karim, who had been sent as a “gift from India” to help serve her. I’m not sure about that. But there you go. He was a “gift from India.”
The two began an unlikely, but strong friendship that lasted until the day she died in 1901. Queen Victoria had probably been eating curries or curry style dishes for most of her life. But, she deemed the curry Abdul prepared for her, quote, “excellent.” She installed Indian chefs in her kitchens alongside her other chefs, and curries were on the menu at least twice a week. By the way, in case you’re interested, Queen Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim received the movie treatment back in 2017 – it starred Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the title roles. I haven’t seen it yet, so if you’ve seen it, let me know if it’s any good.
Indian restaurants in Britain, on the other hand, were a slow burn, and by the beginning of the 20th century there were only a handful of them in the Capital. Still surviving is a restaurant established in 1926 called, “The Veeraswarmy” – at which I’ve eaten many, many times – which was opened by a retired army officer called Edward Palmer, on Regent Street. The restaurant became a hot spot for many famous customers, such as Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps my favorite story about this restaurant is that of Prince Axel of Denmark. He loved the restaurant so much that he had a barrel of Carlsberg Lager sent every year so he could enjoy it with his favorite dish, a Duck Vindaloo. It was probably the beginning of that long and happy tradition of curry and beer, the perfect bedfellows.
By the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, however, a huge upsurge began in the number of Indian restaurants opening in the U.K. This came about because of a huge influx of immigrants to the U.K. from the region of Sylhet in what is now the country of Bangladesh – at the time, it was known as East Bengal, part of India, from where my grandmother originated, and then later became East Pakistan, before becoming independent from Pakistan in 1971. This was a major shipping area and many of these immigrants worked on merchant vessels where, lacking literacy and education, they were sent down to work in the boiler rooms. This was very dangerous and lowly paid work, and as Collingham says in her book, “Curries: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors,”
“Sylheti firemen were notorious for jumping ship.”
They began to jump ship in many of the ports where the ships would dock, including Southampton, just south of London. In areas of London, some of which are still famous for their rows of curry houses, such as Brick Lane, small guest houses began to open for these immigrants, as well as cafes, where they could buy cheap versions of their own food. It became a sort of informal Sylheti network where new arrivals could find housing and be connected with a job, almost always lowly paid and almost always in the restaurant business. Many of the existing Indian restaurants employed nearly all of these Sylheti workers, who after receiving training in kitchens or working as servers, then looked to open their own restaurants.
At the end of World War II, the cities of Britain had many sites of former cafes and fish & chip shops that had been bombed and were looking for new owners. These became a target purchase for aspiring Sylheti businessmen who bought them and created the standard flock wallpaper look that those of us who frequented these restaurants over the years will be all too familiar with. Their location in former premises of fish & chip shops, or “chippies” as we call them in Britain, meant they were located in primarily working class areas, and often near pubs, which, helped cement the popularity of “curry” as a meal not just for the aristocrats or the middle classes, but also now for the working classes.
These restaurants also copied the menu – if not always the quality of the preparation – of the places in which they had previously been employed, which tended to be based on North Indian Mughal dishes and rich dishes from the Punjab region of India. These included dishes such as biryanis – a rice dish, or Rogan Josh – a lamb dish, or Chicken Korma – a chicken dish using almond flour and cream. Although these are dishes from primarily only one region of India, to many, this style of menu began to be recognized as what Indian food was, to the people of Britain.
Also, as well as dishes that had at least their origins in India, these restaurants began to create dishes that were tailored solely to the British market. These included dishes such as, Chicken Madras – a spicy curry invented by British Bangladeshi restaurants. Dishes such as Phall, a dish that was created in the curry halls of Birmingham, England, and whose name means “jump” in Bengali or “fruit” in Hindi, and is considered to be the hottest dish in the British Indian repertoire, not a dish that I enjoy at all, I’m afraid. But there you go.
The other dish, of course, that needs to be added to this list is the famous – perhaps, infamous – Chicken Tikka Masala. Now I plan to chat about this dish at the beginning of next week’s episode, which will be about how curry traveled around the world. And this is definitely a dish I have found on menus of just about every quote, “Indian restaurant” around the globe. However, for now, let’s just say that it was successful enough a dish that in 2001, it was mentioned in a speech by the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, as being,
“Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
The restaurants opened by the Sylheti businessmen were affordable and often stayed open late, and well after the pubs closed. They became the ideal stopping off point for young people and not so young on their way home after a night of drinking, and the notion of “curry and a pint” – something that I have experienced on far too many occasions – became a British national institution.
Curry even received its own entry into the Cockney rhyming slang dictionary. Now, if you’ve never heard of Cockney rhyming slang, the origins are a little murky but it supposedly originated as a form of dialect between market traders and villains in the East End of London in the middle of the 19th century. A word would be replaced by another word from a couplet that rhymed with it. And many of them still remain a strong part of British culture today. So, for example, “Tea” might still be called “Rosie Lee,” which is likely derived from a woman from World War I, where Lee rhymes with tea.
A wig might be known as an “Irish” – an “Irish jig.” Or it might be called a “syrup” – “syrup of figs,” again, where wig rhymes with figs.
Another one might be for phone, where you might ask someone to give you a dog – “dog and bone” . . . “phone.” “Give me a dog” . . . “give me a call.”
In the case of a curry, the honor was given to a singer from Northern Ireland and coined in the 1950s. Her name was Ruby Murray, and “going for a Ruby” is still a phrase that is much used in Britain today, when people suggest an Indian curry meal. Go and try it. Go and ask anyone from Britain if they know what “going for a Ruby” means, and they will immediately tell you, it means going for a curry.
As I said in my introduction, in 2009, the Indian restaurant industry was worth more than £3 Billion to the British economy. And in 2015, British curry houses employed 100,000 people and brought in over £4 Billion in sales. And in 2019, their sales were worth £5 Billion. Which is quite a growth for a few men who jumped ship in the 1940s.
Now, however, that seems like a good place to finish for today, ‘cause I’m in need of a really good curry myself right now.
However, before I go, I do think it is worth touching on that whole notion of cultural appropriation that I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. It’s a notion that I hear from many of my friends in India who feel aggrieved that a nation, can be represented to many by the stereotypical dishes of a British curry house. It’s also a notion that is further confused by the fact, sometimes, some Indians also use the word “curry” when talking to outsiders. I spoke again with food writer, Nikhil Merchant, and with another terrific food writer, Kalyan Karmakar, about this, and they explained that Indians use the word, “curry,” as a colloquial way of explaining to any outsiders a dish that is “wet” or gravy based. You might tell someone, for example, that a dish of Rogan Josh is a, quote, “mutton curry,” especially if the outsider is unfamiliar with the notion of Rogan Josh.
Despite this confusion, it’s a grievance that I totally understand, and I am pleased to see that in response to greater awareness of Indian regional cuisine that we are beginning to see restaurants open that show these regions in their true culinary splendor, and dishes being displayed by the many talented chefs I know that are now being appreciated by many.
However, I do also think there’s still room for the British Indian curry house. In fact, this cuisine has recently begun to receive its own designation as “British Indian Restaurant” cuisine in an attempt to show that it has its own identity, forged in India, but molded in Great Britain. The equivalent I would give would be the evolution of Italian food in the United States, so that both Italian American cuisine and regional Italian cuisine can both sit together comfortably.
I think there is definitely room for both, and I would hate to lose a part of British life that formed such an important part of my culinary background.
Right, that really is it for now. So join us next week when we will see how the love of curry spread around the world.
See you next time folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we will speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. An also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website. I would also like to thank Nikhil Merchant and Kalyan Karmakar for their insightful information on the use of “curry” in contemporary Indian usage.
Published Date: November 2, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.