To celebrate National Curry week, we take a look back at the history of the nation’s favourite cuisine and the journey it took to get there.
Britons love affair with the curry and Indian food as a whole has spanned centuries. With the first eastern spices making their way over to England during the Crusades, brought back in the packs of soldiers returning from the religious wars. In fact, it was partly because of the lucrative spice trade that England, and other western powers, though for a foothold in the Indian Sub-continent.
From 1600 England had large a presence in India, due to the East India company. With many British immigrants or long-term residents in India, stories of the culture and more importantly the food, began to filter back to Britain and pique the interest of those back home. From the 18th century curry recipes began appearing alongside more traditional English fare in cook books, and coffee houses added curry onto their menus.
Many of these dishes we wouldn’t recognise today, and they certainly would not have tasted the same as they did in India. They were often very mild and used a variety of herbs and spices, many of which had lost much of their impact, from being stored on a boat for months on end on their journey from India.
In 1810 the first restaurant serving exclusively Indian food was opened in Mayfair. The Hindostanee Coffee House was opened by an ex trainee surgeon, Sake Dean Mahomed, who travelled to Britain after serving in the East India Company army. Mahomed tried to capitalise on the tastes of the many returning to England from the Indian sub-continent by offering authentic Indian food and experiences. However, at this time the upper classes had their own inhouse cooks, and they were much more likely to entertain at home than venture to a restaurant.
The fascination with India and Indian cuisine began to wane in the mid to late 19th century. The revolts in 1857 led to a different perception of India in English high society and French food became more en vogue. Though varieties of curry could still be found on middle and working-class dinner tables. However due to Queen Victoria’s enthrallment with all things from the sub-continent, curries remained fashionable throughout the 19th century, despite this dip in popularity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, and during the war years, curry had lost some favour. However, this was not to last long. In the 1930’s many seamen from the sub-continent particularly from Bangladesh were coming to the UK, and they were working in traditional Indian restaurants, many dreaming of going out on their own. After the war, they had the opportunity and purchased bombed out cafes and chip shops. Selling a range of British staples, such as fish & chips and meat pies, alongside curries and rice, they stayed open late to cater for the post pub crowd, and for the first-time curry was available to the masses. It is also where the tradition of a post pub curry started!
Over time these restaurants focussed more on the curries and stopped serving the British food, becoming the high street curry houses and takeaways that can be found your local high street to this day. By the 1980s the number of Indian eateries had increased 500 times from the 1940s. Much of this growth was from the influx of Bangladeshi in the 1970s, and by some estimates they now own up to 75% of Indian restaurants in the UK.
National Curry Week 2018, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary, takes place from October 22-28