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Writer and restaurateur Matthew Hindley delves into the history of how Indian food became one of Britain’s national obsessions.”
Text and photos by:Matthew Hindley
Country: United Kingdom

he Indian food industry in Britain is one of the major success stories of the second half of the last century. It is one of the biggest industries in the UK, worth a reported $5 billion a year, including 15,000 Indian restaurants that provide employment and a large takeaway and pre-packaged ‘curry-in-a-hurry’ sector that employs a healthy 70,000 people around the UK.

London now has more Indian restaurants than Mumbai or Delhi, and Britain currently boasts the largest Indian restaurant in the world, The Aakash, which can seat up to 750 people in one sitting..

Indian restaurants follow an interesting geographical pattern in Britain. Strangely enough, many of them are not actually ‘Indian’ at all. Generally in the south of Britain, especially around London, the majority of the owners are of Bangladeshi descent. From Birmingham, it changes slightly and there are more Pakistani owners, and as far up as Manchester and Bradford, the restaurants and nearly all Pakistani, Kashmiri and North Indian owned, with hardly any Bangladeshis at all. In Glasgow, the majority of ownership of the Indian restaurants comes from the Punjab.

In the past 50 years, we have seen Indian food go from an occasional, exotic treat to a weekend tradition. Indian food has become so entwined in the British national psyche that popping out for a curry at the weekend could now easily be seen as a British trait.

The integration is due to various factors, one of which is the idea of the ‘British Curry’.

Many of the curries that can be found on Indian restaurant menus, not just in Britain, but also around the world, are actually British inventions. The Balti, a rich tangy curry was supposedly invented in Birmingham; the Jalfrezi, a dry spicy dish, is claimed to be from Bradford; and the Chicken Tikka Masala, a very creamy marinated chicken dish, possibly hails from Glasgow. The ambiguity of the origins of the curries is telling. You can visit one of the many curry houses in London’s famous Brick Lane, and each one will serve you a different version of the same dish.

Many people disagree even on the origins of the curries’ names. A good example is the Balti that was possibly named after a region between Pakistan and India, or rather comically, from a regional dialect for the word ‘bucket’.

The general non-conformity of recipes is due to the fact that there is no one recipe for any single curry. Many of the first chefs to cook Indian food in the UK were simply using the original recipes from their home countries changed slightly for the British taste.

Britain’s New National Dish

Since before former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook proclaimed in 2001 that Chicken Tikka Masala was “a true British national dish”, it was a dish held dear to many Brits.

The origins of Chicken Tikka Masala, like many British Indian hybrid dishes, are murky. Possibly first made by Indian chefs for the British Army whilst in India, Chicken Tikka Masala combines the dish ‘Butter Chicken’ with yoghurt and extra spice to make it saucier. It’s also possible that the dish hails from Glasgow restaurant where a customer wanted a bit more gravy-like sauce on his curry. There are other claims from Essex, London and Bradford that are all similar in that it is a curry made for the British palate with more sauce.

There is no set recipe for what exactly is a Chicken Tikka Masala. It can vary in color from red, orange and even green and it can be spicy hot or creamy and mild. It can be served on a plate mixed in with rice or separate on skewers.

Eighteen tons of Chicken Tikka Masala are served to people across Britain every week. It accounts for nearly one in seven of all curries sold, and if you stacked up all the portions served each year, they would reach halfway to the Moon.

It is also not simply just another curry. It can easily be found as a hot or cold filling in sandwiches, a flavor of crisps and pies or even as a pizza topping.

The Changing Taste of Curry

In recent years, modern Indian Cuisine has left behind the traditional Curry House image of sticky carpets and flowery peeling wallpaper and moved more towards fine dining. The Bombay Brasserie in London was one of the first restaurants to embrace this new thinking about Indian food when it opened in 1982. Its success (it has been almost fully booked ever since its opening) proved that a top-end Indian restaurant could be successful and led to others trying this new culinary style.

Ben Clatworthy, a professional British chef from Oxford currently working in India Spice, a British Curry House in La Paz, Bolivia, said, “I see Indian food as a pioneer of changing people’s perceptions of different food and tastes in Britain. Our adoption of it proves that we can enjoy a different culture’s food.” He added, “The restaurant scene in many parts of London is dominated by Indian restaurants of both the old Curry House style and the new more up market Indian restaurants”.

London now boasts three Michelin Star Indian restaurants in Quilon, Rasoi and Trishna. Whilst the increase in the numbers of new Indian restaurants opening in the UK seems to have hit a plateau in recent years, the rightful recognition of this type of food as not just very good food, but a British staple, means it is here to stay.

The History of Indian Food in Britain

Strangely enough, if it weren’t for the Portuguese, there might not have been such a British love affair with Indian food.

In 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama opened the floodgates of European trade with India, and what followed was a culinary exchange that changed the direction of Indian food, forever.

Their contribution of the potato, pork and most importantly chili, combined with the British input of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, among others, helped-to give an immense rich zest to an already flavorful food.

As British power grew in India, the Indian culinary influence also was also being felt back home in the Britain. Indians living in the UK were mainly recruits from naval shipping, the East India Company or brought to the UK as servants.

Indian cooks, more widespread knowledge of Indian food and the availability of curry powder made it easier to cook Indian food, and in 1809 the first dedicated Indian Restaurant opened in London.

The Hindustani Coffee House was opened by Sake Dean Mahomed to “cater for the nobility and gentry where they might enjoy Indian dishes of the highest perfection”. It was a frequented mainly by visiting Indian Maharajahs, and even British royalty were rumored to have been regular diners.

This first foray into India cuisine was not an immediate success. Curries were seen on menus of the more open-minded restaurants and cafés in London at the time and even had a mention in one of Mrs Beeton’s famous Cookery Books, but, it was not until the early 20th century when Britain’s taste for curry began to take hold with the opening of The Veeraswamy.

The Veeraswamy claims to be the oldest Indian restaurant in Britain and was inaugurated in 1926 by a British-Indian descendant named Edward Palmer. After original success at The British Empire Exhibition in 1924, Palmer decided to open his own restaurant. Frequented by Winston Churchill, Edward VIII and Charlie Chaplin, among others, this restaurant turned curry from foreign to fashionable.

Indian restaurants in time

By 1939 there were six dedicated Indian restaurants in Britain, and the influx of Indian migrants after World War II saw a growth of cafes and restaurants to meet this new demand. Curious Britons sick of bland, rationed post-war food were quickly attracted to the exotic spicy taste. The comparably low cost of Indian food also helped the food’s appeal to a British public looking for something new and unusual.

By 1960 there were more than 500 Indian restaurants in Britain and this number had more than doubled by the beginning of the 1970s. Bangladeshi independence in 1971 and the mass immigration that ensued led to the number of Indian restaurants in the UK rising to more than 8,000 by the turn of the 21st century.

Today Britain has over 15,000 dedicated Indian restaurants, a number which keeps on rising each year.






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Why British love a good curry .

The industry of Indian Food in the UK has a long story. It started as ‘exotic’ and has now become part of British cuisine. It also provides employment to many people thanks to the proliferation of Indian restaurants. The earnings of this industry reaches $5 billion a year.

People who live or visit the United Kingdom can find Indian food everywhere from very fancy restaurants to takeaway and pre-packaged food.

Curry is very popular and many restaurants serve their own ‘original’ recipes but many of those curry recipes are British inventions. Britons are so fond of Indian food that in 2001 former British Foreign Secretary proclaimed Chicken Tikka Masala ‘’a true British national dish’’. And it is not just another curry, it is also used as a filling in sandwiches as well as on top of pizzas.

So if you are in the mood for Indian food, you will certainly find a restaurant in the UK since there are now 15,000 dedicated Indian restaurants all over the country


 

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