Curry ‘N’ Britain

9th July, 2013


History of Indian Food in United Kingdom

If you haven’t tasted Indian food at least once in life, you haven’t made the best use of your taste buds! Indian food is well known for its flavourful recipes and use of thousands of spices. No doubt, it is popular and available in different parts of the world. The most famous of all Indian foods are its multi-flavoured curries and chutneys that can tantalize your buds.

India was a part of the British rule till half a century ago and it was probably the time when the British first tasted Indian cuisine. Today, there are many restaurants in Britain that offer Indian food.  It all started about 400 years ago when the East India Company landed at Surat in the Gujarat state of India.

Hindostanee Coffee House was established in 1809 which served Indian food along with Indian smoking options like Hookah and Chilam. The owner of this place named Dean Mohmaed was originally from Patna, the capital of the State of Bihar in India. This restaurant did not do too well and dean got bankrupt soon. The restaurant however, dragged itself till 1833 before closing down. Many Indian cooks were known to jump off their ships in hopes of a better life in London.  In the nineteenth century, there were a lot of Indians students seeking higher education from London.

One of the popular names from 1960s is of Enam Ali who brought restaurateurs together to form The Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs and Bangladesh Caterers Association in Britain. A lot of changes have happened in the history of Indian food in Britain since 1960. At that time, there were about 500 Indian restaurants in Britain and 700 more were added in the next decade. There was a rapid increase in this number after Bangladesh got separated from Pakistan and became independent.  By 1980, there were 3000 Indian restaurants in Britain which increased to 8000 in the year 2000. In 1980, Indian curry powder was officially launched.

The first time an Indian curry was ever sold in Britain was in 1773 at a restaurant known as the Coffee House in London. Slowly Indian cuisine became well known in London and rest of Britain.  The owners of the various restaurants were not necessarily Indians but people mostly from Pakistan.  When Bangladesh got its independence in 1971, more Bangladeshis began owning Indian restaurants, especially in the Sylhet area. More and more Bangladeshis are still immigrating to Britain to fulfil the staff requirements of Indian restaurants in Britain. Today, the yearly turnover of Indian restaurants in Britain is more than two billion pounds. More than 70,000 people are employed in this industry. Looking at the trend, more than 3.5 lacks of Bangladeshis are forecasted to be moving to Britain in the coming decades.

The one dish that has become very popular in Indian restaurants all over Britain is Chicken Tikka Masala. It is a dish made up of barbecued chicken pieces, often marinated with nice flavourful Indian masala and served with mint sauce. It has many variants and you will find a new taste for every Indian restaurant you visit. It can be spicy or mild, covered with red tomoato gravy or can be prepared in a sweet creamy style.

Restaurants like Salut e Hind, The Shafi and The Kohinoor proved to be real landmarks of Indian cuisine in Britain.  Other major milestone restaurant was Veeraswamy’s owned by Edward Palmer and is still in execution under the ownership of Ranjit Mathrani and Namita Panjabi. During World War 2, many Indian restaurants continued to come up in Britain. Other notable contributions are made by Kirit and Meena Pathak of Pataks, Perween Warsi of S&A Foods and G.K. Noon of Noon Products in the retail Industry. Brands like Tilda, Veetee Westmill, Kingfisher, Cobra and Lal Toofan would have not been available without these people. This merchandise helps Indian food to reach in the homes of Britain.

There is some debate about the dish called Chicken Tikka Masala or CTM in short. This dish was probably accidently or experimentally created by a chef of Indian or Bangladeshi origin in Britain. Though today, the dish is equally popular in restaurants in India, it is hard to tell whether it went from India to Britain or from Britain to India. Though there are many claims regarding the origin of this dish, no evidence is found to support any of them.

Joints serving Indian food were Durbar, Dilkush, The Shalimar and the Bengal India are also owned by people from different parts of India. Today, different parts of Britain are occupied by Indian people from various regions of the Indian sub-continent including countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Punjab is a province that was divided between India and Pakistan at the time of partition. Punjabis occupy the Southall area while you will find more Bengalis at Tower Hamlets area. Punjabis immigrated to Britain in bulk in 1950 and other Asians also continued to flock to Britain in 1960’s for several opportunities.

This migration had a huge impact on the food served in British restaurants, especially in South London. Indian food should not be confused with the country India because even the nearby countries that were a part of India once specialise in the same food. If you are around Sylhet, the Indian restaurant would probably be owned by a Bangladeshi, Manchester has more Pakistani Indian restaurant owners and Southall is definitely the place to get the original Punjabi delights.

There has been a lot of buzz about the curry all over Britain since past few decades. The Curry Club and Good Curry Guide were created by Pat Chapman in 1984. This did popularize the dish and soon frozen dishes as well as the raw ingredients to prepare it were both available at supermarkets. If you are in Britain and got your mouth watering by now, you can look up in The Real Curry Restaurant Guide to find one of the 6000+ Indian restaurants near you.

Photo by: Satheesh Kumar

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