This National Curry Week, we investigate the colourful past of this much-loved spicy speciality…
We Brits love a good Ruby Murray. From creamy kormas to fiery phaals, we tuck away around 2.5 million curries every week. Impressive, no?
Britain’s relationship with curry started about 500 years ago, when coffee houses began serving Subcontinent specialities alongside their usual fare. Then, in 1747, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery was published, containing some of the first curry recipes to be printed in a British cookery book. No wonder it was a best seller for, like, a century.
These early Anglicised curries were mainly herb-based, with spices such as turmeric, ginger, cayenne and cumin coming into play later in the early 19th Century. In that same era, the UK saw its first ever dedicated curry house open its doors, intended as a hangout for ‘the nobility and gentry where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection.’ Ooh, snazzy. Decked out in colonial style with bamboo furniture, it was well-liked among Londoners and turned into a popular little spot.
The Hindostanee Coffee House was situated in London’s Portman Square and owned by Indian traveller-writer-entrepreneur, Dean Mahomet. Mahomet was also the first Indian writer to have a book published in English. I hope this was a good seller for him because, as it turned out, The Hindostanee Coffee House didn’t see him make his millions; after three years Mahomet was forced to file for bankruptcy, although the restaurant kept going for another 20 without him.
The new-found culinary trend continued to steam ahead, thanks, in part, to old Queen Vic, who certainly knew good scran when she saw it. Her Royal Highness – the Empress of India – employed Indian staff who regularly prepared their native cuisine for her. In the mid 19th Century, however, there was a rebellion in India against the British rule, so we began to snub Indian food over here in the UK (ludicrous gastronomic behaviour on our part, if you ask me). By the late 1800s, though, we’d come to our senses and Subcontinent-style food was back on the up.
The turn of the next century saw an increase in cafés aimed at Asian clientele, mainly due to the Indian sailors who abandoned ship (or whose ships abandoned them) in Cardiff and London. Come the end of World War II, old disused chip shops and cafés were taken over and began selling curry and rice alongside old British faves like fish and chips. These popular joints opened late into the night, past pub kicking-out time, to try and squeeze as much money out of the day as possible (who knew people were partial to a post-pub pilaf 100 years ago?) which accounts for our current late-night boozy snack rituals. Having opened in 1926, the renowned Veeraswamy was a well-established Indian restaurant in London by then. Still going strong to this day, it’s the country’s longest-standing curry house. There are now around 10,000 Indian eateries gracing the UK’s streets, and that thought makes me rather happy. And hungry.