The history of our obsession with Indian curry
We Brits do love our curry – so much that the Indian restaurant trade is now worth a staggering £5 billion to the UK economy. It’s a love affair that has been around for years and grows stronger with each passing day.
So where did it all begin – and why has it become so popular?
There’s a misconception that the rise of the Indian restaurant in Britain began in Birmingham during the 1970s.
But while the industrial West Midlands and, to a lesser extent, West Yorkshire were certainly where the explosion of Indian cuisine in popular culture began (both areas were key destination points for work-hungry families from India and her subcontinent in the migrant boom of the Seventies), the humble curry actually has its roots back in the first half of the 18th Century and the rapid growth of the East India Trading Company.
Some of the returning men of the East India Trading Company – known as nabobs, a corruption of the Indian word nawab, meaning governor or viceroy –wanted to recreate their culinary experiences whilst in India and so one of the earliest examples of café culture was born as coffee houses in London began serving Indian food to meet niche demand.
By the end of the 18th Century, curry and rice meals were common in the bars, pubs and restaurants of London’s Piccadilly area.
The cuisine’s popularity grew steadily. In 1810, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, located in Mayfair, London, became the first restaurant in the UK to serve only Indian food. Not long afterward, curry made its debut in mainstream English literature when it was served to Rebecca, the heroine of William Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair.
By the mid-1800s, as a result of a concerted effort by Indian traders to promote the dietary and health benefits of Indian food to the UK, our import of turmeric had increased threefold.
Curry found its greatest champion in Queen Victoria, due in large part to the influence of her 24-year-old Indian servant, Abdul Karim, who delighted his mistress with beautiful chicken curries, dhal and pilau rice. Of course, this relationship immortalised in the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench.
But it was in the post-war years that the popularity of curry really took off in the UK – and it was at this point that the cuisine forged its reputation for being the food of choice among post-pub diners.
In the 1940s and 1950s, with London restaurants employing ex-Bangladeshi seamen, the influx of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals had produced a growing community of entrepreneurs who claimed bombed-out buildings and abandoned huts as impromptu restaurants.
They opened early and closed late, deliberately targeting the after-pub market and the discerning London society diners who were up for trying something different.
Over the decade and a half between the mid-1950s and 1971, when Britain welcomed a great many more Bangladeshi immigrants, the cuisine evolved. Dishes were invented, old dishes were reimagined, and the UK suddenly claimed as its own a foreign cuisine that had perversely become quintessentially English.
Believe it or not, there are now more Indian restaurants in the Greater London area than exist in the whole of Mumbai and Delhi combined!
At Codicote Spice, we’re passionate about continuing this great tradition and building better and closer links with our community here in the village and beyond. Why not pop in and eat in our warm and welcoming restaurant on the High Street and be part of an ongoing history that is as British as it is Indian?