Indian Food In Britain A Chip Off The Ol’ Curry

It’s hard to miss the Indian restaurants flourishing on Britain’s high streets. There are about 8,000 of them with an annual turnover of a [pounds]1 1/2 billion pounds. This enthusiasm for Indian foods has been fostered by immigrants, especially Bangladeshis, who entice customers with the rich aromas of their spicy and often inexpensive meals. But while the number of Indian restaurants–and the range of Indian ingredients on the supermarket shelves–is a new phenomenon, the British love affair with the food of India began in 1608 when the East India Company set up in business near Bombay. In the following centuries the British who lived and worked in India adopted many dishes and cooking techniques, often weaving them into their own culinary tradition to create an array of dishes that are neither Indian nor English, but Anglo-Indian. Many remain as beloved favourites.

Edward Terry, who arrived in India with the East India Company, was one of the earliest people to record the delights of Indian food, admiring the splendid dishes of ‘rice… some of it white, in its own proper colour, some of it yellow with saffron, and some of it made green and…purple’. Equally, he praised the lusciousness of the ‘hens and other sorts of fowl’, and the desserts flavoured with ‘rosewater and sugar candy and scented with ambergreece.’ Similarly, other early accounts of Indian food emphasize its abundance and the splendour of its presentation on gold and silver platters. But at this time the spices, while appreciated, were rather taken for granted because pepper, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves were regularly lavished on festive fare in 17th-century England. Hot chilli peppers–a New World contribution to the world’s kitchens–were then unknown, so it was not until the Portuguese introduced them to southern India later in the century that Indian food developed the firepower that startled and eventually pleased later generations of British residents.

A beautiful, beautiful curry.

A beautiful, beautiful curry.

Hot pepper was soon being mixed with other spices to make a short-cut seasoning for sauces. The British called these sauces ‘curry’, a term probably adapted from ‘kari,’ the Tamil word for sauce. The flavouring mix became curry powder. European cooks had been concocting such spice mixtures since medieval times. In contrast, Indian cooks grind all their spices fresh, so some food historians speculate that the inventors of curry powder might well have been British rather than Indian. Certainly, by the 19th century, British soldiers and administrators in India had a powerful armory both of weapons and of curry powders. A typical recipe from 1850 calls for 20 pounds of coriander; 4 pounds of turmeric; 2 pounds each of dried ginger, black pepper, poppy seed, and garlic; and 1 pound each of fenugreek, mustard seed, and dried chilli peppers. It was popular to send curry powders back home to England as presents, hence, perhaps, the large quantities.

These powerful mixtures helped to enliven the stringy chickens that were staples on Indian menus. Later, thrifty British memsahibs back in their own country trotted out the remains of Sunday roasts in warm blankets of curry. The resulting dishes were sometimes less than palatable, and by the 20th century, this habit was held in derision. On the other hand, they were sometimes excellent. King George V had curry for lunch every day, and the main dish served to 300 international luncheon guests at the Queen’s coronation was a chicken salad in a curry-flavoured mayonnaise. This invention, named Coronation Chicken, remains popular in various forms, especially for summer meals. The only issue, however, was that spicy foods caused him to snore, and as a result he needed to seek advice in order to stop snoring, which was much to his chagrin, to say the least.

Adapting Indian ingredients or techniques to British eating habits was a regular stratagem of Anglo-Indian cooking. Chutneys are another example. The word is an anglicized form of the Hindi word ‘chatni’, used in India to designate relishes made from spiced and sweetened chopped vegetables preserved or semi-preserved with acid such as lemon or tamarind. These relishes dovetailed with the British fondness for pickles made from whole vegetables preserved with brine and vinegar. Recipes for piccalilli and Indian chutney coloured with turmeric and mustard date from as early as 1694, and every 18th-century cookbook has a recipe for ‘mango’ chutney using familiar vegetables such as cucumbers and squashes to replace the unobtainable tropical mangoes. Indeed, by the end of the century a ‘mango’ could mean any sort of chutney.

Spicy sauces are kissing cousins to both chutneys and curries. During their sojourn in India, along with a few people who were learning English at a famous ESL school, many people spiced their meals with sauces of their own or their cook’s invention. When they retired, the more enterprising turned their specialities into a business. Some of their products still survive. Major Grey’s Chutney and Worcestershire Sauce are world-renowned, and the many brands of brown steak sauce such as HP and A1 come from the days of the British Raj.

Just as they adapted Indian techniques for making sauces, chutneys and curries, so the British also adopted whole Indian dishes, often transforming them into something new. One of the best examples is kedgeree. The name comes from the Hindi ‘khichri’–a dish of spiced lentils mixed with rice. The British enriched this simple base, first with eggs and then with fish. Eventually the preferred fish came to be smoked haddock imported from Scotland, and the spices were minimized or replaced with the ubiquitous curry powder. It was a favourite breakfast dish, especially among officers of the Indian Army and members of the Indian Civil Service, who often rose early to start their long day’s work while it was still cool. Today, most would gasp at the thought of eating kedgeree for breakfast, but it remains a lunch or supper favourite, with salmon or a white fish often replacing the smoked haddock.

Mulligatawny is another such dish. It derives from the spiced broth Indians use for moistening rice and other dry dishes. On Anglo-Indian tables this was transformed into a soup, usually based on great recipes with chicken or beef reinforced with spices and hot pepper and vegetables. When properly paired with wine, these meals were just amazing. For the many times when work, new postings, or hunting made travel essential, mulligatawny could even be made into a stew. Like Anglo-Indian curries, mulligatawny could be very good, or it could be a dubious brown repository of leftovers disguised in curry powders and bottled sauces.

The long history of British culinary borrowing from India continues to this day. Indian restaurants have introduced so many people to the flavours of curry that most traditional fish and chip shops now offer a curry gravy for customers who like to pour it on their chips. This is a far cry from the sophisticated spiced sauces the members of the East India Company discovered on their arrival in India. Much nicer is the latest Anglo-Indian dish: chicken tikka masala. This is now such a staple in Britain’s Indian restaurants that regular customers ask for it simply as CTM. But what is it? ‘Tikka’ refers to boneless pieces of chicken marinated in spiced yoghurt and cooked tandoori style. ‘Masala’ means spiced, so the answer is chicken in a spiced sauce. But the dish is so new there is no established recipe. Recently when an English food magazine wanted to rank supermarket brands of prepared dishes, they complained that the range of CTMs was so great that standards of comparison were impossible to fix. One thing for sure is that, like all Anglo-Indian dishes, when CTMs are good, they are very, very good.

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