In 1886, two scholarly British India-hands, Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell, published the dictionary Anglo-Indian words and Phrases. They gave lengthy and often-idiosyncratic descriptions to some 2,000 words. One was ‘curry’: “In the East, the staple food consists of some cereal, either in the form of flour baked into unleavened cakes or boiled in the grain, as rice is. Such food having little taste, some small quantity of a much more savoury preparation is added as a relish, or ‘kitchen’, to use the phrase of our forefathers. And this is in fact, the proper office of curry in native diet. It consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric (see mussalla); and a little of this gives a flavour to a large mess of rice.”
Their two-page rumination on curry is one of the longer entries in the dictionary — appropriately so, given the place Indian cuisine has now come to occupy in the hearts and stomachs of Britons. This year, Britain celebrates the 200th anniversary of its first Indian restaurant. The Hindostanee Coffee House in west-central London, which opened in 1809, was the creation of Sake Dean Mahomet, a Patna-born immigrant with a sharp instinct of entrepreneurship who was well ahead of his time in selling India to the West.
Located at 34, George Street, Portman Square, Dean Mahomet’s establishment was aimed at catering to a British clientele that would have been familiar with Indian food. He may well have served such familiar Anglo-Indian delights as the kedgeree (khichri with fish) and Mulligatawny soup (in Tamil Malligu is pepper and Tanni is water).
What is known is that he offered the upper class sahib — pining for the comforts of India — “real chilm tobacco” in hookahs and Indian dishes “in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England.” Mahomet’s business sense was nothing short of visionary. Today, just minutes away from George Street is the upscale neighbourhood of Marble Arch, whose main thoroughfare is lined with popular sheesha cafes.
But Mahomet’s timing was all wrong. The Hindostanee Coffee House did not do terribly well and Mahomet shut it down, declaring himself bankrupt in 1812. Just how much ahead of his time was this Bihari businessman? Exactly 100 years. While Mahomet was busy courting, as he put it, “the Nobility and Gentry,” a rather substantial population of Indians was taking roots all around him. They included working class sailors and domestics, as well as students. In 1911, the market worked its magic, and the Salut-e-Hind restaurant opened in Holborn.
“Curry has come a long way, and it’s thanks to Mr Dean Mahomet that we are all here,” said Atul Kochhar, Britain’s most celebrated Indian chef, whose Tamarind became the first Indian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star in 2001. Kochhar is among a growing number of Indian chefs who are following in the path shown by Mahomet. These highly skilled cooks cater to the elite with a cuisine that’s traditional, experimental and funky. The other Michelin-starred Indian restaurant is Rasoi run by chef Vineet Bhatia. But the specialist cuisine served in the growing number of high-end establishments isn’t what the average Briton understands by curry. Curry, Britain’s most popular dish, is served in curry houses. There are 12,000 of these humble restaurants spread all over the country. They are run mostly by Bangadeshis, and serve North Indian food. The key to understanding the massive popularity of curry houses in Britain lies in the background of their patrons — the overwhelming majority of them are working class and they are fed up with fish and chips. It’s no coincidence that the first Indian restaurant to have any real impact in Britain is thought to be the Shafi, which opened in 1920, employed some ex-sailors and quickly became a draw for Indian students. In a cold place, a hot curry on the cheap had ‘winner’ written all over it — a spicy and comforting reminder of home.
The bulk of the Indian restaurant and catering business is run by Bangladeshis. It has a turnover of over £ 3.5 billion, according to the Bangladesh Caterers’ Association, and employs some 100,000 people — apparently more than British steel, shipbuilding and coal put together.
Nothing quite captures the image of the British curry as the chicken tikka masala. In 2001, the then foreign minister Robin Cook immortalised this red-coloured dish as a “true British national dish”, symbolising the country’s multicultural fibre.
Little is know about the origins of this madly popular dish: a mild chicken curry with tomatoes and a bit of cream. A chef in the Scottish city of Glasgow claims to have rustled up the first chicken tikka masala, and a local MP now wants the British government to ask the European Union to grant legal protection to the dish. Thousands of miles away, Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Darya Ganj lays a similar claim.
But celebrity chefs such as Bhatia and Kochhar will not be caught deadoffering ‘CTM’ to their clients. Their posh restaurants offer specialised cuisines for a price — you can taste Indo-French food at Le Porte Des Indes, Kerala cuisine at Quilon, game in the Cinnamon Club, Anglo-India dishes at Chutney Mary and “bold authentic dishes” at Veeraswamy’s, London’s oldest Indian restaurant. They select their wines with great care.
By contrast, the slightly soiled curry house menus come with the stock fare of vindaloos, kormas, karhai and biryanis, mostly laced with cream or yoghurt and usually eaten with a pint of lager. “Authenticity has nothing to do with my cuisine, but tradition has,” says Kochhar. “When I came to Britain, Indian food was all a big mishmash. But now the cloud has been cleared and I’m explaining what this food is all about.”
Dean Mahomet would have been proud of Kochhar, Bhatia and other innovators. And he would have frowned at the curry houses.