When you think of British cuisine, what do you think of? Fish and chips? A full English breakfast? Variations on meat and potatoes? While those are all certainly staples for the Brits, there is one type of cuisine that is secretly the most-loved food in the country: Curry!
Though tandoori and chicken tikka masala probably aren’t the first foods that come to your mind when you think of Ye Old England, no matter what city you visit there you will find an Indian takeaway restaurant on every corner. In every grocery store and cafe, there will be some sort of chicken tikka or curry-type dish. In fact, next to India itself, the UK is probably one of the best places in the world to help you crush (or kick-start) your curry cravings, and the country even has its own National Curry week to help you do just that. But what caused such a nation-wide obsession with this aromatic cuisine in a country that is more known for tea and crumpets than exotic spiced dishes from halfway around the world? We decided to take a little pitstop in Manchester, England to find out.
How curry made it into the hearts and stomachs of the British people
The obvious answer to the adoption of chicken tikka masala and other Indian favourites is immigration: As people moved from India to England, they brought their cuisine with them. For those who know even just a little bit about history, another obvious answer would be colonialism: India was a British colony, after all. The truth, however, is a combination of those that is more complex than first meets the eye.
It started with the Portuguese
Okay, obviously originally it started in the middle east, with the earliest use of traditional curry spices used in the Indus Valley in and around 2500 BC to 2200 BC, making curry one of the oldest cuisines in history. Being as delicious as it is, the Portuguese, who “discovered India” first in the 17th century, were quick to adopt the spices and sauces, and it was them who made the various curry dishes a favourite among non-Indian people. The British, however, are the ones credited with bringing the incredible spices and flavours of India to the rest of the world, with the first curry recipe written in english published by Hannah Glasse in 1747.
A brief note about “curry”…
Today, we use curry as a catch-all term for Indian cuisine, however curry isn’t actually an Indian term or dish. In the 1300s, all hot food was called cury, from the french word cuire: to cook. It is also thought that the word comes from the Tamil word kari, which refers to a thin sauce or dressing used in Southern India, along with many other types of sauces and dressings. Europeans then adopted it to denote their own dressings, and over the years it has changed to specifically refer to Indian food itself. Curry is not, however, a specific dish.
God save the queen of curry
Ultimately, we have Queen Victoria to thank for giving Indian food a popularity boost in the late 1800s. The Queen found the food and customs of India fascinating, and developed a particular affinity for curry dishes after being given two Indian servants in 1887. She became particularly close with one, Abdul Karim, who not only cooked her favourite dishes for her, but taught her much about his culture and language. Interestingly enough, the sovereign never actually visited India herself.
When in England, do as the Royals do
Naturally, from fashion to food, what was popular among the royal family, in particular the fashionable Queen Victoria, trickled down and became popular among the British people. Recipes and complete Anglo-Indian cookbooks began popping up all over England, though limited traditional spices and ingredients such as tamarind and mangoes made English curries move further and further away from their roots.
Immigration saves England
Well, at least in terms rejuvenating their most loved cuisine! Up until the second world war, English curry remained a distant relic of true Indian cuisine that could really only be enjoyed by the upper and middle classes. An influx of Indian immigrants to England post-World War Two, however, saved and increased Britain’s love affair with curry. Not only did they renew the dishes and bring their authenticity back, but they also made them more accessible to the general public, making good Indian food cheaper and available to everyone, regardless of their economic status.
Immigration is good for your taste buds
Now, it is estimated that there are over nine thousands Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian restaurants all over the UK serving up some of the cheapest, most delicious food to warm you up from the inside out on a cold, drizzly British day. So the next time you hear someone grumbling about immigrants, send them this article and take them out for some good old rogan josh, saag aloo, or veggie korma to remind them that with immigration life would be much more bland.