Cooking . . . how did it become so popular?
There are not many towns in the UK without an Indian restaurant,
and certainly no cities. In fact many towns will boast several
such eating establishments. These days they are very much
part of the urban landscape but it was not always so.
Indian cuisine is the most popular alternative to traditional
cooking in Britain, followed by Chinese and Italian food with
Chicken Tikka Masala now considered one of Britain's most
popular dishes, if not the most popular.
So where did the popularity of Indian cuisine come from and
how did it start? There seems to be no clear cut answer to
the question. No doubt Britain's involvement with India over
the centuries would seem to be the logical place to start
looking for the answers. Some suggest those returning from
years of living and working in India brought back with them
a taste for Indian food. This is probably true but those people
would have been a minority and a lot of them well to do, not
the sort of people who would pop out to go to the local Indian
restaurant, not that Indian restaurants really existed in
any great number until a few decades ago.
In the early Nineteenth century the only places offering
Indian cuisine were community meeting places which had been
set up for the lascars (seamen most of whom were from
Bengal) who had jumped ship in London looking for a new life
or had just been put ashore, without any means of support,
as no longer required on their ships.
was not until 1809 the first establishment dedicated to Indian
cuisine opened. This was the Hindostanee Coffee House just
off Portman Square in London, opened by Dean Mahomet who had
originally risen through the ranks of the East India Company's
army before coming to London, after a time spent in Ireland.
Calling it a coffee house was just a way of describing such
establishments at the time and was not somewhere set up to
sell coffee, it was just taking advantage of the popularity
of the term . . . Nineteenth century marketing and PR!
The Hindostanee Coffee House was intended to appeal to the
Anglo-Indians, many of whom lived in that part of London,
with traditional colonial style furnishings and decortication.
It was intended "for the Nobility and Gentry where they
might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian
dishes of the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest
epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England".
As the forerunner of Indian restaurants the Hindostanee was
not a great success as in 1812 Mahomet filed for bankruptcy.
It was really in the very early part of the Twentieth century
that the first real Indian restaurants started to open with
the first recorded one being the London based Salut e Hind,
in Holborn area, which opened in 1911. However, these early
Indian restaurants were mainly for Asians.
In 1926 the first fashionable Indian restaurant opened. It
was the Veeraswamy Indian Restaurant in Londons Regent
Street where it is still open for business today (www.veeraswamy.com).
At the 1924 Wembley Empire exhibition the Indian Pavilion
was modelled on Mughal architecture and the Indian pavilion
featured an Indian restaurant. Edward Palmer who had successfully
run the Mughal Palace at the exhibition, was so encouraged
by the reaction of friends and acquaintances, that it led
to him founding Veeraswamy. In 1935 Veeraswamy's was sold
to Sir William Steward MP who ran the restaurant for 40 years
travelling the world in order to source produce for the restaurant.
"If you appreciate Indian foods
take your lunch at the Indian Pavilion"
An advert for the Indian restaurant at the 1924 Wembley Empire
British Library Board LON LD1 NPL
Over the years customers of Veeraswamy 's have included Edward
Prince of Wales, King Gustav of Sweden, Pandit Nehru, Indira
Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan, and Marlon
Brando to name but a few. It was another celebrity customer,
Prince Axel of Denmark, who is held to be responsible for
Veeraswamy introducing lager into Indian restaurants. During
a visit the Prince was so enchanted by the restaurant that
he made a present of a case of Carlsberg (the royal beer)
and gave orders for a case to be delivered each year.
Indian dish is
The implication is that the popularity of Indian cooking
came about through a natural growth set in motion by Britain's
time in control of India. This seems unlikely given that it
would only be a small minority of the population that would
have even experienced Indian food, let alone be able to afford
to dine out at Indian restaurants. There was a naturally growing
Indian community in the country as a result of lascars leaving
ships and Indian servants coming over with employers returning
from their time in India but nothing to signify any significant
growth in the popularity of Indian food.
The real growth in Indian restaurants started in the early
Sixties. The growth did not come about because of the British
Empire, and India being part of it, but through a combination
of economic and political events that came together in the
same period. Up until 1962 members of the Commonwealth were
allowed to enter Britain freely but even after that time there
were large influxes with many Asians coming from Kenya, Uganda
and other parts of Africa as a result of political upheaval
and the expulsion of the Asian communities. For many Asians
arriving in Britain there were few employment opportunities
so the growing restaurant businesses had a ready-made pool
The growing affluence, and the changing lifestyles, of Britain
in the Sixties saw a very different world emerging where more
and more people were able to eat out. This coincided with
the growth of Indian restaurants across the whole of the country,
even though ironically those running the restaurants were
often not Indians but Pakistanis or, with independence in
In 1960 there were a mere 500 Indian restaurants in Britain
but by 1970 this had more than doubled to 1,200. Bangladesh
Independence saw an immigration surge and with it further
growth in restaurant numbers to 3,000 by 1980, and by the
turn of the Century there were around 8,000 Indian restaurants
with a turnover of more than £2 billion and providing
70,000 jobs making Indian restaurants a very important part
of the country's economy.
It was the Sixties that saw the introduction of the tandoor
which is credited with being one of the major factors influencing
the rapid growth in popularity of Indian cooking. It gives
food cooked using a tandoor a unique flavour but what is a
tandoor. The tandoor is a type of clay oven with the heat
source is in the base.
The tandoor ovens used in today's restaurant are very different,
using modern technology, but they still operate in the same
way when it comes to the cooking of the food . . . they are
just easier to run and heat up. In a traditional tandoor oven
the heat would be generated by burning charcoal or wood. Charcoal
can still be used in a modern tandoor although they can now
also be heated by gas or electric .
Cooking food in this manner means it is exposed to direct
heat from the fire, as well as radiant heat and hot-air, convection
cooking, with smoking by the fat and food juices that drip
on to the charcoal. Temperatures in a tandoor can approach
480°C (900°F), and it is common for tandoor ovens
to remain lit for long periods to maintain the high cooking
The growth of Indian restaurants made restaurant meals affordable
to more people and was also instrumental in changing the nations
taste to more exotic food. The growth of Indian cooking, and
the taste for spicier food, has grown over the decades with
many people now cooking their own Indian food at home. The
supermarkets have whole sections dedicated to Indian food
products and fresh Indian meals to cook at home.
Along the way what started out as very definable Indian food
has become Anglo-Indian food with dishes created by Indian
chefs specifically for British customers. The most famous
of such dishes being Chicken Tikka Masala.
There is a lovely urban legend as to how Chicken Tikka Masala
came into existence. It is claimed that a diner, who had ordered
Chicken Tikka, complained that it was too dry and needed some
gravy serving with it. Working on the basis that the customer
is always right, the Chicken Tikka was returned to the kitchen
for the chef to work his magic to keep the customer happy.
A can of tomato soup was produced, some cream and spices added,
thickened to a gravy consistency and poured over the Chicken
Tikka . . . which became Chicken Tikka Masala.
Is it likely? How many Indian kitchens would have had cans
of tomato soup in their stock of ingredients? But true or
not it is a dish with many variations, all going under the
same name. It is claimed that no such dish existed in India
but others suggest it is very similar to Butter Chicken.
Whatever the truth Chicken Tikka Masala is so popular it
is even being served in some hotel restaurants in India and
Bangladesh. And in 2001 Robin Cook, the current Foreign Secretary
declared it a British national dish and today around 23 million
portions of Chicken Tikka Masala a year are sold in Indian
restaurants across the country.
ABOUT INDIAN FOOD IN THE UK
word 'curry' was invented by the English administrators
of the East Indian Company, coming from the Tamil word 'kari'
which means a spiced sauce.
term 'curry' is not really used in India.
Indian food industry in the UK is worth £3.2 billion
and accounts for two-thirds of all eating out.
1780 commercial curry powder was available.
restaurants outnumber Chinese restaurants by two to one.
restaurants in Britain serve about 2.5 million customers
are about 9,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, employing
an estimated 70,000 staff.
London alone there are more Indian restaurants than in Bombay
word 'balti' means bucket.
POPULAR INDIAN DISHES
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