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Indian spicesIndian 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.

Hindostanee Coffee HouseIt 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 London’s Regent Street where it is still open for business today (

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 exhibition

© 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.

"The most popular
Indian dish is
Chicken Tikka

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 of workers.

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 1971, Bangladeshi.

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.

Early tandoor oven

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 .

"The word
means fire"

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 temperature.

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.

Author: David Jenkins


  • The word 'curry' was invented by the English administrators of the East Indian Company, coming from the Tamil word 'kari' which means a spiced sauce.
  • The term 'curry' is not really used in India.
  • The Indian food industry in the UK is worth £3.2 billion and accounts for two-thirds of all eating out.
  • In 1780 commercial curry powder was available.
  • Indian restaurants outnumber Chinese restaurants by two to one.
  • Indian restaurants in Britain serve about 2.5 million customers every week.
  • There are about 9,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, employing an estimated 70,000 staff.
  • In London alone there are more Indian restaurants than in Bombay and Delhi.
  • The word 'balti' means bucket.


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