From Sylhet to Mayfair: A History of Indian Food in Britain

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The Norris Street Coffee-House on Haymarket is recorded as the first place in England to sell curry in 1773 (Monroe, 2005). The first Indian restaurant was opened in London in 1810 by Dean Mahomed. It was a ‘Hindostanee’ coffee house where hookah and ‘a range of meat and vegetable dishes .. with seasoned rice’ (Fisher, 1996: 257) were served for ‘the entertainment of Indian gentlemen’, referring to white Anglo-Indians who had returned from India (Highmore, 2009). The restaurant closed after two years and Dean Mahomed became a barber to the King.

Sailors from Sylhet, a region of Bengal which became part of Bangladesh in 1971, were employed on British ships from the 1600s. Many jumped ship as a result of their appalling working conditions and low pay, settling in British ports; East London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Glasgow (Visram, 2002). A number went on to set up boarding houses and cafes for newly arrived Asians, with the food cooked by Sylheti chefs.

Sylheti chefs were also employed by Edward Palmer, when he opened London’s oldest Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy in 1926, based on ‘Mughali and Raj food culture’ (Highmore, 2009). Where the Sylheti establishments provided board and lodging for immigrants with little to no money, Palmer sought to create the same atmosphere as Dean Mohammed: one of an affluent colonial India harking back to the days of the Raj, catering for visiting Indian princes and ‘upper middle class Londoners who appreciated the turbaned waiters and chandeliers’ (Wilson, 2016). Sylhet was home to Mug or Mogh cooks, who cooked for the Raj and were used to adapting dishes for the ‘unadventurous British palate’ with the heat levels were reduced. The British were especially fond on chutneys and relishes, ignoring any conventions that certain relishes were paired with specific dishes, eating them in a mix’n’match sort of way, requesting their cooks make a south Indian coconut chutney to go with Northern dishes.

Anglo-Indian cuisine became hugely popular in Victorian Britain and was included in most cook books of the time, not simply those aimed at the affluent middle classes. Panikos Panayani, author of Spicing Up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food describes Anglo-Indian cuisine as one based on ‘the standardisation and bastardization of regional recipes’. European cuisine, predominantly French, grew in popularity and it was no longer seen as desirable for one’s home to smell of spices. Paniyani comments that by the end of WW2, Britain had reached a ‘culinary stasis’ with all sections of society eating meals that centred around meat, potatoes and bread. It was after the second world war that the UK rekindled their enthusiasm for curry again.

Following the war, Sylheti chefs bought bombed out chip shops. Providing reasonably priced food, these restaurants were viewed alongside other providers of cheap meals: working class cafes, Chinese restaurants and chip shops. Owners realised that their profits could be increased by staying open when other restaurants had shut, giving rise to the British tradition of going for an Indian after the pub. Many owners and staff tolerated appalling behaviour from their customers. Akram Khan described his teenage experiences of racist abuse from the drunken white men who patronised his father’s restaurant on Brick Lane.

Customers came to expect that all Indian restaurants would serve the same menu; dishes created for Anglo-Indians in the late nineteenth century, a precedent set by the food at Palmer’s Veeraswamy, known at the time as The Indian Restaurant. These dishes included for example, the madras, and were popularised across Britain by the growing number of Bangladeshi restaurants. The Bahadur brothers owned a number of restaurants across England. ‘Nearly all the first generation of Bangladeshis who owned Indian restaurants in the UK in earlier days learnt the trade from the Bahadur brothers. They learnt the skill of cooking and serving, also management, step by step.’ (Choudhury, 1993:67.) Balti (meaning bucket in Hindi) was invented in Birmingham in the 1980s, flavoured with cumin, cloves and cinnamon and served with super-sized naan bread. Chicken tikka masala, pronounced Britain’s national dish by Robin Cook in 2001, is said to have been invented when a customer asked for gravy with his kebab. (One shudders at the thought.) Restaurants based their dishes on a single base sauce which ‘you could adapt … to their taste for predictable sauces on a sliding scale of heat (mild korma, medium Madras, fiery vindaloo)’ (Wilson, 2016). Interestingly, Nando’s works on a similar principle… A jalfrezi could be made using chili and green peppers or yoghurt, almonds and garam masala for a passanda. Biryani, a curry house staple, is originally an Iranian dish, which is served across India in its many different iterations.

Paniyani cites the influence of Pat Chapman, the founder of the Curry Club, and author of cookbooks which transported the Bangladeshi restaurant menu into people’s homes. He takes issue with Chapman’s interpretation of the post-war Indian restaurant in the UK. While they did serve a mixture of Punjabi dishes and typically creamier Mughali dishes, Paniyani asserts that the Punjabi diet was not as meat-centric as Chapman suggests. It was inaccurate to suggest that Punjabi cuisine was a neat mirror to British food: meat in the centre, veg on the side. The Punjab is of course home to Sikhs, Hindus and Jains, all of which espouse vegetarianism. Jains are exclusively vegetarian and many Sikhs are, serving vast quantities of vegetarian food to all visitors to their gurdwaras, as Jamie Oliver shared with us on a visit to Delhi for Channel 4.

The Asian population in the UK increased sizeably in the post-war years. Migration from India reached its peak in the 1960s and people from Pakistan arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The majority were employed in jobs deemed undesirable by the white population: manufacturing jobs in the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire (Robinson, 2005). African Indians arrived from Uganda and Kenya in the 1970s, linked to the fact that East African British colonies were shortly due to gain independence. Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Asian population from Uganda led to a refugee crisis in 1972, with 40, 000 people coming to the UK, despite the British government’s best efforts to restrict numbers by altering legislation which permitted Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Many settled in London or Leicester, educated English speakers with significant professional commercial experience.

I’m intrigued by the responses of British Asians to Indian restaurants. Madhur Jaffrey was not impressed, describing them in her book An Invitation to Indian Cooking as “second-class establishments” serving a “generalised Indian food from no area whatsoever”. (British diplomats in India were regularly posted to new locations. As they discovered new dishes, they asked their cooks to make them, resulting in a geographically incoherent Anglo-Indian cuisine.) Vicky Bhogal expressed similar sentiments to Madhur Jaffrey, saying that she was ‘really confused about Indian restaurants in this country’ (Bhogal, 2003:124). Even the term ‘curry’ is however contentious as it is not used by Indians. Professor Pushpesh Pant talks about ‘curse of the curry’, objecting to the term which is used to describe a range of vastly different dishes from the entire Indian sub-continent. The term ‘curry’ is said to have come from the words khari or caril which referred to specific spice blends. (Collingham, 2006).

Meera Sodha, a second generation British Asian of a Gujarati-Ugandan background was also thoroughly unimpressed upon first visiting an Indian restaurant when at university in London. “Sitting around a table with a group of friends at a “horrible” Indian restaurant on Brick Lane. All of my friends turned to me and asked what they should order.” She tells us. “I looked down the menu at all the kormas and jalfrezis. It was not the kind of food I’d grown up eating. I suddenly wanted to be able to show them the kind of incredible food I’d grown up with. The food in those places comes in varying hues of brown and orange. It’s so rich and heavy, and it’s created this massive misconception about what real Indian food is in this country. So I was determined to show my friends what real Indian food looked like. The only problem was I couldn’t create a meal.”

Nisha Katona, OBE got straight to the point when talking about her motivation to open her restaurant, Mowgli, of which there are now four. ‘This is how we, as Indians, eat at home. We don’t have a balti or a bhuna, and we don’t have naan breads and poppadoms’. Or indeed ‘Lumps of meat and a very thick gravy.’

I too have felt immensely puzzled by Indian restaurants. I was very aware that I ate a lot of Indian food growing up but the food in Indian restaurants was really quite foreign to me. I was puzzled by the sweet tasting curries with cream or raisins in them. Prof Pushpesh Pant is deeply unimpressed with “the myth of Moghlai” – ‘the heavily spiced, rich, creamy food widely offered in Indian restaurants as the sort of food eaten by the Mughals, the Islamic dynasty that ruled over large swaths of the subcontinent before the rise of the British, when it is really a modern invention’ (Choudhury, 2016). Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors talks about the food that was cooked for the British. As the Mughals had ruled India, their food was associated with the courts and ruler and therefore was served to the British in power. Coming originally from Iran, the Mughals’ food involved lots of yoghurt. It was in Lucknow, famed for its dairy products, that cream was added to dishes.

I had never come across many of the names of the dishes in Indian restaurants which seemed to come in a choice of different kinds of meat or vegetable. I didn’t understand why everything was so meat heavy. In the words of Dr Hannah Ritchie of Oxford University and OurWorldInData, ‘culturally it’s ingrained there (India) that there are lots of good foods that are not meat based.’ ‘With millions of diners having perfected the cuisine over generations, it is hardly surprising that vegetarian cooking in India is not a grim exercise in dining’ (Arora&Kapoor, 1996: 7).

Yes, they did have some things I recognised but they seemed to have been bizarrely relegated to a small section at the bottom entitled ‘side dishes’. Some restaurants didn’t have paneer or tried to pass off cheddar as paneer in what seemed a very odd saag ‘paneer’. (I can’t help but think about Bertrand Russell and his assertion that cheeses between cultures cannot simply be swapped with each other.) I got annoyed if the mattar paneer had a sweet tomato sauce with lots of cream in it. Sometimes dal was suggested as a main course. Surely it was supposed to be part of the meal, on top of the rice. I was also puzzled by the lack of Indian desserts, which I loved. Some restaurants had gulab jamuns but we were always disappointed by how few there were. (I remember my mother taking an enormous box of gulabs on a flight to Liverpool for my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. Swimming in sugar syrup, this was in the days before liquids in hand luggage were limited. ‘Mmmm, they’re very sweet, Helen’, said the family as they obligingly ate one each. I felt too self-conscious to eat my usual five. The box was lugged back home, still full, where Dad and I made short work of them. Mum and I made some together years later and I took them in to work, where my Asian colleagues gave them their seal of approval.)

I watched as the other diners invariably ordered a chicken curry (often coloured a highlighter shade of pink), naan bread, rice and Bombay potatoes. I’d never had naan bread before, largely because the temples were not equipped with tandoor ovens. They are fiendishly difficult and dangerous to operate due to their immense heat, coming originally from Persia and to be found throughout central Asia and northern India. I was puzzled that people never seemed to venture into the wonderful world of Indian breads beyond the naan. Professor Pushpesh Pant objects to the ‘tyranny of the tandoor’ – the ovens which have become ubiquitously associated with Indian food.

I grew up thinking that few people outside our religious community could cook, unless they were Indian. Visiting people’s houses, they often had no idea what to feed us. I was puzzled by their approach to food, their insistence that meat must be the centrepiece and that it must be replaced by something equivalent, although no-one seemed to know what it was and no suggestion ever seemed to cut the mustard. I’d like to borrow another quote from Meera Sodha here: ‘Growing up, there were no sides, there was no main thing at the middle of the table…there was simply a variety of delicious things to eat.’

I sometimes wonder about subjecting my dinner guests to the protein replacement interrogation, demanding that they tell me how to shoehorn chicken into dhokla in place of chickpea flour. I could then pronounce their cuisine inadequate because I couldn’t do a quick and easy protein swap into recipes I was used to.

With regards to the things we ate, I was aware that we pronounced lots of things incorrectly. I was never sure what exactly was authentic and what had been invented in a temple kitchen although there were lots of Indian cooks at the temple. (Sometimes my mum used to hide the chili as some of the things they made were so hot.) Many of the things made in the temples were passed down by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, who came from a family of Vaishnavas in Calcutta – they followed a strict vegetarian diet, excluding fish, eggs, onions, garlic and all other members of the allium family. One of his disciples named Yamuna, spent much time learning to cook from him and travelled India researching recipes for her book The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking. In turn, many of her recipes influenced Kurma’s book, Great Vegetarian Dishes. Temple kitchens are a place to learn to cook, as so many pairs of hands are needed. My mum started as a potato peeler and at my age was often to be found running the kitchen on a Sunday, where fifty to a hundred people would all need to be fed. We had a set formula for the feast on Sunday: a savoury, usually a stuffed pastry, chutney, rice, dal, a bread, two subjis, a drink and a dessert. Nearly everything would be deep fried and the rice full of butter. The whey leftover from the paneer would be used in the bread and to make the rice. Victoria Coren-Mitchell says lots of women feel the need to copy what their mother did in order to be a proper adult. I therefore feel I should be able to cook everything, items that involve skill and practice. I think I might be too scared though to cook anything Indian for anyone who is Indian. I have however been led to believe that my dhokla has passed the test. My cooking is a geographically incoherent mishmash: dhokla (Gujarati), mattar paneer (Punjabi), sambar (south Indian), sweet rice (Bengali).

I read an interview with Padma Lakshmi who was promoting her new cookbook. She included kitchari, which we ate buckets of with fresh chapattis, sometimes with kadhi sauce, made with chickpea flour and yoghurt. I wandered around my local Asian grocers, looking at the pre-packaged mixes for things I grew up eating like upma and dahi vada. When I first moved to London, I lived next to an enormous 24 hour Tesco. I was amazed that they stocked everything I wanted: chapati flour, gram flour, baby aubergines, dal. They didn’t just stock parathas in the freezer, you could buy boxes of ras malai from the fridge section!

I’ve often wondered why most expensive restaurants have so few and often such disappointing vegetarian options. Sometimes it’s safe to assume an inverse correlation between the two: the posher the restaurant, the less there is for me to eat. Is it a matter of skill? I’m not sure. You can go to any of the vegetarian restaurants on Drummond Street and eat expertly made puris and dosa for very reasonable prices. I remember how excited I was when I first discovered Drummond Street, behind Euston station. It reminded me so much of the food I grew up eating. Even the plates and cups made me feel nostalgic. You can get shrikhand as part of your thali at the Diwana Bhel Puri House. The Ravi Shankar restaurant has been there since 1970, London’s oldest South Indian vegetarian restaurant.

The traditional model of the Indian restaurant was disrupted by Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. Reliant on highly skilled yet low paid labour, (a chef may undergo seven years of training before being able to use a tandoor oven, due to it’s immense heat) most chefs employed still came from Bangladesh but typical salaries did not reach the thresholds for visa sponsorship imposed by the Conservative government. David Cameron tried to open curry colleges which were an unprecedented failure.

Highmore talks about snobbery regarding Indian cuisine and the view that it couldn’t be sophisticated. ‘The ubiquitous curry of the high street Indian restaurant was almost structurally incapable of being seen as achieving gastronomic standards equivalent to European influenced cooking.’ (2009: 185). There has however been a proliferation of British Asians reinventing the Indian restaurant, emphasising authenticity, some very upmarket, complete with Michelin stars.

The Doctor and I have eaten our way around London’s Indian restaurants. I tried lotus root kofta at Chutney Mary but refused to go to Veeraswamy as the prices just seemed stupid. I enjoyed the slightly creepy puppets at Masala Zone’s Covent Garden branch where I gingerly nibbled at some gajar halava, one of the few things I wasn’t keen on as a child. I was delighted by the chana bhatura and halava at Dishoom. We’ve been to Hoppers a few times, which is marvellous but quite different to the cheap and cheerful Sri Lankan restaurants in Lewisham. I took my colleagues to the India Club and got very excited by the puris. A few anniversaries have been celebrated at Michelin-starred Trishna. Go – try the paneer tikka with anardhana and the aloo papri chaat. I got slightly teary-eyed at the payasam, or sweet rice, at Rasa. (We had a Bengali cook at the Belfast temple who made sweet rice every week. He was also the only mridanga player, two skills which cannot be carried out simultaneously.) Biryanis seem to be all the rage these days, covered in a pastry crust and served red hot. (I would however like to point out that The Saffron Lounge, a fine Nepalese restaurant in Blackheath has been doing this since before it was cool.) At Chettinad, our thalis came with halava. I ate mine and the Doctor let me have his too, before he ordered gulab jamuns for both of us. Reader, need I say why I married him?


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