Curry is as popular today in the UK as ever. For many, a trip to a local British Indian restaurant is still a regular treat. However, more of us are now cooking curry at home. Not just the old favourites from our local British Indian restaurant. But something we may have experienced on our travels, perhaps to Southeast Asia or the Caribbean. Curry is an important part of the cuisines of several regions around the world. It links the histories of many countries. It tells the story of early travel around the globe and of the many important trade routes. But surprisingly curry is a term not generally used in India, despite its common use worldwide. But mainly in parts with past colonial connections. And a few without.
Table of Contents
- What is curry?
- A brief history of curry
- A brief history of curry in the UK
- British Indian restaurant food
- Curries around the world
- World spice blends
What is curry?
Definition of curry
What is Curry? Curry may be thought of as any Indian or Indian-style dish, usually with a sauce. But it is not a concept well recognised in India despite many Indian dishes fitting this description. It really began with the British, resident in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. They lumped together many Indian dishes and adapted them to suit their own requirements, under the heading of curry. Traditional Indian food, however, remained something rather different.
Where does the word curry come from?
Although the British coined the term curry it probably comes from the Portuguese in India in the 15th century. They described broths that were poured over rice as ‘carrie’ or ‘caril’. Words adapted from south Indian languages.
A brief history of curry
The British in India
Starting in the 18th century, many Indian dishes were adapted to suit the British living in India. These spiced dishes, invariably with a thick sauce or gravy, were lumped together under the heading of curry. It was not a concept well recognised by the Indians who preferred their own style of Indian cooking. Each dish also had its own specific name, relevant to the ingredients or spices used and its preparation.
Curry travels the world
- Whenever the British moved from India to other posts or positions in distant colonies, they took their curries with them. And they took them to Britain when they returned home, often with Indian cooks who knew how to make them.
- Labourers from India also accompanied the British all around the world. And when Indians travel, they take their food culture with them. Above all they tried to cook the dishes they knew from home, substituting their Indian ingredients for local ones. And so their much-loved recipes evolved. Particularly when those workers married into the local families of their new home. They created a sort of Indian fusion cooking of their respective cuisines. Many of these dishes are still cooked today, in South Africa, Trinidad, Malaysia, the list goes on.
A brief history of curry in the UK
Curry arrives in Britain
The British living in India during the 18th and 19th centuries missed their Anglo-Indian curries on returning home. And therefore they brought their Indian cooks with them to Britain.
The British Indian restaurant is born
Boatmen, from what is now Bangladesh, serving on British ships, remained in Britain after WW2. The boatmen renovated derelict cafes and started selling curry and rice. Others took over fish-and-chip shops and served curry sauces to pour over chip dinners. And this is how the British Indian restaurant scene started in the UK. By dishing up Anglo-Indian curries, rather than typical Indian food.
Curry becomes the UK’s favourite food
- Increasing holiday travel in the 1960’s and 1970’s broadened the British public’s mind to new cuisines. This in turn expanded the British Indian restaurant scene.
- Chicken Tikka Masala was most likely invented in the UK in the 1970’s. By 2001 it was the nation’s favourite dish.
- In the 1980s Pakistani restauranteurs in Birmingham invented the balti. To save time, marinated and pre-cooked meats are added to a basic pre-prepared sauce. After that other spices and ingredients are added to make a range of balti dishes. This created a lot of interest.
- ‘Indian Cooking’, a BBC cookery series hosted by Madhur Jaffrey was broadcast several times in the early 1980’s. This helped the British learn to cook Indian food at home. The resulting demand for Indian ingredients fueled the expansion of Indian grocery stores. Indian ready meals in supermarkets soon followed.
Curry in the UK today
- New-style Indian restaurants were created in the 1980’s by the next generation of restauranteurs, introducing more ‘authentic’ dishes on their menus and improving on the standards of their predecessors.
- More recently, a wave of professional immigrants have opened high-class British Indian restaurants. Indian dishes are reinvented and served in smaller portions of beautifully presented food. This is on a par with cordon bleu French cuisine. Some earning Michelin star status.
British Indian restaurant food
How it all started
The precursors of these British Indian restaurants were cafes serving rice and curry. Also fish-and-chip shops serving curry sauces for pouring over chips. These small businesses were originally intended to feed immigrants from India. But the British soon fell in love with their curry.
British Indian restaurant menus
- Many of the dishes served in British Indian restaurants are based on the Anglo-Indian dishes of the 19th Century. Indian recipes were adopted by the British, using the ingredients, techniques and garnishes from all over the Indian Subcontinent. Many were adapted into a repertoire of dishes, some based on recipes from back home.
- Most dishes are created using a standard base sauce. Other spices and ingredients are added to create specific sauces. This resulted in favourites such as madras, vindaloo, jalfrezi, dopiaza, korma, tikka masala etc. Pre-cooked meat and vegetables are added to the sauce according to each customer’s requirements.
- To suit British expectations, food is served in courses, often starting with papadams and pickles. A dessert often follows after the main curry dishes. In India everything would usually be served at the same time.
- Initially the standard of cooking was often poor. But these days more effort goes into the flavour of these British Indian restaurant dishes. Above all by sourcing better quality ingredients and cooks!
Curries around the world
How did curry travel around the world?
Because of travel, trade and immigration, curry is now a big part of many cuisines around the world. This is in part due to:
- The movement of European powers and Indian labourers and traders around the world during colonial times. Particularly to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Africa.
- Trade and the promise of work and wealth in non-colonial places. The British trading with Japan and Indians migrating to the USA for example.
- Ancient cultural ties and trade links between India and other countries such as Thailand.
Where did curry go?
Local cooking methods and traditions in each country were blended with those of India to create something new, but still recognisable as Indian in character. Today, curries adapted using locally available ingredients and flavours are eaten in various countries in several different regions:
- South East Asia – lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal and peanuts.
- Caribbean – Mediterranean herbs such as thyme and parsley. And a variety of different chillies such as scotch bonnet, along with tomato sauces.
- Africa – various curry powders, peanuts and curry served in bread rolls.
- Far East – soy sauce, rice wine and star anise.
- America – corn and jalapeno chillies
Today in the UK we are fortunate to be able to experience many of the dishes from these World cuisines. Above all because of the ever increasing diversity of restaurants which have opened all over the co
World spice blends
Indian spices in the cooking of other countries resulted in the creation of recipes for curry powders and spice blends. Some of which also incorporate non-Indian spices and herbs. Many of these blends retain some resemblance to Indian aromas and flavours. But with subtle twists reflecting their new origin. It is these blends we tend to refer to as Curry Blends (and Curry Powders). However, some bear no resemblance to Indian cooking. Many are referred to as BBQ blends, meat rubs and international seasonings. It’s always fascinating to experiment with spices. The discovery that changing the proportions of the different spices in a blend can result in something quite different.
Conclusion on curry
In conclusion, the history of curry is a fascinating story. It is about trade, travel and immigration around the world, and the fusion and evolution of world cuisines. Always Indian in character, world curries still link to the adopted country by incorporating local ingredients and flavours. The opportunities today to experience these different flavour combinations is so exciting. In the UK we are increasingly able to track down many of these world cuisines. Many restaurants that have opened in recent years. Not just in London and other major cities, but in smaller towns too. And we are more interested in cooking these amazing dishes in our own homes. At Go Spice we have an ever increasing range of spice blends representing the flavours of many of these countries. So that we may all travel the world from our own kitchen.