Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus


How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 


History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812.

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 


So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.

94 thoughts on “Food: A quick history of the British curry

  1. I doubt the ghost of Elizabeth I will thank you for taking five years off her life. She was still very much alive in 1598.

    I’m not sure how you managed to write about the history of curry in the UK without mentioning chicken tikka massala. It’s famous for having been created in the UK. Other dishes might have been adapted to British tastes, but this one was created specifically for them.

    There might be no connection, but currie meant cooking in the fourteenth century. A collection of recipes used by Richard II’s cooks was called The Forme of Currie.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have eaten some damn’ fine dishes in London that originated from the sub-continent.Admittedly, there are probably a lot of curry places that aren’t considered very authentic or even very good.But curry certainly “caught on” after the war(WWII, that is), especially oop north.and many good English cooks have given it their own spin. We probably eat a dish that’s descended from some of those early dishes, two or three times a week.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Anytime cultures rub up against each other, transfers happen–in food, in language, in habits. I was about to say that they’re always enriching, but then I thought about all the prefabricated food that I assume spread outward from the US, although I don’t actually know that, and I quickly revised my opinion. But yes, authentic or not, it’s a wonderful addition to British food. People who appear to know these things say that Chinese food in the US doesn’t bear much resemblance to food in China. But it too is a wonderful addition to the range of what gets eaten.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I grew up thinking I didn’t like curry, until my Indian friend invited me over for dinner, home cooked by her mother – and then I realised I loved curry, but not the oddly coloured and flavoured version you can buy in supermarkets :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. We visited South India a very long time ago – it was heaven. We had vegetarian “curry” for breakfast, dinner and tea. There were so many to choose from. Not particularly like the food you get in British Indian restaurants but not disimilar.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is?? It must’ve changed its mind in the mid-Atlantic somewhere, because I grew up hearing “pease porridge”. Not that I knew what either word meant, mind you. “Pudding” at least I would have recognized. It wouldn’t have meant what it does here, but I would at least have had something in the rhyme to grab hold of.

      Liked by 2 people

        • We also had the nine days old line. I don’t remember kids actually chanting it. It may have been a nursery rhyme from a book. I expect its roots weren’t deep enough in the culture for it to have been loose on the streets. But we did sing about London Bridge falling down.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. What a lovely round up – and I speak as someone born & brought up in the fine continent of India with an Anglo-Indian parent. I recall an early visit to the UK where we were left dumb-founded by the concept of using different styles of “curry” to indicate the level of chilli heat. Almost as dumb-founded by the first drink of “beer” which was both warm & bitter. I learned quickly about lagers and pale ales (my preference) as well as bitters & stouts.

    For a vegetarian, I heartily second the recommendation above of South Indian cuisine. The breakfast/brunches we ate with my grandparents were simply heavenly. Hard to find in the UK for a long time, but it is well worth seeking out the few gems out there.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Oooh, I love a good Indian restaurant. All those flavors and breads and different kinds of rice. Much better than the general run of food in restaurants in England (though things may have changed since I was last there). We tended to go to Indian and Italian places until we got to the west coast of Scotland where things got fabulously fresh and local. I do have a recipe I use for curry powder that includes turmeric, but for the masalas and the darker flavors, it just depends on the recipe, but such variety! And all of it really tasty. Gosh, I’m getting a hankering for daal as I write…

    Liked by 4 people

      • Yes, there’s the regular stuff and the crispy stuff…Back in my vegetarian days, I ordered a Biryani at an Indian Restaurant at lunch and one of my friends, from Sri Lanka, seemed pretty astonished that I ate it all. Finally she said, “I’ve never seen anyone but one of my uncles or my father…” she trailed off seemingly hopelessly, then took a deep breath and started again: “I’ve never seen a white person eat that much rice.” I told her she’d never been to the Low Country (coastal So Carolina) or Louisiana…Now it really is time for lunch here…

        Liked by 2 people

  7. “The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.”

    Hehe, I chuckled. And I did it once before when I realised that the only thing I liked about curry is that it’s one letter removed from curvy. (I rebel against peperoncini, too much pepper and anything that burns your tongue.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • I did hope someone would laugh at that joke. Thanks for being the one.

      It’s a funny thing about hot food. For me, initially I didn’t like it, then somehow it stopped hurting and became one of those things that wake up my sense of taste. But I can’t argue with anyone who doesn’t like it. You do or you don’t, I guess.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Gosh, where do I start? Yes, the Indians never call their food curry. I’ve also understood the word came from ‘kari’. And many of the dishes sold over here were invented here, rather than being Indian e.g. Vindaloo, Phal, Balti. Probably others I’ve not noticed. You won’t meet them in India. When I started eating ‘Indian’ food over here in the 1970’s, it was quite different to the range of dishes you’re likely to meet in an ‘Indian’ restaurant now. There are far more authentic dishes available, identical to many I’ve had in India.

    Many of the restaurants are indeed run by Bangladeshis, but Bangladeshi (and Pakistani) food is, of course, as Indian as if it had come from India, since both those countries were part of India until 1947.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I guess the point of the Bangladeshi/Indian comment (and it didn’t originate with me, I just passed it on semi-mindlessly) is that Bangladesh is a region of the subcontinent, not the whole place. Or maybe it’s just commentators trying to prove they know more than everyone else. I don’t know. You’re right to bring it up.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. I am not at all familiar with Indian food (not out of any prejudice – just not around any Indian restaurants or markets.) But I know or have heard from reliable sources that Mexican/Chinese/Italian food have all been quite Americanized, so I found this very interesting. I knew curry existed but had no real idea what it involved. Now I’d like to try some…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Essen: Eine kurze Geschichte des britischen Currys – Notizen 2021

  11. Brilliant, I’d always heard it was a fabricated dish. So if this is what’s up with the Indian “curry”, what’s the deal with Chinese “curry”?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That one goes beyond anything I’ve researched, but I have eaten Thai curries that are delicate and wonderful. They’re very different than Indian dishes but seem like an adaptation, not a dumbing down. That’s not much of an answer but it’s the best I can do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree on the Thai currys, I’ll have to enquire with Thais about they’re origin or at least the usage of the word curry when it comes to Thai cuisine.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I hadn’t thought to wonder about the use of the word in other countries. I wonder if that’s a translation issue–in other words, something English brought to the discussion–or if that’s in multiple languages. If you get an answer and have the time (and can find the post again), drop me a comment, will you? I’d love to know.


  12. Pingback: Food: A quick history of the British curry — Notes from the U.K. – Jack Russell

  13. My father was taken prisoner of war in WW2, having been reported missing some weeks before. It always rankled with my mother that on the official form postcard my father was able to send home (the first news she had of him), after he’d ticked the “I am well” box, his only personal message to her was “Please send curry powder”.

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  14. Just as Americans invented chop suey and pasta primavera, the Brits invented curry powder and chicken tikka masala was first created in Birmingham or Glasgow depending on which is loadest. And now it is served in the finest restaurants in Delhi.
    Curry is the national food of the United Kingdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Americans invented pasta primavera? There goes the last shred of imagined stability in my world.

      Now that you say that, well of course they did. The Italians don’t call pasta pasta. I knew that. I just didn’t put it to use.


  15. Pingback: Food: A quick history of the British curry – The Urban Fishing Pole: Cigar Blogger, Lifestyle

  16. Nice post, but let me pick a pedantic bone and fly in the face of Wikipedia.

    I think it is pretty improbable that the English word curry came from the Gujarati or Rajasthani “kadhi”. For one, kadhi is pretty obscure, and not made in the parts of the country where the British first landed. While it is possible that it could originate from the Tamil(ish) “kadi”, its a stretch because of a second reason. And that is that the word currie seems to have been used as a term in cooking in pre-colonial times. I think I could trace it back to the 15th century, but it may be older. Also, if it derived from another cooking-related term, cure, then its origin (as a word in English) could be as old as English itself. There are also other related older meanings for curry, such as cleaning, or preparing (one of these gives rise to the phrase “to curry favour”). In that sense perhaps “curry” could be as English as it can be. Only, what the word stands for has, as meanings so often do, changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your well-informed contribution. I appreciate it. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s overall accuracy record is (or was, some years ago) as good as the major encyclopedias, but because of the way it’s put together it’s subject to fits of madness, so whenever possible I treat it with caution.

      It’s certainly possible that the British conflated a word they heard (or misheard) in use around them with a word they had in their own language and ended up expanding its meaning to take in something new. Languages do that. American English (the version I know best) is rich in Spanish and Yiddish incorporations–and probably many others, but those are the ones I know. They’re not always an accurate reproduction of the original language. In the same vein, the food we incorporate isn’t always an accurate reproduction. I’ve heard people argue over the origin of the burrito, a favorite offering at Mexican restaurants in the US. Wherever it came from, it isn’t from Mexico.

      Liked by 1 person

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