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Long Read: Why Indian curry rules in Britain

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on March 13, 2021 | Last updated on March 19, 2021 at 01.25 pm
Photo: AFP

Its stranglehold in Britain may have slackened somewhat due to Covid curbs, but the colonial cauldron’s culinary reign remains intact.


Chris Dickinson, a university student in Cambridge, rues not being able to lead a normal life due to Covid-19 restrictions, but one activity he is keen to resume when everyday life returns to normal is to ‘go for an Indian’.

Belonging to Generation Z, he doesn’t quite know when or how exactly the phrase gained currency, but ‘going for an Indian’ has been a popular activity across Britain, particularly in city centres during weekends, achieving the status of a national habit since the 1960s. It also reflects the enduring story of how Indian spices and food arrived during Britain’s long colonial encounter with India (the ‘jewel in the crown’), and slowly but surely went on to capture the imagination and palates of the British. So much so that ‘curry’ — a metonym for Indian food — has become a multi-billion-pound industry with ‘curry millionaires’, ‘curry capitals’ and ‘curry competitions’ across Britain.

‘Going for an Indian’ essentially means a group of youngsters, usually male, having a boisterous night out during weekends, heading to an Indian restaurant after a prolonged session in the local pub, watching football on the telly and competing among themselves on being able to consume hot, spicy food (better known as ‘vindaloo’). An increasingly prominent aspect of British social, cultural and economic life since the 1960s, it has been analysed by scholars through a complex set of themes — such as masculinity, racism, multiculturalism, post-colonialism, orientalism — but it also reflects the reality that colonialism is never a one-way street: the dominance implicit in a power colonising a people and territory over years and centuries not only changes the colonised but also the coloniser.

Eating out and ‘going out for a curry’ is so central to everyday life and the British economy that Rishi Sunak, the Indian-origin chancellor, launched the innovative ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in August 2020, when Covid-19 cases were on temporary decline, to encourage people to visit restaurants by offering 50 per cent discount on food or non-alcoholic drinks up to a maximum of £10 per diner. “I and my curryholic mates made the most of it,” Chris beams as he remembers the respite in lockdown curbs. There were long queues outside restaurants and by the time the scheme ended, £849 million was claimed from the Treasury by 78,116 outlets, a large number of them Indian restaurants and others offering Indian fare.

Indian food travelled across the oceans during Britain’s long encounter with India and went on to tingle the palate of the coloniser, encouraging former foreign secretary Robin Cook to famously declared in 2001 that ‘chicken tikka masala’, or CTM, has become Britain’s ‘true national dish’. It is a different matter that CTM is essentially a British reinvention, or that some of the fare that is passed off as ‘Indian’ in Britain may not pass the test of authenticity or gain the approval of those visiting from the sub-continent. CTM is reputed to have been invented in 1971 by a Bangladeshi chef in Glasgow after a customer complained that his chicken dish was dry. He simply poured tomato soup into the dish with some spices, the customer loved it, and CTM was born.

The story of Indian spices and dishes being introduced to these islands during the days of the British Empire and going on to be a key sector of the British economy is one of ‘soft power’, shot through with success stories of immigrant entrepreneurs such as the Mumbai-born Ghulam Noon (known as ‘Curry King’), Muzaffarpur-born Perween Warsi, and Keshod (Gujarat)-born Lakhubhai Pathak, whose pickles empire (Patak’s) crossed continents.

From the first recorded use of Indian spices in a British cookbook in 1747 by Hannah Close, to Sarah Shade, who went to India in 1796 and returned to open the first takeaway in London, to Sake Dean Mohamed of Patna moving to London and opening the first Indian restaurant near Portman Square in 1810 (the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House’) — the attraction and demand for Indian food has grown exponentially, particularly after India’s independence in 1947 and the arrival of thousands of migrants from south Asia. Subsequent waves of migrants added to the growing customer base that sustained and expanded the Indian food market over the decades. The long colonial history ensures that references to curry and Indian food continue to emerge in newly-discovered archives: in 2016, a library in Somerset discovered a cookbook dated 1793 that set out one of the earliest recipes for chicken curry.

Says London-based author Shrabani Basu: “Gone are the days of the 1950s and 1960s when English landladies would stop their Indian tenants from cooking curries because it made the house smell. Today, the British are cooking it for themselves, helped by an elaborate range of curry pastes available in the supermarkets and popularised by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver who liberally spice up their food with coriander and other Indian spices. Today, there isn’t a corner of Britain — from the tiniest village in the heart of Wales to the remotest of Scottish highlands or industrial towns in the Midlands — that doesn’t have a curry restaurant.”

Ready-meals fly off the shelves in supermarkets and mega-stores (they are produced in the UK as well as imported in packages from India and south Asia), while restaurants offer niche, regional cuisine. Market surveys since the early 1990s have highlighted the ‘currymania’ of Britons, who have become increasingly discerning about the quality and authenticity of the Indian fare. Supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, Asda not only sell ready-meals but also make space for corridors of shelves stocked with Indian snacks and groceries, while mega-stores catering to predominantly Asian customers in places such as Southall, Birmingham, Manchester or Leicester are no different from any large ‘kirana’ stores in the sub-continent, offering the same items from ‘back home’ with more variety.

Mike Jempson, the Bristol-based director of ethics charity MediaWise recalls his relationship with Indian food: “As a child in the 1950s we would have ‘curry’ on Mondays — it meant frying up the leftovers of Sunday lunch with some curry powder and currants. I first went to Indian restaurants as a student in Brighton in the Sixties. They felt very exotic and grown up, and suddenly ‘curry’ took on a different meaning. Later, as a vegetarian in London, I used to enjoy the delicate thali dishes served at a little restaurant off Tottenham Court Road, and the vicious soya meat vindaloos from East End’s famous Halal restaurant in Alie Street.”

He adds: “Having travelled widely and enjoyed authentic meals from the sub-continent, I now rarely go to so-called Indian restaurants, where the food has been modified to suit western tastes, and the sauces rarely vary.” Jempson’s mention of ‘so-called Indian restaurants’ reflects a major theme in the story. After India became independent in 1947, British officers and soldiers returned after acquiring a taste for spices in the former colony, and wanted to experience the same. Around the same time, the first wave of immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) arrived as dock workers on P&O ships. Looking for jobs in Britain, they used their culinary skills to set up restaurants, rustling up curries for eager Britons recently returned from India. The restaurants offered a distinct taste, had similar interior décor and had names that evoked the memory of empire, such as Taj Mahal, Koh-i-Noor, Rajahs, Stars of India, Bengal Tandoori, or Curry Gardens. Even today, the vast majority of ‘Indian’ restaurants are owned and run by Bangladeshis from Sylhet, though many have closed in recent years due to younger generations opting for other professions.

Basu, author of a book titled Curry: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Dish, says: “Shrewdly, the Bangladeshi restaurants stuck to north Indian dishes like tandoori chicken and tikkas, which are mild and popular. Chilli was added by personal request and the food was prepared for the British palate. The food, nearly always tasted the same, because it was prepared from the same curry base. It was not sophisticated or authentic Indian, but it was what the British were pining for, and what they were served… There is little doubt that the hard work put in by the entrepreneurial Bangladeshis over the past four decades has laid the foundation of the curry revolution.”

Today, there are five major ways in which Indian food reaches customers in Britain: the Bangladeshi ‘Indian’ restaurants (patronised largely by the white British community); the large number of restaurants catering to Indian-Asian customers who demand authentic and competitively priced fare in places such as Southall, Wembley, Harrow, Leicester, Manchester, Birmingham; upmarket, Michelin-star restaurants in central London and elsewhere — such as Gymkhana, Bombay Brasserie, Benares, Quilon, Chutney Mary; those offering only takeaways; and supermarkets increasingly challenging the restaurants by offering quality ready-meals that customers enjoy at home.

Matthew Alderton, a London-based retired banker, says: “My earliest memory is of having Vesta Curry (launched in 1961 by British firm Batchelors). I did like it. I now prefer rogan josh and chicken tandoori, which I know is quite different in India, where I have been. Indian food is popular because Britain doesn’t have a distinctive cuisine, whatever is on offer is bland. It is the taste of curry, spices that make the dishes so heartening, interesting. The atmosphere in an Indian restaurant also contributes to the experience; it is like going abroad. But now people are also cooking them at home.”

Some streets have acquired iconic status due to their history and variety of Indian restaurants, such as Drummond Street near Euston station and Brick Lane in London, and Belgrave Road in Leicester. It is common for pubs frequented mainly by the white British community to organise ‘curry nights’. Some Indian entrepreneurs have taken over loss-making pubs and converted them into Indian-Asian themed pubs, with Bollywood music, ‘desi’ snacks and ‘eat-as-much-as-you-can’ deals for families. Top politicians are also known to meet and strike deals over curry meals. The ‘curry revolution’ has also been fuelled by cookery experts such as Madhur Jaffrey, who popularised the cooking of Indian dishes on shows watched by millions on British television. Her six-part programme, Flavours of India, was one of the most popular on BBC in the early 1990s, and her books sold widely.

Local tourist authorities now incorporate popular Indian restaurants in brochures, such as the Aagrah restaurant chain, praised as ‘a Yorkshire institution’, with curry added to the moors, the dales, and the Bronte sisters’ home in the town of Haworth near Bradford as West Yorkshire highlights. In Birmingham, ‘balti’, a way of cooking said to originate in Baltistan in Pakistan, became the rage since the early 1990s, with local authorities now promoting it to tourists: “Birmingham is the original home of the Balti. From award-winning city centre restaurants to authentic family-run establishments in the Balti Triangle, no visit to Birmingham is complete without sampling the delicious flavours for yourself.”

The appeal of Indian food is expected to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has taken a toll of several Indian restaurants, which have closed in central London and elsewhere, despite government support, unable to continue paying rent and other expenses. Says Anuj Chande of London-based consultants Grant Thornton: “Such establishments do form an important part of the UK hospitality industry and whilst the takeaway outlets have probably benefited from the lockdown, the restaurants have suffered and will struggle to recover once government support measures are lifted.” Takeaways, which have been allowed under Covid rules, have reported brisk business.

Says celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala, who has been a leading figure in the sector since the mid-1990s: “Delivery companies were already putting restaurants out of business. This pandemic has driven a stake in our hearts. How can you sustain a business if only 20 or 30 people are allowed in a restaurant? People are scared to go to restaurants. We are all worried about the future of the industry, no one knows how the future will shape, with major fall in tourists and people working from home.”

Running several outlets across London, Todiwala is among those who have switched to offering takeaway services. Others include another celebrity chef, Manoj Vasaikar, of Indian Zing, and central London restaurants such as Dishoom, Masala Zone and Gymkhana.

According to Vasaikar, “Restaurants that cater to mainly neighbourhood clients are doing well with takeaway due to brand loyalty built over the years, but the revenue is still 40 to 50 per cent down. Rents are very high in some London areas, so restaurants there are suffering. More than 3,000 restaurants will close due to the pandemic.”

A recent assessment by the Aston Business School in Birmingham suggests that thousands of ‘curry houses’ could struggle to reopen and survive when lockdown is lifted, while others will need to raise prices to a realistic level to offset the fall in revenues from less crowded restaurants. Monder Ram, professor in the business school, says: “The sector is facing so many challenges… Supermarkets, one of the most prolific sellers of curries and large chains of pubs and restaurants, are also entering this market, (and) these problems of competition and newcomers have been accentuated by Covid-19. A group of friends going out for a lively evening of entertainment finished off with a curry is part and parcel of the British way of life. If you take that away, you’re taking away the very essence of what going out for a curry means”.

The Indian restaurant sector was struggling even before the pandemic due to several reasons, including tough visa rules preventing the recruitment of chefs from the Indian sub-continent; the pandemic dealt another blow. Many have closed, but industry experts believe that even though the sector will recover only around 2024, the larger story of Indian food and its enduring appeal will retain its salience.

The ubiquity of Indian food is often held out as an example of the success of Britain’s policies of multiculturalism. It ranks almost as high as the other passion for football, as was evident in England’s unofficial anthem during World Cup 1998, which was recorded by Alex James, bass guitarist of Blur, with the help of actor Keith Allen and artist Damien Hirst. Fans with faces painted red and white, carrying the flag of St George, sang it lustily on way to Paris to lyrics:

“Where on earth are you from? We’re from Eng-erland

Me and me mum and me dad and me gran

We’re off to Waterloo

Me and me mum and me dad and me gran and a bucket

of Vindaloo.”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a London-based journalist)





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