Firstly, there is a world of difference between the cuisine of the Raj, and curry house cuisine.
The Raj cuisine reflects dishes that that the British adopted and adapted from traditional Indian fare. It also includes traditional British dishes prepared by Indian chefs using local ingredients. It is a cuisine developed and consumed within India, and dates at least to the 18th century CE.
Curry house cuisine was developed outside of India. The cuisine is about restaurant production of food that has a heritage and influence from India, but is largely separated from traditional approaches. The labour costs alone would preclude many of the dishes featured in this book. The influential curry house cuisine dates from the middle of the 20th century CE- although this point may be debatable.
Although this article has an emphasis on the British development of this cuisine, it is worth noting that the Indians are great emigrants, particularly to Sough-East Asia. The cuisine that developed in this part of the world is far more recognisable as traditional fare. They took street food and traveller food, such as served in a dak bungalow, to their new homes. Many of these Asian eateries have no menu – you get what the owner/chef wants to prepare that day – and cater for locals, mainly.
In this essay I will discuss how Indian food became Westernised, and became a restaurant cuisine.
London was the place it started. The first Indian restaurant opened in 1810, according to the records.
“Indian dishes, in the highest perfection… unequalled to any curries ever made in England.”
The Morning Post, 2 February 1810The Morning Post, 2 February 1810
The patrons of this restaurant in Portman Square could smoke hookah pipes and recline on cane sofas as they ate spicy meat and vegetable dishes. This was the Hindoostane Coffee House, owned by the entrepreneurial migrant, Sake Dean Mahomed. He had to sell it a year later in 1811, as it wasn’t making enough money, but it remained open under different ownership until 1833.
This was by no means the first establishment in Britain to serve Indian food. There had been a few coffee houses serving curries along with their normal food. But, the Hindoostane Coffee House was the first place dedicated to the cuisine.
Ex-colonists returning home from the Indian subcontinent also attempted to recreate the meals they had come to love whilst in the Colonies. Many had to depend on their own personal recipes, or they referred to books like Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery” first published in 1747. Amazingly, this book contains recipes that we today recognise as curries and pulaos.
The ingredients were available, but for most people, such cooking was a skill beyond them. They instead went to some of the cafes run by what we now call illegal immigrants, who normally catered to their country-folk. The better ones of these were very well patronised.
Indian food was taking a special place in Britain. Queen Victoria had a dining room decorated in Indian style in Windsor Castle, and had several Indian chefs. The royals apparently ate Indian food at least several times a week. That room still exists today.
The first truly popular Indian restaurant to open was Veeraswamy, in 1926, on Regent Street. Still open today, it is the oldest surviving Indian restaurant in Britain. They recruited staff from hotels in New Delhi who were adept at westernising Punjabi cuisine, and they introduced tandoori cooking.
But, come the 1970’s and things changed. Bangladesh was in a violent civil war, and many of its people fled to England. Some opened cafes, again to meet the needs of other ex-patriate Indians.
Prior to Indian Independence and the redrawing of geo-political boundaries, Bangladesh, or East Bengal, was part of the wider state of Bengal, the capital of which was Calcutta, now known as Kolkatta. This was the home and capital of the British colonists for a large part of their presence there.
Those British who had spent time in India had developed a love of Bengali cuisine. To find a sudden upsurge in Bengali restaurants was a wonderment. This was the food many had grown up with.
The conditions were right for a perfect storm.
We have the 1970s Western fascination with India’s mystery and mysticism. We have tandoori cooking. We have westernised Punjabi cooking – think spinach and korma. We have Bengali fish and vegetable dishes. The time was right, the food was right, and the explosion occurred.
Demand for Indian food and restaurants soared.
What this did was force the creation of a part of Indian cuisine that hadn’t really existed before, and that part was the commercially prepared cuisine. Admittedly, there had always been street vendors, railway and travel catering, and the cafes mentioned above, but they did not offer the range one expects of a restaurant. Street vendors, for example, had particular specialties, largely in snacks or desserts.
Many Western food cultures have two separate, but related heritages. One is the food prepared and eaten at home, and the other is food prepared by professional chefs. French cuisine is a good example of this. India has a long history of professional chefs, but almost no history of restaurants.
I think it fair to say that the commercially prepared Indian cuisine was almost entirely developed in Britain.
So how does this commercial cuisine differ from the home cooked cuisine?
The commercial emphases are efficiency, economy, consistency, timeliness and flexibility.
Whilst all of these are important to home cooking, they are paramount in a commercial setting. When a customer places an order, the restaurant probably has, at most, 20 minutes to prepare their order and serve it. This book has few recipes that fit that requirement.
Consequently, commercial cooking requires pre-preparation and relies on simple dish finalisation. There is no time for starting from the basics.
Compounding this problem is the variety of dishes that many restaurants offer. Looking at some typical restaurant main course menus, you will notice several general types of dish – korma, vindalu, etc – all of which can be mild, medium or hot. Further, you can have any of these dishes with chicken, beef, lamb, fish, prawns or vegetables.
The recipes in this book show a few interesting things. The first is that the degree of heat of the dish is often determined by what you use at the start of the cooking. Further, two similar dishes – lamb korma and chicken korma – have very different spices or spice ratios.
You would therefore expect that restaurant that has say six basic curries, would have 108 pots bubbling away in the kitchen if each of the variants above was individually prepared. The fact is that they don’t.
What they do is the subject of how to cook curry house style, which discusses the techniques and preparation.