Food traditions are not frozen in time, they evolve as a nation changes, and the perfect example is the rise of the English curry. A food that was completely unknown in England before the 18th century, curry has become so popular that every year there is a National Curry Week, while curry makes a contribution of more than $5 billion into the UK economy. Back in 2001, the UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook referred to one curry dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, as a true national dish.
Of course, the origins of curry and the fascinating array of flavour possibilities associated with it, lie in India. The sad history of colonialism meant that by the 18th century, English presence in India had been long established, and when men from the East India Company returned home to England, they wanted to recreate the incredible food they had enjoyed while in India. Some were able to bring back their favourite cooks, but others attempted to persuade their local coffee houses to recreate curry (with varying degrees of success!) There is a record of curry being served at the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket, and by 1784, curry and rice were specialities in some London restaurants.
The first English cookery book containing an Indian recipe was by Hannah Glasse, and was published in 1747. The first edition contained three pilau recipes, while later editions also found room to detail recipes for fowl curry, rabbit curry and Indian pickle.
The first purely Indian restaurant opened in 1810 near Portman Square, Mayfair and was owned by a man named Sake Dean Mahomed who had been born in 1759 in present-day Patna, and served as a trainee surgeon for the East India Company. He subsequently travelled to England, married an Irishwoman and created his restaurant, which was designed to recreate the authentic ambience and tastes of the Indian dining experience, complete with bamboo-cane chairs and Indian paintings.
Curry’s rapid rise to prominence in England may well have been partially explained by the comparative blandness of English food. Curry, with its bright colours and array of strong flavours, was a delightful change. The novelty of curry and its taste-bud firing flavours soon earned the cuisine a place in popular English culture, including a mention in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848).
By the 1840s sellers of Indian dishes were also promoting the dietary benefits of curry. The theory was that curry aided digestion while stimulating the stomach thereby invigorating blood circulation which could in turn lead to a more vigorous mind. Curry also gained popularity as a good way of using up cold meat. In fact currying cold meat became the origin of jalfrezi, a popular English dish.
A sign of the increasing cultural relevance of curry was the fact that between 1820 and 1840, the import of turmeric to the UK increased three fold.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 temporarily halted curry’s rise to prominence, but its fortunes were restored partially by Queen Victoria. Her interest in India was on display at Osborne House, built between 1845 and 1851, in which she collected Indian objects and furnishings. Latter, the Durbar Room in the same house was commissioned by the Queen to recreate an authentic Indian dining room, complete with white and gold plasterwork in the shapes of flowers and peacocks.
Victoria also employed Indian servants, including a young man named Abdul Karim, who according to historians, became her ‘closest friend’. He apparently impressed her with chicken curry served with dal and pilau, and later, her grandson George V was said to be a big fan of curry and Bombay duck.
By the early 20th century, the UK was home to more than 70,000 South Asians, including servants, students and ex-seamen. New Indian restaurants sprang up all over London, with the most famous being Salut-e-Hind in Holborn and the Shafi in Gerrard Street.
In 1926, Veeraswamy at 99 Regent Street became the first high-end Indian restaurant in the capital. It was founded by Edward Palmer whose family had long been associated with India. His restaurant proved so popular in capturing the ambience of the Raj that notable clients included the Prince of Wales (who was later Edward VIII), Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.
Yet the real expansion of curry as an English cuisine occurred after the Second World War. In the 1940s and 1950s, most of the big Indian restaurants in London employed ex-seamen from Bangladesh, particularly from the area of Syhlet. Many of these seamen had ambitions of opening their own restaurants, and went on to buy bombed-out chip shops and cafes that were already selling curry and rice. These new restaurants stayed open after 11 pm, when pubs in England closed, enabling them to cash in on the after-pub trade. The result was that eating hot curry after a night out in the pub became an English tradition, and as customers became increasingly fond of curry, these restaurants evolved into a range of Indian takeaways and eateries.
Following the war between India and Pakistan in 1971, there was an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants into the UK, and many of them entered the catering business. In fact, by some estimates, up to three-quarters of Indian restaurants in England are owned by Bangladeshi immigrants. In fact, there are now more Indian restaurants in Greater London than in Delhi and Mumbai combined.
But while London may win out in terms of quantity, England’s second city, Birmingham, can lay claim to being the capital of quality curry. From Bombay-style street food and sweet centres to Gujarati vegetarian cafes and Indian fine dining, Birmingham has an impressive curry history. In fact, it was the city’s Indian restaurants that helped to lift the local culinary culture out of the doldrums of the post-industrial period, when Birmingham was struggling under the weight of recession and poverty.
The biggest step in the evolution of Birmingham curry came in the 1970s when the first Balti – a form of curry cooked in a pan called a karahi – was made in Sparkbrook. The Balti has proved to be the city’s signature curry dish and has spread in popularity throughout the West Midlands.
And now that the restaurants of England are slowly opening and dining out with friends and family is back on the menu, there is no better time to show your support for the city’s fine array of curry restaurants. Here are ten of the best:
Arguably Birmingham’s best-known Indian restaurant, Lasan has made the most of the wave of publicity that resulted from its appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s ‘The F Word’ in 2010 and is now undoubtedly one of the showpieces of the city’s fine Indian food tradition. Lasan is also beautifully situated, tucked among the lovely Victorian buildings of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, and backing on to the leafy St Paul’s Square.
Opheem is the work of Birmingham superchef Aktar Islam who had a vision for a progressive Indian restaurant. Situated on Summer Row, the former chef at Lasan, who has also scooped numerous awards and TV appearances has said that his new restaurant will set the bar higher for Indian fine dining. Opheem is a beautifully decorated location, from the cherry blossom-decked bar to the bustling open kitchen, with the emphasis is firmly on style and expression. As expected, the food is inspired and stunning, particularly his reimagining of classics like laal maans and hyderabadi biryani.
Based in Hall Green, Raja Monkey is a little more forward-thinking and comfortable with modern marketing methods than other South Asian restaurants. It presents a range of thalis and street food, while the artfully aged interior aims to evoke nostalgia for the roadside diners of India, yet with all the facilities the modern diner expects.
Arguably the highlight of the Jewellery Quarter, Rajdoot is the epitome of dining luxury and sets the standard for all Birmingham curry houses. It is also one of the oldest eateries in the city, having served fine Indian food for almost 50 years, with a list of clients that apparently includes the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Princess Margaret. Rajdoot offers a distinctive ambience, with its dark wood and plush furnishings and offers some of the best North Indian curry dishes around.
While Birmingham has long been famous for its South Asian cuisine, some of the best restaurants in the city have transcended a local audience, and Itihaas is among them. It is ideally placed at the edge of both the Jewellery Quarter and the Colmore Business District, and draws plenty of custom from professionals, as well as from the growing band of dedicated English foodies.
Located on Newhall Street, this is the Birmingham version of the restaurant businesses that has proven successful in both Dubai and Kuwait. Asha’s Restaurant offers a great combination of Indian music and Indian food. The interior of the dining space is large but manages to maintain intimacy, and is decorated in a warm, welcoming style. And the food is sumptuous, from the fabulous tandoori kebabs to their distinctive and unmissable curries.
This Indian street food restaurant is rooted in Indian tradition but with a modern twist to suit an urban audience. The interior features artfully mismatched furniture, exposed brick walls and huge murals of Indian brand logos, while the street food is delightful. It includes thalis, which feature the popular pani puri, along with chilli cheese on toast and okra fries. You will also find a healthy selection of craft beers, lassis, masala chai and Indian soft drinks.
This restaurant on Broad Street is a winner of the award for best restaurant in the Midlands at the National Curry Awards, and it’s not hard to see why as it offers a classy refuge on the city’s craziest nightlife strip. The restaurant offers a fabulous cocktail bar, where you can order a signature mojito before getting stuck into a delightful menu of Punjabi and north Indian dishes. Pushkar is reputedly a big hit with the Indian cricket team, who often eat there when they’re playing at Edgbaston.
Shababs is one of the last remaining original Birmingham Balti houses, complete with kitsch paisley and swirl decorations and graphic prints on the wall. For those used to a more modern Indian dining experience, this may seem a little out of place, but the food more than makes up for it, as this restaurant is all about the menu, which is packed with tasty delights.
Indian Brewery Co
Bringing together the crisp craft beers of the Indian Brewery Company and a delicious take on Indian street food, this cool and vibrant restaurant under the railway arches on Snow Hill is a must for fashionable fans of Indian food. Exposed brickwork featuring an array of Bollywood posters gives the place a pleasing downtown Delhi feel, and the food is incredible, including the fat naans with chicken, veg or chilli fish and Bombay sprinkle, which are perfect with a pint of Birmingham Lager.