Britain loves curry

The British have long enjoyed food with a bit of bite. And 200 years ago, an Indian migrant opened Britain's first curry house to cater for the fashion for spicy food. "Indian dishes, in the highest perfection… unequalled to any curries ever made in England." So ran the 1809 newspaper advert for a new eating establishment in an upmarket London square popular with colonial returnees. Diners at the Hindostanee Coffee House could smoke hookah pipes and recline on bamboo-cane sofas as they tucked into spicy meat and vegetable dishes. This was the country's first dedicated Indian restaurant, opened by an entrepreneurial migrant by the name of Dean Mahomed. But Britons already had a taste for curry. A handful of coffee houses served curries alongside their usual fare, and in the gracious homes of returnees, ladies attempted to recreate dishes and condiments their families enjoyed on the sub-continent. Some wrote out their own recipes; others may have used one of the many editions of Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery, first published in 1747, which contained recipes for curries and pilaus. 1950 circa 1955: Popadoms, curried okra, raita, rice and kofta served with chutneys and fresh fruit A 1950s curry banquet "The first recipes were very mild, using more herbs than spices," says antiquarian bookseller Janet Clarke, who specialises in gastronomic titles. "These were curries and pilaus made with coriander seeds, salt, peppercorns and lemon juice." By the 19th Century, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, cumin and fenugreek had been added to the mix. "I have tried making these old recipes myself - they are wonderful." Piccalilli is an early English attempt at Indian pickle; kedgeree's origins are more ambiguous, but this colonial-era dish uses Indian spices. Food historian Ivan Day says cooking methods also differed. "The British didn't really get the idea of frying the meat in ghee or another fat. Rather than the fresh spices available in India, these had been on a boat for half a year." Spicy mix Peter Groves, co-founder of National Curry Week, which started on Sunday, says the Western taste for spicy foods developed centuries earlier. "All the spices of the East came back with the people who fought in the Crusades." OED DEFINITION OF MASALA Cooking curry A mixture of ground spices, sometimes blended with water or vinegar to make a paste, used in Indian cookery A person who or thing which comprises a highly varied mixture of elements Indian English: Piquancy, pep, vigour, excitement The lucrative spice trade prompted various European powers to establish their presence in India, either through trading companies or colonisation. This "masala" of cultures, and the Mughal conquest of India, resulted in hybrid creations, including Persian-inspired biryani and vindaloo, a Goan version of a Portuguese meat dish. Indians tend to label dishes by specific names like korma and dopiaza. "Curry is a catch-all term," says Dr Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. "It's easy shorthand for 'what Indians eat'." One theory suggests the word comes "kari", Tamil for sauce. However, an English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, was published in the 1390s. (Read it online with Project Gutenberg ) "All hot food of the time was referred to as cury. It came from the French word 'cuire' which means to cook." Exotic tastes A 19th Century account records the British in India eating curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plaque marking location of first curry house A plaque marks the spot Yet within three years of opening the Hindostanee in London, its proprietor, Mr Mahomed, applied for bankruptcy. "It was a good restaurant but the climate was wrong," says Mr Groves. "People didn't go out to eat then. They tended to have their own chef or do cooking at home." The restaurant carried on until 1833, but under different ownership. The British enthusiasm for all things Indian spread to the expanding middle classes over the 19th Century. "Queen Victoria made it very fashionable, as she had an Indian staff who cooked Indian food every day," says Mr Day. At Osborne House, Victoria - the Empress of India - built an Indian-themed state room decorated by an eminent architect of the Punjab. CURRY SCENE in VANITY FAIR "Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear," said Mr Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. "Do you find it as good as everything else from India?" said Mr. Sedley. "Oh, excellent!" said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. "Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. "How fresh and green they look," she said, and put one into her mouth. Curry became so popular, an 1852 cookbook stated "few dinners are thought complete unless one is on the table". Novelist William Thackeray - who was born in Calcutta - penned a Poem to Curry, and inflicted a blisteringly hot curry on his anti-heroine Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. But the interest in curry cooled after 1857 when Indian soldiers rebelled against British rule in the subcontinent. "[Curry's popularity] recovered by the 1870s when Prime Minister Disraeli decided to make empire a part of his politics," says Dr Collingham. India became the brightest jewel in the crown, but Mr Groves says British culinary interests were turning from East to West. "Everyone who was anybody had French chefs." Curry and chips "At the beginning of the 20th Century, curry was not very popular," says Dr Collingham. "It was not well-to-do to have a house that smells of curry." Instead, the British diet was dominated by red meat, accompanied by home-grown vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes. Fish and chips Curry sauce with that? At the same time, a number of Indian sailors jumped ship or were dumped at major ports including Cardiff and London. These seamen from Sylhet - now a region in Bangladesh - opened cafes, mainly to cater for fellow Asians. "They were self-taught but they cleverly adapted themselves to the British palate," says Mr Groves. And in the 1940s, they bought bombed-out chippies and cafes, says Ms Collingham, selling curry and rice alongside fish, pies and chips. "They stayed open really late to make money to catch the after-pub trade." And so the ritual of the post-pub curry was born. "It took quite a long time for the British to recover from World War II," says Ms Collingham. "They were willing and more open to try new things." After 1971, there was an influx of Bangladeshis following war in their homeland, particularly to London's rundown East End. Many entered the catering trade, and today they dominate the curry industry. Curry under street sign for Brick Lane Just one of the UK's curry hotspots "They own 65-75% of the Indian restaurants in the country. Without their input and hard work, we wouldn't have the curry industry that we have today," says Mr Groves. An industry so popular the then foreign secretary Robin Cook described chicken tikka masala as "a true British national dish" - and yet another example of an Indian recipe modified for British tastes. Ms Collingham says ultimately, the British love affair with curry boils down to the imagined glamour of the Raj. "India has a certain magic because of the colonial relationship."