Spices originally from India have been sold in London for centuries, but it wasn't really until the 1800s that recognisably Indian food became widely available.
High end grocers like Fortnum & Mason started to supply curry powders and chutneys to the returning East India Company employees and their domestic staff, to recreate the flavours they'd enjoyed in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Anglo-Indian dishes were listed on menus in restaurants and clubs in London, and the first specifically Indian restaurant (the Hindoostannee Coffee House in Marylebone) was opened in 1810 by Sake Dean Mahommed (who amazingly also introduced shampoo to Britain). It only lasted a year or two before Sake Dean retreated to Brighton where he opened a very successful baths and treatment business, patronised by Queen Victoria herself. The restaurant site on George St is now commemorated as the birthplace of Indian food in Britain by a plaque, but nothing else remains to show it was ever there.
The oldest Indian restaurant still trading from this era is Veeraswamy's on Regent Street which opened in 1926 and is still going strong. Apparently the muligatawny soup is still the same recipe as the day the restaurant opened, and the roast duck vindaloo with pineapple curry is still as good as ever!
Veeraswamys also claims to be the first venue in the world to serve lager and curry together - apparently the King of Denmark used to send over a barrel of Carlsberg (unlike traditional ale or bitter which was more widely available in the UK at the time), so he'd be able to enjoy a pint with his meal! It's a combination that's been popular in Britain ever since...
The fancy interior and central London address is a legacy of how Indian food was initially only eaten by the very wealthy and fashionable, but the really interesting thing is how much more widespread it became in the decades following the 2nd World War, and eventually evolved to be a key part of our national cuisine.
In East London this second part to the story can be seen in the Halal Restaurant in Shoreditch which opened in 1939 and is now the oldest Indian restaurant in East London. The building was originally a boarding house for Indian sailors (many of whom were from Sylhet in Bangladesh - at the time known as East Bengal) coming ashore in nearby St Katherine's Dock. Many of these sailors jumped ship once in port as working conditions on the ships were pretty awful, and over time a simple canteen was opened to feed them and the other dock workers which is now the Halal restaurant.
After the 2nd World War there were lots of cheap premises available in central and East London (from all the bomb damage and depopulation) for these men to open basic canteen-style restaurants that catered for both Indian immigrants, as well as locals who needed a cheap and filling meal. This is how these former sailors from Bangladesh started the first British Indian restaurants (with menus often mixing simple curries and rice with fish and chips or pies) and sowed the seeds of an industry that would eventually grow to over 10,000 restaurants around the country and generate billions of pounds of revenue.
Whilst the vast majority of the Indian restaurants that spread around the country in later decades were Bangladeshi-owned, you can experience a different taste of British-Indian history at the India Club on the Strand (just round the corner from the Indian High Commission). It was jointly opened over 50 years ago by Nehru and Lord Mountbatten as a meeting place for Hindu nationalist policitians, Indian students and a useful place for cross-cultural exchange with the newly independent country and it's former colonial rulers. The restaurant and bar is still perfectly preserved in all it's basic 1950s style and the menu is a short selection of classic dishes from around India, but it's apparently threatened with imminent redevelopment so you better be quick if you want to visit!
By the 1970s there were far greater numbers of people from Bangladesh who moved into the area around Brick Lane to work in the garment factories, and the road was full of cheap Bangladeshi-run Indian restaurants. The chefs and owners were mostly from the tight-knit community linked to the original lascars who came from Sylhet in Bangladesh, so there was a lot of shared knowledge and skills as the businesses evolved. The restaurants served mainly Moghul food (Bangladesh was at one time part of the Moghul Empire), and the meat-heavy, rich and fragrant Moghul dishes were always likely to be a big hit with British customers, with some additional Goan, Punjabi and Bengali influences. The genius of these chefs and restauranteurs was to adapt all these elements for British tastes, to allow for the limited availability of fresh ingredients, and to produce a huge standardised menu that was quick to cook using a base sauce that could be adapted to taste.
It was such a clever formula that by the late 1980s the concept had spread to nearly every British high street, and there's no doubt their efforts have fundamentally changed the tastes of the entire country. In fact we probably wouldn't be doing what we do at the Spicery if it hadn't been for all of us growing up in Britain with an Indian restaurant down the road, and developing that familiarity with Indian flavours and ingredients which are now so embedded in British cuisine.
The late 1970s and 1980s in London saw the Indian food on offer in restaurants around London start to become more regional, as people from Pakistan, Kashmir and Punjab arrived, as well as thousands of Ugandan and Kenyan Asian refugees (many of whom who originally came from Gujarat in India) who often settled around Southall and West London. Famous restaurants like Punjabi-run Tayyabs opened, specialising in tandoor-grilled meats and flatbreads, as well as several South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants around the suburbs of London.
The turn of the millenium saw a higher level of ambition as there was a push for Indian food to be recognised at the same level of sophistication as any other European cuisine. There were several ambitious restaurants such as the Cinnamon Club and Benares which opened in Westminster and Mayfair with highly trained Indian chefs cooking expensive and intricate food, but plated and served in a classic French-style. They both had the ambition to be the first Indian restaurant to gain a Michelin star (which they subsequently did), and there have been several others in recent years who have also achieved this goal.
Finally in the last few years in London we've seen a modern style of Indian cooking become more accessible with the rise of the Dishoom chain, which combines casual all-day dining, from chilli cheese on toast and chilli broccoli salad, to a Bollybellini to drink, all served in beautifully detailed and designed spaces which are a loving homage to the Parsee cafes of old Bombay.
It's really interesting to see how something that's actually dying out in modern Mumbai has been re-imagined in London, and feels so natural that it's like it's always been there. The iconic bacon naan is the finest representation of this - a freshly made naan folded around crispy bacon, with a smear of sweet, spicy chilli jam and a dollop of cooling cream cheese. It's something you'd never get in India, but is perhaps a dish that could ONLY have been created in London, and is a fitting legacy of how Indian ingredients, cooking techniques and flavours have been comfortably incorporated into a British context and gone from being a treat for the wealthy and aristocratic, to being cheap food for the working class, back to being ambitious and fashionable, and now a very normal and everyday part of all our lives!
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