Ever wondered the Indian influence on British food? Are you “going for a curry?” This is a common phrase to hear in the UK. You can’t help thinking that truly, the Indian influence on British food is undeniable.
The Indian influence on British food is so extensive and deep. It began from Victorian times and became an integral part of multicultural Britain. Indian food is sharing the top spot with fish and chips and shepherd’s pie as national dishes of Britain.
Surely, Indian food has got to have a huge following in order for a foreign dish to conquer such a prestigious position. But when exactly did Indian food arrive in Britain, and most importantly, why is it so popular in the UK? Let us dig through the Indian influence on British food some more.
When did Indian food come to Britain?
The Indian food’s journey to the UK started way back in the mid-18th century, with the East India Company initiating trade with the Indian Ocean region. As the company became more and more established in the said region and beyond, the British people started living in India and even marrying locals. Also, British seamen coming back to Britain from India will then have Indians joining them on their journeys.
Naturally, there was a need for the growing Indian community in Britain to have their local food within reach. The British coming back from India, too, found themselves looking for the same Indian food that they have come to love back in the region.
Not long after, the community welcomed arguably one of the first Indian food menu items showing up at the Coffee House in Norris Street, Haymarket in London in 1773.
The first truly dedicated Indian restaurant in Britain was the Hindostanee Coffee House. It was opened by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1810 but it closed in 1811 as he was forced to file for bankruptcy. His vision, though, of bringing Indian food to the British community lived on.
Did you know? The oldest running Indian restaurant in Britain is Veeraswami. The place was opened in 1926 by the great-grandson of an English General and an Indian Mughal princess. Today, despite the pandemic, the restaurant still serves the British community via home delivery.
Queen Victoria and her love for the Indian Cuisine
Food historian Ivan Day via BBC remarks, “Queen Victoria made it very fashionable, as she had an Indian staff who cooked Indian food every day.”
The Queen’s first taste of authentic Indian curry was courtesy of her servant Abdul Karim. She became so fond of the cuisine that she had curry on the menu most days. It didn’t take long before her fascination reached the homes outside the palace, making the people curious to try Indian food.
Why is Indian food so popular in the UK?
Indian food is exotic.
Indian food is like your interesting and adventurous cousin on vacation in the UK – who decided to stay in town for good.
Indian food is popular in the UK because it is exotic. It has you filling up your cupboard with spices you didn’t even know existed – and it makes you blend a dozen of these spices to form yet another type of exotic flavor.
Indian food is flavorful.
I have not encountered an Indian specialty so dull that it needs something else to amp it up. Truly, there is no holding back when cooking and serving Indian food.
One reason why Indian food is so popular in the UK is because it is so flavorful. If I may place it side by side with traditional British food items – which are good on their own, the latter is definitely of the mild and subtle spectrum.
This is why the British have a place on their plates for Indian cuisine. It has the strong features and characteristics that the local fare does not commonly have.
Indian food is healthy.
One platter of Indian food specialties is more than enough to show you its diversity. Commonly, Indian food contains many vegetables and natural spices, which makes it a truly healthy type of cuisine.
Many superfoods such as tomatoes and spinach are frequent ingredients in Indian recipes. Chickpeas alone, which is a star in many Indian dishes, is packed with fibre, zinc, folate and protein.
British people like to explore.
The British have always wondered what is beyond the seas. This dream fueled many larger-than-life voyages that now belong to our world history books.
British colonialism brought in a lot of things, and along with it is the Indian influence in their food culture.
Queen Victoria made Indian food popular.
Before people heard how Queen Victoria loved Indian food, the cuisine’s strong aroma was frowned upon. Nobody wanted their homes to smell like curry.
The Victorian cookbook entitled Modern Domestic Cookery quips, “Curry, which was formerly a dish almost exclusively for the table of those who had made a long residence in India, is now so completely naturalized that few dinner is thought complete unless one is on the table.”
What are the main ingredients in Indian cooking?
So, you’re thinking of doing some Indian cooking yourself after learning how the cuisine influenced Britain… While the list of main ingredients may vary from one reference to another, here are the essential items I believe you need to have in your kitchen in order to jump-start your exploration of Indian cuisine.
Coriander seeds, the dried fruit of the cilantro plant, are essential in making masala. Fresh coriander leaves, on the other hand, are commonly used for its distinct taste and aroma or added as a garnish on top of a dish. Many keep the stem on because it contains an even deeper flavor than the leaves!
India has a lot of lentil types, that enumerating them probably needs an article of its own! While the different types will have different nutritional values, you can usually substitute one from the other when making Indian dishes.
You will find chickpeas used extensively in Indian cuisine. This type of legume is also known as garbanzo beans. Because of its versatility, chickpeas can be in curries, salads, dips and soups. It can act as an appetizer, a meal accompaniment or as the main dish itself.
There are two types of cardamom being used in Indian cuisine: the green and the brown varieties. Green cardamom has a subtle taste; you can find it in mild curries and sweet items. Brown cardamom, on the other hand, is commonly used in spice blends. Curries that need strong flavors opt for the brown cardamom.
Garam Masala is an intense mix of different spices. You see cooks sprinkling this spice blend at the end of their cooking. What is in a garam masala may differ from one kitchen to another, but the common spices that go in it include black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and clove.
Turmeric is a plant that is similar to ginger. It is either used fresh or in powder form. It gives a yellow color and a sharp peppery flavor to the dish. It is also believed to be very beneficial for your health with its antibacterial and antifungal properties, among others.
Brown, black and yellow mustard seeds are used interchangeably in Indian cuisine. They add a nutty flavour to dishes. Mustard seeds are fried in very hot oil until they pop – usually at the first part of the cooking process but now even as a garnish to modern takes on Indian dishes.
Fresh curry leaves
Curry leaves grow from the curry tree. It is part of the citrus family. Although it can also be purchased as dry, fresh curry leaves are more preferred when making Indian food. You can place them in dals, soups and curries.
Curry leaves must not be mistaken with curry powder. The latter is a blend of different spices used to add flavor to Indian food.
This aromatic spice lends an earthy peppery taste wherever you place it. It is marketed as sticks or as powder. Whole cinnamon sticks are used for infusions while ground cinnamon powder is sprinkled in both sweet and savoury Indian dishes.
Chilis are among the main ingredients in Indian cooking. Green and red chili are used extensively in Indian cuisine. They are added in to bring the right amount of heat and colour to the dishes.
Chili can also come in powder form. In Indian cuisine, this is commonly used in dishes that need some spiciness and vibrancy in color like tandoori.
Rice for Indian dishes calls for short, medium or long-grain rice. While some dishes native to specific regions in India call for certain rice, Basmati is the most widely-available variety of rice in the market.
Did you know? India ranks second in rice consumption worldwide. According to statistics, the country consumed 100 million metric tons of rice in 2019.Source: Statista
I hope that helped you to appreciate the Indian influence on British food.
Do you also love Indian Curry?
Let me know in the comment your favourite Asian food!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Everything ZanyTravel Blog
Everything Zany Travel Blog exploring the UK and beyond. Sharing travel guides, tips, history and culture. Our travel media brand is founded by travel and hotel industry expert – Ryazan Tristram, a Dual Citizen (British – Filipina) based in Birmingham, UK. Everything Zany is a reputable and award-winning travel blog. Our work and contributions have been featured in Huffington Post, CNBC, Discovery Channel, GMA, Readers Digest, and Lonely Planet. Our missions are to build a great travel community and resource of travel tips, visas and travel guides for travellers. Join us as we travel around the UK and beyond with a mission to share the best of the world.