It was once stated at the House of Commons (on the issue of recycling and disposal) that every Englishman is entitled to enjoy his chicken tikka masala without worrying about the difficulties of disposing its remains. The speaker was alluding — inadvertently perhaps — to the cultural signifier tikka masala has become in Britain over the decades. It has long surpassed the more traditional fish and chips in popularity by an embarrassing margin. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, of course, is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of curried goat cooked by street vendors at the Notting Hill Carnival in West London and cites The Khas Tandoori restaurant at Kensal Rise as his favourite food joint in London. What is it about the Indian cuisine that appeals to the palate of the Anglo-Saxons while their American cousins across the Atlantic seem not to make too much of a fuss over it?
One could, of course, trace the colonial history that connects India and Britain in a bid to analyse the cultural or gastronomic dialogue that characterized the tradition. In Calcutta, the colonial capital of British India, there are several instances of sweetmeats and desserts being created by Bengali confectioners that corresponded specifically to status. The massively popular ledikeni was originally made as an official present to, and was also named after, Lady Canning, wife of the then viceroy, Lord Canning, who also has a street named after him in central Calcutta. Likewise, Indian spices were a constant item of traffic during the colonial period and the English in Britain began to have access to Indian curry from late 19th century onwards.
Hindostanee Coffee House is supposed to be the first Indian restaurant in Britain. It was opened in 1809 by Dean Mahomet, the son of a former sepoy of the East India Company who eventually settled in Britain after a life of fascinating adventures and escapades that are recorded in his memoir, The Travels of Dean Mahomet. There are accounts of Indian restaurants being run in Bristol as far back as in the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria herself was considered to be a connoisseur of curry, to the extent that Indian staff was hired for her personal kitchen to cook curry for her every single day. Curry also features in English literature of the 19th century. Novelist William Thackeray, born in Calcutta, subjects his heroine, Becky Sharp, to the trials of the Indian curry in Vanity Fair (1848).
But Indian cuisine as a whole began to grow in popularity only after World War II, when more and more English soldiers returned home with recipes from Indian chefs, who were often shipped along to authenticate the arrangements. By the 1970s, Indian restaurants were flourishing at various corners of Britain, helped not insignificantly by the increasing number of Indian students and settlers in England. Today, Indian restaurants are virtually everywhere in Britain, not just in big cities like London and Manchester but also in relatively smaller places such as Whaley Bridge and Bishop Auckland.
Among the many explanations that are offered to account for the popularity of Indian cuisine in Britain is the one that asserts that the British never had a cuisine of their own and were more than happy to smuggle in cooking techniques and their ingredients, among so many other things, from the colonies. Apparently reductionist, this theory contains more than a germ of truth and can be testified immediately by a random visit to any British pub, where the more popular food items often carry names as sensational and senseless as “Bombay Bad Boy” and “Mughlai Madman” — the badness and the madness being indicators of their spice-quotient. It is no surprise that these dishes, with such sensational alliterations and sizzling spices, sell out way ahead of the cold sandwiches and bland chips that are no match for the touch of hot curry on the tongue. Although the English tend to cling on to their Yorkshire puddings and jacket potatoes and perhaps even sentimentalize Christmas puddings and treacle tarts, such items are increasingly becoming part of the culinary traditions that are best kept for occasional calls of Christmas conservatism rather than being the daily delicacies at takeaways.
The biggest advocacy for English cuisine comes from one of the most unlikely figures — the Marxist contrarian, George Orwell (whose political trajectory of falling in and out with the conservative Left was subsequently appropriated by Christopher Hitchens). In his essay, “In Defense of English Cooking”, Orwell makes an ambitious and assiduous attempt to redeem English culinary culture from allegations of unoriginality. However, after singing proud praises for the charms of roasted potatoes, haggis (one almost overlooks how Orwell surreptitiously smuggles in a traditional Scottish delicacy here and passes it off as English) and bread sauces, the essay admits that the “serious snag from the foreign visitor’s point of view” is the fact that English cuisine is rarely found outside the private home of the Englishman.
The fact remains that fine English restaurants that cater to the posh palate almost always appropriate a largely French cuisine and culinary culture, and the more immediately popular stuff are mainly Indian and Chinese. Admitting that English tourism would not go far if it is continued to be classified as a country of “bad food and unintelligible by-laws”, Orwell concludes hoping for a revival of an English national cookery. Quite possibly, he overlooked the fact that there never was one in the first place.
Orwell’s attempts at asserting the authenticity of English cuisine do not trouble the conscience of the average Englishman, who is now much more keen to queue up for curry on a Premier League weekend than lament the loss of his national cuisine. However, the issue of authenticity does bring up the immediate question of originality about the food that is passed off as Indian in Britain. The answer to the question about the “Indianness” of the English curry (one that is often asked to the Indian student living in Britain, both at conferences as well as in semi-sozzled conversations in pubs) is both straightforward and complex.
The straightforward bit is that there is no monolithic formula for Indian food even inside India. Even a trip to Park Street in Calcutta, considered the food capital of the city, will reveal that each restaurant carries its unique culinary charm. The complex bit is that the Indian food popularized in Britain is essentially north Indian cuisine, comprising butter masala, tandoori and kebabs, and is as different from south Indian cuisine (comprising curd, idli and dosa) as chilli con carne is to chips. Add to this the fact that the majority of Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshi (more specifically Sylheti) managers and chefs and this is bound to further complicate the gastronomic discourse sensationalized under the umbrella-term “Indian”.
Thus strictly speaking, the Indian food that sells speedily in Britain is actually Bangladeshi-Mughlai food. These dishes go with names that are a happy hybrid between Bengali and Hindi, as evinced from the menu cards that contain items such as Jhol-jhal haansh (hot duck curry) and Laal maach masala (haddock in red curry sauce). For the average British, however, the complex politics of preparation and hybridization of Indian food that emerges in England means little in comparison to the sight and smell of a bowl of hot curry descending before him. The increasing popularity of Indian cuisine in Britain is a testimony to the strong cultural dialogues the two nations have had and continue to have. This is exemplified and embodied in parliamentary procedures as well as in the content of dinners.
The craze is heightened by the sensationalism in nomenclature that sounds profoundly exotic to English ears and just as silly to Indians. Thus one sees Tony Blair celebrating his daughter’s 19th birthday with kurkuri machli (crispy fired sole fish) and samundari rattan (giant king prawns) at the Red Fort. A posh restaurant at Dean Street, Central London, whose regulars include Gordon Brown and David Beckham (he with his Devanagari tattoo and a wife who brands herself as Posh Spice) would be entirely in sync with the flavours of a curry corner anyway. Be it the post-conference meals at posh universities, where most endeavour to be prim, or the macho madness during Premier League weekends in popular pubs, where almost all appear three sheets to the wind, dishy curries have come to rule the roost over roasts.