The Multi-Cultural British curry

vurry.jpgWhen was the last time you went out for that delectable taste of curry to your local Indian eatery? Not very long ago, I am assuming. Over the past few decades, curry has become an integral part of the British cuisine, so much so that, ’Chicken Tikka Masala’ (a curry based dish) was recently named the British National dish after a major opinion poll. What is intriguing however is the fact that most Indians will take their time and display a certain degree of confusion when asked what exactly curry is. Yes, the supposedly, typically Indian curry is actually more British than Indian.

The origin of the word itself has not been well established. The common belief being that ‘curry’ is most likely an anglicized version of ‘Kari’, a Tamil (a south-Indian language) word to connote any secondary dish eaten with rice. In north-India where the British first landed in 1608, a particular dish called ‘kadhi’, which utilizes yogurt, clarified butter and gram-flour, is quite popular, but ironically this dish is almost unknown outside India and Pakistan. Another explanation for the source of this word is ‘karahi’ or ‘kadhai’ denoting the cooking vessel used in Indian kitchens. Everyone, however seem to agree with the fact that the word has Indian origins and was adapted and adopted by the British.

What is quite remarkable is the fact that there is also some evidence, which suggests that the word was strictly English all along. In the book, “Curry, Spice and all things nice : the what-the where-the when” Peter and Colleen Grove, write-

“As early as the time of Richard I there was a revolution in English cooking. In the better-off kitchens, cooks were regularly using ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, galingale, cubebs, coriander, cumin, cardamom and aniseed, resulting in highly spiced cooking very similar to India. Then, in Richard II’s reign (1377-1399) the first real English cookery book was written. Richard employed 200 cooks and they, plus others including philosophers, produced a work with 196 recipes in 1390 called ‘The Forme of Cury’. ‘Cury’ was the Old English word for cooking derived from the French ‘cuire’ – to cook, boil, grill – hence cuisine. So when the English merchants landed at Surat in 1608 and 1612, then Calcutta 1633, Madras 1640 and Bombay 1668, the word ‘cury’ had been part of the English language for well over two hundred years. Whatever the truth, ‘curry’ was rapidly adopted in Britain. In 1747 Hannah Glasse produced the first known recipe for modern ‘currey’ in Glasse’s Art of Cookery and by 1773 at least one London Coffee House had curry on the menu. “

Today it is impossible to imagine a high street in the UK without an Indian restaurant offering curry. This is a contradiction in itself as these Indian restaurants are not really Indian, as more than 65% of them are owned by Bangladeshis. Chicken tikka Masala is our favourite curry dish and it is said to have been invented by a Bangladeshi chef. Apparently, an English man was served chicken which he thought was rather dry, and wondered: “where is the curry?” An inventive chef tossed the chicken in creamed tomato sauce and returned with the famous Chicken Tikka Masala!

A supposed “Indian favourite” most people in India do not relate to CTM the way Brits do. Meanwhile the British obsession with curry continues, Marks & Spencer sells about 19 tonnes of the chicken tikka masala curry every week and 23 million portions a year are sold in Britain’s more than 8,000 Indian restaurants, half of them located in and around London.

Perhaps curry had always been a part of the English tradition, which travelled to India slightly bland, and came all the way back with spicy additions and then a dash of creativity by the Bangladeshis in England!

Vatsala Tibrewala