Food - Curry

Curry has been wholeheartedly adopted by the British in its many forms. Today's curry is very different from its Tamil origins and now refers to a multitude of spicy dishes from all over South and Southeast Asia. It has evolved and adapted over time according to our changing tastes and circumstances. Modern day curries in Britain are now more representative of the diversity of South Asian cuisine than ever before.

The original kari

A photograph of Prashad preparing curry in her family restaurant in Bradford.
Curry is being prepared in this family-run vegetarian Indian restaurant in Bradford.

To most people in Britain a 'curry' means a spicy, savoury Asian dish of meat, fish or vegetables. They are available everywhere in Britain, hot and freshly prepared in restaurants, or frozen, canned, bottled or packed as ready meals, sauces and spice mixtures, from supermarkets. Curry features widely in our daily eating habits, yet we rarely question its origin.

The origin of the word 'curry' has a much narrower culinary and regional focus than today's meaning. It came from the Tamil word kari, meaning 'sauce', and was a south Indian soup-like accompaniment to rice. When the Portuguese arrived in India, they adapted the word kari to 'karil', and this word is still used in Goa.

The traditional south Indian kari does not have a fixed set of ingredients, but a typical mixture consists of roasted and ground curry leaf, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, black pepper, fenugreek, turmeric and sometimes cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

Photograph of turmeric powder
Image: Ground turmeric root, this adds flavour and colour to curries.

The arrival of the Portuguese had a huge influence on South Asian cuisine. Until the 1600s the most pungent spice added to food was black pepper, but with the arrival of the Europeans came chillies. They were readily accepted into South Asian cookery and now form one of the primary ingredients of curry.

Birth of the British curry

During the 1700s, Britons resident in India soon became fond of curries, serving their own concoctions of 'curry' and rice. The first British recipe for curry was written in 1747. It was basically a stew of birds or rabbits, with some spices, and was served with rice. Similar recipes were repeated in Britain as the decades passed, until the British curry came to resemble an English stew with rice. This was a far cry from its traditional Tamil origins.

In the meantime, the use of the word curry in English spread eastwards to Malaysia and westwards to Africa. Many Indians were living in Southeast Asia or East Africa, and dishes also evolved in these areas. In fact, curry was starting to become a worldwide phenomenon.

South Asian settlers

South Asian immigrants began to arrive in London, from what was then the Bengal province of India, as early as the mid 17th century. The first Indian restaurant in Britain was thought to have opened in London in 1773 where 'Indian dishes of the highest perfection' were offered for the 'nobility and gentry'.

During the 1950s the numbers of Bangladeshi and Indian settlers in Britain started to rapidly increase. Restaurants serving curry cropped up all over Britain from the mid 1950s, particularly in London, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Bradford and Glasgow. By 1962 the number of curry houses and specialist South Asian grocers were growing and becoming more popular.

Going out for an 'Indian' can mean dining on food from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal. However, the majority of British 'Indian' restaurants are run by people of Bangladeshi origin, so the food is largely Bangladesh influenced with modifications according to the tastes of customers. Changes made to suit European choices have led to the evolution of British-Asian classics such as the balti and chicken tikka masala.

Modern British Asian cuisine

With more than 8000 'Indian' restaurants now in Britain, South Asian cuisine's vast diversity is being embraced. This is, in part, due to relaxed visa restrictions in the late 1990s for trained chefs coming to Britain. Truly regional cuisine is now being offered by this new generation of cooks, restaurants and shops.

In the south of India, Tamil Nadu is home to the true 'kari' and the 'Madras'. It shares a similar cuisine with Karnataka where rice is the staple. Kerala produces dishes laced with coconut, curry leaves and mustard seeds. In the north, Punjabi, Uttar Pradeshi, Kashmiri and Pakistani cuisine is often based on gingery, tomato-based masalas and meat kebabs. These 'local' flavours are becoming more familiar to us by the week.