We take the curry as part of the gastronomic culture of the United Kingdom, but what is it’s origins? Back in the early 1960s Bangladeshi immigrants brought with them their spicy food and set up restaurants little bigger than a corner shop to give their own countrymen a taste of home. These grew and expanded at a pace, with us Brits getting a taste for this spicy food after many years of bland cuisine following the Second World war.
What are the origins of curry? Well, there is no such thing as curry, this name was adopted after British servicemen in India miss heard or miss understood the word Karahi which is a type of heavy cooking pot used to cook regional dishes all over the sub-continent. All over India different variations of ‘curry’ are eaten. Rice is only eaten with a meal in the areas where it was grown in the flood plains and river deltas near the coast. Elsewhere bread was the accompaniment of choice.
When the East India company received permission to trade and have a permanent presence in India back in the 1600s, they needed to protect their interests and trade potential. At that time were not exactly on the best of terms with the Portuguese and Spanish who already had a foothold with the trading game all over Asia.
The East India company raised its own army from Great Britain and Ireland to police its interests in the ever-growing trade network but they soon found a real problem. The food they were giving the troops was prone to going off in the extreme heat, so they adopted the Indian style of food using the spices and flavours enabling meat to be preserved for longer. The chefs used the local recipes as a basis of the dishes and quite soon, the soldiers became used to the spicy delicacies.
The British soldier from then on would crave a curry, no matter where in the world they were stationed, the only exception to this was during the two world wars when the spices were more difficult to procure unless you were based on the Indian subcontinent, Singapore or Burma.
The Officers and Sergeants mess would hold a function, it could be a Beating of the Retreat, a tradition dating back to the days of Empire, a football or cricket match, a games night or just a party. It would always be a ‘serve yourself’ complete with side dishes, sambals, poppadom’s nan bread and the ubiquitous rice. The curry in the army was never served in a formal environment, this was always seen as a non formal meal.
The Army Catering Corps manual of recipes, JSP (Joint service pamphlet) 404 has all the regional Indian recipes from Korma, Jalfrezi, Madras, Pathia and all the other traditional dishes we have all come to love. Incidentally the only one that didn’t start life on the sub-continent was a chicken tikka masala, this was invented according to hearsay in Glasgow back in the 1960s when a customer wanted a sauce with his chicken tandoori claiming it was far too dry! It is alleged that the chef took the hump and as a response, opened a can of condensed tomato soup and the dish, we all love to eat, was born!
My first experience of a curry was somewhat disappointing, in the late 1960s my father worked in a grocers, back in those days ‘representatives’ used to cold call with new products given away as samples. One day Dad came home with three boxes of Vesta beef curry, this was duly prepared and we started to consume this unusual food. We vowed as one that this was probably the most awful thing we had ever eaten, it was rather cardboard flavoured.
To appease the need for a ‘curry’ mum suggested she make a chicken curry the next day. This was a bit better although a little odd, chicken poached in gravy with apple slices, sultanas and banana chunks. This was cooked to death and a hefty sprinkling of hot curry powder put in at the end. I vowed to never eat curry again!
Fast forward to the late 1970s, I renewed my acquaintance with this strange seemingly oriental food after I joined the army and never looked back, I was hooked!
The various breads such as chapatti’s nan and poppadom’s, used as eating implements regionally across the subcontinent became side dishes in the UK as a standard. Even today most of the poppadom’s we buy in the supermarket both cooked and dried, are made in India and shipped over to satisfy the insatiable appetite for all things curry.
We curry lovers need to thank our ancestors who served in the East India company and the subsequent British Raj for starting a culinary tradition which gained pace over the years. Now I have finished writing this I crave my favourite food, Chicken Madras, pilau rice, aloo saag, Peshwari nan and of course an ice-cold beer!