Ask any Brit what their favourite food is, and many will answer “a curry”. While curry isn’t as traditionally British as say, fish and chips or a full roast dinner, over the last few centuries it’s firmly established itself as one of the country’s most iconic foods. In fact, chicken tikka masala is one of the UK’s national dishes!
So, how did Indian and Pakistani food become so popular in the UK? We’ll delve into exactly why in this article!
What Is Indian Food?
India often receives the highest of praises for its creamy, spicy curries, rice dishes and doughy naan bread – but what actually characterises food from this country? Here are some stand-out features:
- Plenty of herbs and spices: Many Indian dishes use spices like turmeric, garam masala and coriander.
- Often spicy: It’s not always, but many Indian dishes have a reputation for being hot. Although, fun fact, chilli only started to be used in the 16th century when it was transported from Mexico!
- Aromatic bases: Many Indian dishes have a base of onion, garlic and ginger.
- Lots of vegetarian options: Unlike many cuisines around the world, India is a haven for vegetarians, with some villages in India serving up just veggie dishes.
When Did Indian Food Come To The UK?
India and the UK have long ties that go back to Britain’s colonisation of the South Asian country in 1757.
Britons who had lived in India brought food and cooking techniques back to the UK, with some Indian chefs also moving to the country.
This saw the first Indian restaurant – Hindoostane Coffee House – open in London all the way back in 1810. The Indian food that Hindoostane Coffee House served was very different to that served back in India. It was tailored more to the European palate, with mild flavours and fewer spices. However, over time, more spices arrived in the British Isles and began to find their way into Indian dishes.
When Was Indian Food Popularised In The UK?
While curry has been on the UK dining scene since the 19th century, it only became popularised in the second half of the 20th century.
After WWII, a lot of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people migrated to the UK. They brought their flavours from home with them and started opening up curry houses in not just the big cities but smaller towns and villages as well.
With the new curry houses, new dishes were popularised – and some were even invented as fusion dishes of Indian and British tastes and cooking techniques. This saw the birth of the chicken tikka masala, which comes from Edinburgh, and the balti which hails from Birmingham.
Indian Food In The UK Today
In the 21st century, Indian food remains immensely popular with many favouring it as their takeaway of choice.
Areas of major cities are famous for their abundance of curry houses, such as Brick Lane in London and the Balti Triangle in Birmingham.
One criticism that many Indian natives have for the UK’s dishes is that they don’t reflect the diversity of cuisines throughout India. Most dishes in Britain are based on North Indian cuisine rather than the coconut-based curries in the South.
Others have criticised the over-anglicisation of Indian food in Britain – and in response to this, some eateries offering more traditional food (such as Gunpowder in London) have opened.
This has meant that traditional curry houses are facing a bit of a crisis in the UK, with an average of two closing every week and a projected 50% loss of all UK curry houses in the next 10 years.
However, many Brits still agree that there’s nothing like a curry house dinner and believe that there will always be a culture of Indian food in the UK.
What Else Comes From India?
While food is probably the most talked-about import from India over the centuries, Indian arts and textiles have been thought to inspire designers like William Morris and – of course – British tea comes from South Asia!
Even things like games of chance – the predecessor to the modern online casino are said to have their roots in India and China.
Some English words even come from India – “bungalow” and pyjamas both have Indian origins!
Plus, activities like yoga and meditation have their origins in India; both of which are increasingly popular in the UK and around the world. Philosophical concepts such as karma and mindfulness also have their origins in Hindu culture.
And, while vegetarianism and veganism have grown in popularity all over the world, many argue that India was the birthplace of both.
Indian Food And The UK: Final Thoughts
Indian food remains a staple in the UK, although new restaurants are offering diverse dishes, some of which are more related to Indian food eaten in India. And while the stats say that curry houses seem to be getting less popular, they’ll always hold a special place in Brits’ hearts!