This month marks 200 years since Britain got its first curry house. It was an instant hit – how could it not be with a people from a temperate island who had been addicted for centuries to the spices they craved to pep up their bland native fare?
But although we don't know exactly what London's Hindostanee Coffee House served its punters, history tells us the "Indian" food Britain originally took to its heart was a real mish-mash. Thanks to 19th century recipes calling for pre-mixed curry powder and Bangladeshi restaurateurs serving their own ersatz inventions in the great post-war curry invasion, what we came to love was a hybrid cuisine. Even the authentic-sounding chicken tikka masala, which overtook roast beef and Yorkshire pud as our favourite dish a decade ago, was born in Glasgow.
So do we really have cause for celebration? Yes, but we should be celebrating the 28th anniversary of fine Indian food rather than 200 years of mediocre curries, according to some. "If you're talking sophisticated and innovative, it's not even the 10th birthday," declares Vivek Singh of London's Cinnamon Club. This audacious entrepreneur, whose high-end Westminster eatery was named Best Restaurant at last year's World Food Awards, did not arrive on these shores to bring top-end Indian dining to Brits till 2001. That's the year Atul Kochhar became the first chef to win a Michelin star for Indian food. He won it for London's Tamarind before going on to open the less-traditional Benares, for which he has also landed a star.
The newest such accolade for an Indian restaurant is for London's Amaya, which so captured the public imagination with its open kitchen and marinated grills – nearly half the diners never even progress to a curry – that it won its Michelin star within a year of opening. Interestingly, Amaya is in the same Masala World ownership as Veeraswamy, Britain's oldest existing Indian restaurant, and Chutney Mary. The directors claim credit for intitiating the transition from curry house to fine dining in Britain via Camilla Panjabi's innovations at the Bombay Brasserie.
"We had long wanted to get across the fact that Indian food is gourmet, a world away from the bowls of gloopy brown mess I saw in Indian restaurants here when I arrived in the Eighties," says Namita Panjabi, co-director of Masala World. "In a French restaurant you would never order a coq au vin, a boeuf bourgignon and a seafood dish for everyone to take and mix on their plate. And we don't eat like that in India, where all the really refined cooking takes place in the home. We have a meat or fish dish, a green vegetable, a root vegetable, a raita and rice or bread."
That's how Panjabi, having seen her sister do the same at the Bombay Brasserie, plated up the food at Chutney Mary in 1990. "We got a lot of flak for insisting each diner should choose their own dish from people who were used to sharing and wanted to see the bowls back. But we were determined to showcase Indian food as it is meant to be eaten."
When Masala World bought Veeraswamy, the concept of tasting several dishes when going out for "an Indian" was allowed to remain, concedes Panjabi: "We figured Veeraswamy is all about tradition. But we served the dishes very beautifully in thalis, and the spices are all stone-ground, the way they would be in India."
Panjabi acknowledges that while modern decor – such as the striking terracotta sculptures, granite candle-holders and open kitchen of Amaya – took time to catch up with a modern way of serving Indian food, the arrival of authentic regional cuisine dates to 1982. That's when the Taj Hotel group opened the Bombay Brasserie, bringing colonial style – and hitherto-unimaginably sophisticated Indian fare – to London's Gloucester Road. "We brought Farsi and Goan cuisine and dishes from Hyderabad and other places," recalls Hemant Oberoi, Taj's grand master chef. "That was when people were only talking about Madras and vindaloo – and these were not correctly cooked. A proper vindaloo, for example, has a lot of vinegar in it. What you thought of as Rogan Josh was ridiculous: it comes from the Kashmiri region, where people don't use the tomatoes that were often put in."
He claims Britain is unique in its use of pre-mixed curry powder. "In India, we make proper garam masala and every chef takes great pride in how he hand-pounds this spice mix – he would never use a processor. The mix must be slowly roasted then equally slowly ground by hand." The bog-standard curry house is facing its demise in the face of our growing sophistication, he warns: "If their chefs don't follow the ways of the top restaurants, Indian cuisine will be a forgotten chapter in this country's culinary history."
Amin Ali, who opened Soho's Red Fort in the first push upmarket, says the growth of the UK's Asian population has done a lot to perpetuate authentic food: "You can now find most of the ingredients for serious Indian cookery in any supermarket – and as a result of how we changed the face of Indian cooking in the 1980's, people expect more from it now."
The newest wave of Indian restaurateurs are the risk-takers and award-winners of the past decade, spearheaded by Singh. He says: "People thought I was crazy taking over a Grade II listed library in Westminster and expecting people to pay £35 a head. In fact, they paid £35 for a halibut, and now pay £80 a head for a memorable dining experience."
Rajesh Suri, who managed Mayfair's Tamarind when the restaurant won its star in 2001 and who now owns the place, says: "Michelin recognition was a wake-up call. It told the world you could get food and service in an ethnic restaurant every bit as fine as in a French restaurant. We compete not only against each other, but Michel Roux and Gordon Ramsay. As we found out at Tamarind from losing our star briefly before winning it back, we can never take our eye off the ball."
Sriram Aylur, head chef at Quilon in Westminster, is one of five to have won a Michelin star for an Indian restaurant in Britain. The restaurant is cool, spare and blonde, and Aylur's dishes, from the favourite British playgrounds of Kerala and Goa, are unique in their bright clear yellows, reds and greens, perhaps because of his memories of the bad old days. He says: "It used to look as if the kitchen had three different shades of brown sludge for sauces, and which one you got depended on which dish you ordered."
However, we shouldn't despise the fare brought to us in the Sixties by entrepreneurial Bangladeshis with little knowledge of regional cuisine. Even Atul Kochhar, whose innovation runs to developing his own wines to partner Indian food, has chicken tikka masala in his repertoire. He credits Brits with creating "the mother recipe" for a dish based on India's authentic butter chicken and thinks it says a lot that Indians in India love it. "When I go home and am asked to cook, that's the first dish everyone wants me to make!"
A HISTORY OF CURRY IN BRITAIN
1600 East India Company set up under charter from Elizabeth I to break Dutch monopoly of the spice trade.
1747 First curry recipe recorded in The Epicure's Almanack.
1780 Pre-mixed curry powder arrives on grocers' shelves.
1810 Migrant Sake Dean Mahomet opens Britain's first curry house at 34 George Street on London's Portman Square.
1926 Veeraswamy, the oldest Indian restaurant still standing in Britain, opens just off Regent Street. It becomes the posh people's curry house, frequented by socialites and celebrities.
1959 Veeraswamy's introduces Brits to tandoori chicken.
1969 A Glasgow restaurant claims to have invented chicken tikka masala, a claim disputed by rivals from Edinburgh to Essex.
1970s Bangladeshi migrants fill every corner of Britain with curry houses, serving an ersatz mix of standardised dishes in three degrees of spice heat, usually labelled korma, madras or vindaloo.
1982 The Bombay Brasserie, opened by Taj, Indian's premier luxury hotel group, ushers in a new era of authentic regional Indian cuisine.
1987 The Balti (named after the large dish it is served in) is invented in Birmingham. It starts a new craze among curry lovers with former tandoori restaurants rebranding themselves overnight as balti houses.
1989 Karan Bilimoria creates Cobra beer, brewed in Britain and now exported to 50 countries, as a rival to European lagers and Indian imports which had the curry house market sewn up.
2001 Atul Kochhar becomes the first Indian chef in the world to win a Michelin star – for London's Tamarind.
2001 Robin Cook declares chicken tikka masala "Britain's true national dish".
2001 The Cinnamon Club sets a new price point for luxury Indian restaurants when it opens in a listed Westminster library.
2009 British winemakers Carr Taylor and Atul Kochhar each launch a separate range of wines intended to perfectly partner Indian food.
2010 The Michelin Guide brings the total of starred Indian restaurants in the UK to five, the highest to date.
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