Probably longer than you think. The East India Company was set up in the 1600s so that Britain could trade with India, and with it came an influx of foreign spices previously alien to the British palate.
The 1747 cookery book The Art of Cookery contained recipes for several curries and pilaus, curry powder was made commercially available in 1780, and by the 1800s, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, and cumin were store cupboard staples. The first Indian restaurant opened in London in 1809, though despite Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for curries, it seems the rest of London wasn’t quite ready, and the restaurant closed three years later.
As the British influence in India intensified during the Victoria era, so the interest in their cuisine grew, and while the Brits may not have been ready for a single-purpose curry house, they had developed a taste for these spicy dishes. Piccalilli, which is considered an English classic and was first created during the nineteenth century, was an initial attempt at making authentic Indian pickle.
The pinnacle of the British curry revolution was in the 1960s; the arrival of thousands of Indian and Bangladeshi people into Britain, either to seek work or refuge, led to an unprecedented explosion of curry houses and restaurants, particularly in London, Birmingham, and Bradford.
Although to the Brits the seemingly exotic tikka masala may have transported them to an exciting, foreign land, in truth there is not much Indian about tikka masala at all – nor many of the ‘classic’ curry dishes you can find on menus at almost all Indian restaurants.
The humble tikka masala can now be seen as one of the first examples of fusion food; while the Brits had developed a serious passion for all things spicy, they still enjoyed their meat with a bit of gravy. In the 1970s, a Pakistani chef in Glasgow began giving his customers a large dollop of masala sauce with their meat to counteract the ‘dryness’ (so the legend goes) and the rest is curry history.
Or is it? Although the creation of the tikka masala can be seen as an early example of fusion cuisine, it could also be seen as nothing but a culinary demonstration of the British capacity ‘for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetising and inedible forms’, as the author Lizzie Collingham observed in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
In view of the fact that India is approximately the size of Europe and is just as geographically varied, the fact that we remain ignorant about so much of their food seems like a colossal waste.
Thankfully however, there seems to be a change in the air. After years of being heralded as the nation’s favourite, the tikka masala was replaced by the jalfrezi in the hearts of British people in a 2011 poll. Glossing over the small and insignificant detail that the jalfrezi may have also been created by a Brit, shunning the overly sweet and creamy curries in favour of a dish packed with fresh chillies and an authentic kick of spice is certainly a step in the right direction.
As further testament to the idea that Britons’ taste buds are evolving and we are becoming more adventurous, the same poll found that the second most popular curry was the madras, another hot dish containing large amounts of chilli. The once-beloved tikka masala only made it into eighth place, and the mild, creamy korma only received two percent of the vote.
The fact that we are becoming more exploratory with Indian food has had a real impact on the dining scene in Britain. London favourite Tayyabs was recently named as one of the capital’s best restaurant in a ‘Tastes of London’ shortlist, further reinforcing the notion that curry has become as synonymous with British cuisine as fish and chips or pie and mash.
Since the initial ‘curry revolution’ of the 1960s, Indian food in Britain is turning another corner. After years of being happy with a tikka masala, a bhajik, and a pint, it seems that British consumers are finally ready to try something new.