Food for thought

How the curry came to London (and why after the UK election, it may never taste the same again)

By the 19th century, Victorian cookbooks were trying to assimilate the curry into British palates.

On November 28, 1846, an anonymous poem was published in Punch Magazine, titled “Kitchen Melodies – Curry”. Later, it was revealed in a collected edition of the author’s ballads and humorous writings, that the work belonged to William Makepeace Thackeray, writer of the famous The Vanity Fair.

Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares
And chops it nicely into little squares
Five onions next prepares the little minx
The biggest are the best her Samiwel thinks
And Epping butter, nearly half a pound
And stews them in a pan until they’re brown’d
What’s next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savory stew
With curry powder, tablespoonsfulls three
And milk a pint (the richest that may be)
And when the dish has stewed for half an hour
A lemon’s ready juice she’ll o’er it pour
Then, bless her, then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boil—and serves quite hot
PS beef, mutton rabbit, if you wish
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish
Are fit to make A CURRY. ’Tis when done
A dish for emperors to feed upon.

The curry industry employs over 100,000 people in Britain, and adds nearly £4 billion to the British economy, annually. The curry never went out of fashion in Britain, but that is no reason why it should not be exhumed – earlier this March, an antique chicken curry recipe was discovered in the tucked away records of a Benedictine monastery at Downside Abbey, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset.

Apparently, the recipe dates back to 1793. Instead of cooking chicken, the monks had been using it to cook “calves head turtle fashion” and “fricassee of pigs feet and ears.” It has been speculated that this might be the oldest existing curry recipe in the world.

Pioneer of the curry

Today, the name of Sake Dean Mahomet is well known. In recent years, the United Kingdom has commemorated him as the first Indian restaurateur and pioneer of the curry in Britain. He opened London’s, and possibly Britain’s, first Indian-owned restaurant, the Hindostanee Coffee House, in 1809-10, which along with the likes of Norris Street Coffee House, Jerusalem Coffee House and Oriental Café, served the returning or retiring Anglo-Indians a taste of the Raj, in central London, during the Regency.

Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851), portrait from Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove/ Wikipedia Public Domain
Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851), portrait from Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove/ Wikipedia Public Domain

Ironically, the first restaurant in London to serve curries was built over 50 years before even the first London fish-and-chips shop – which was opened in London’s east end, by Joseph Mailin, a Jewish immigrant, in 1860. Dean Mahoment went on to acquire such popularity that today, the Life in the UK test (to be passed as a qualification for British citizenship) requires its aspirants to know “the year Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, the year that Sake Dean Mahomed launched the first curry house in the country, and the age of Big Ben,” in the same breath.

Mahomet’s culinary success was short-lived, but he had already induced a taste of the curry in the palates of the early nabobs. However, the socio-historical context in which Mahomet flourished – later as an Anglo-Indian shampoo-entrepreneur – awaits many a raconteur. In one of the many possible dramatic retellings of the era of imperial hybridity, Mahomet may feature as a middle-act between two imperial giants – grandfather and grandson – one in the field of commerce and another in literature. Enter the William Makepeace Thackerays.

The elephant hunter of Sylhet

Early 19th century London society was a foreword to the history of Anglo-Indian culture in the city. Places such as Mayfair and Marylebone came to be known as Little Bengal. With the conquest of Indian foods such as the curry over early Victorian tastes, orientalists chose to transport the comforts of the Raj to the heart of London.

One of the better known nabobs who returned to Britain in the late 18th century was William Makepeace Thackeray, the grandfather of the Victorian author. He made his fortune trading elephants from the Sylhet district, in Bengal – transporting them from Calcutta’s Chowringhee to Westminster, in London. Sylhet’s virgin mineral resources offered him the perfect opportunity to quietly plunder the wildlife of the area, eventually earning him the sobriquet, “the elephant-hunter of Sylhet.” In a description from the Correspondences of William Ritchie (1920), Thackeray was collector of revenue, a maker of roads and builder of bridges, a shikari or hunter, a magistrate, judge, policeman and doctor in one.” The trading of elephants was added to his resume upon an occasion in the 1760s, when only sixteen elephants out of sixty-six survived – among the ones that were supposed to be marched out of India by the East India Company. Thackeray pursued the matter earnestly at the judicial tribunal. He went on to sue the Company in the Supreme Court of Bengal – a case that he won and claimed damages and decree of £3,700 – approximately £.7 million in today’s currency.

Daguerreotype photograph of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819-1875)/ Wikipedia Public Domain
Daguerreotype photograph of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819-1875)/ Wikipedia Public Domain

In 1776, he married Amelia Webb, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond Webb. For the nine and half years that he was posted at Sylhet, Thackeray lost no opportunity to mint ivory into sterling. He left with so much wealth that there was no need for employment for three generations to come.

Culture curry

Victorian London was a cesspool of Oriental exhibits, from porcelain hookahs, Turkish kaleens, hunted tigers and tiger skins to cashmere shawls and many counterfeit arteifacts from the British Empire. Around the time of the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, London was not just stocking the works of industries from around the globe, it was also consuming culinary aspects of the world – with the curry as the uncrowned monarch among these.

In the grandson Thackeray’s satirical book from 1848, Vanity Fair, one of the major characters Jos Sedley is an imitation of the grandfather – in whose time the curry-mania appears to have struck roots. Sedley, a civil servant who returns from Uttar Pradesh, is pursued romantically by Becky Sharp. To seduce him, she pretends to be fascinated by all things Indian, and tries to consume a hot curry cooked by Sedley’s mother.

Even around the time of Mahomet, the average Englishwoman was not comfortable or acquainted with the over-seasoned flavors of the Raj. Naturally, Becky Sharp has a hard time reconciling to Sedley’s palate. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain saw a flurry of Victorian cookbooks that tried to assimilate the curry into the familiar realms of British culture. Alexis Soyer, Victorian London’s celebrity chef, laments in his book, The Modern Housewife, or Menagere (1849), the steep rates of curry powder “as it is one of those stimulating condiments which would be invaluable to the poor.”

Earlier, Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) dedicated a whole chapter to the Indian curry. It was a time when Britain was dramatically rewriting its place in the world. The inanest recipe of the curry embodied a miscellany of political issues concerning India. Acton’s emphasis on the freshness of the curry powder and detailed insights into Indian recipes turned cooking into a political act. While colonial administration was always a masculine domain, the Englishwoman’s cooking was very much apart of the Victorian value system that imperialism tried to foster. Acton wrote “[t]he natives of the East compound and vary this class of dishes, we are told, with infinite ingenuity.”

To be able to replicate the flavours of the east was therefore an imperial triumph for the British cooks in London. Susan Zlotnick, in her study of the curry textbooks of the nineteenth century, also sees dining as an index of cultural difference – or how Victorian Britain marked itself as distinct by incorporating the cultural force of the racially impure native.

The irony of UK’s latest culinary excavation lies in its timing. Today, as Britain stands on the brink of election – with the Conservative Government led by Theresa May promising immigrations cuts, and doubled immigrant labour tax – more than a thousand curry houses have already shut down since last year – 600 of them since Brexit. South Asian curryhouse owners in London believe that the Brexit ministers have misled them over immigration policies.

It is one thing to have inspired the ire of the grandson Thackeray, in the 19th century. It is quite another to be the reason for a new source of unemployment in post-Brexit Britain. Jeremy Corbyn is not on record saying anything about saving the toast of the Georgian nabobs. But is he the only hope of preserving this little known legacy of the Thackerays? That is if he can avoid losing to the modern day Becky Sharp, averse to the taste of the multicultural curry.

The recipe for
The recipe for "currey" from the 1747 book by Hannah Glasse (1758 edition, mentioning ginger and turmeric
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