Bengali, Sake Dean Mahomed, opened Britain’s first Indian Restaurant Hindoostane Coffee House in London in 1810. It may have failed but Britain has since enjoyed a long and passionate love affair with the tastes of India.
In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared Chicken Tikka Masala to be “a true British national dish.” Chicken Tikka Masala, the creamier and saucier sibling to India’s much-loved Butter Chicken, is a British/Indian hybrid dish and a testament to the impact Indian food has had on British culture.
There’s no secret to the fact that Brits love Indian food. The curry has become as well-loved (quite possibly even more so) as the nation’s famous fish and chips. Indian food is not just food. It’s become a social tool, a bonding experience, a reward for a long week at work and the perfect accompaniment to a nice cold beer on a Friday night in front of the TV or on a Sunday afternoon down the local pub.
Walk down any high street in Britain and there’s every chance you’ll have at least two Indian restaurants to choose from. Whilst most are an amalgamation of dishes from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the ‘exotic’ flavours and tastes of India have surely captured the hearts of the British nation. So much so that Britain now has it’s own culture of Indian-inspired dishes.
In addition to the Chicken Tikka Masala, the Vindaloo, Jalfrezi, Korma and Balti are household names when it comes to favourite Indian curries in Britain. The names and recipes of popular Indian dishes have undergone transformations to suit local tastes in Britain and some, like the ones mentioned, are considered almost unrecognizable to the native Indian palette.
The word ‘curry’ itself is even said to have been coined by the British in India, having no direct translation into any of the sub-continent’s many languages.
Britain has over 9,000 Indian restaurants and fascinatingly, London itself reportedly has more Indian restaurants than Mumbai or Delhi! As to the origins of Indian food in Britain, It is widely thought that Britain’s first Indian restaurants were started by Bangladeshi immigrants in the 1960s and 70s. The nation’s love affair with Indian cuisine, however, started long before that.
Reportedly, the first appearance of curry on a menu dates back to 1773 at the Norris Street Coffee House, Haymarket, London. During the following decade, curry and rice had become house specialities in some fashionable restaurants in London’s Piccadilly.
The first dedicated Indian restaurant, Hindoostane Coffee House, was not opened until 1810 and it was by a Bengali, Sake Dean Mahomed.
Sake Dean Mahomed was born Sheikh Din Muhammad in 1759 in Bihar (then part of the Bengal Presidency). When his father died he entered the East India Company Army in 1769 at the tender age of 11. He was taken under the wing of a Captain Godfrey Baker and quickly rose to the ranks of a captain himself. After sometime, Sake Dean Mahomed left India and in the company of Captain Godfrey Baker he travelled to Ireland. Here he married Jane Daly, the daughter of a wealthy Irish man, and wrote The Travels of Dean Mahomed, which is said to be the first English language book published by an Indian.
Sake Dean Mahomed and his wife Jane moved to the fashionable area of Portman Square, London, popular amongst colonial returnees and wealthy former employees of the East India Company.
Aiming to serve ‘Indianised British food’ in smart surroundings, he opened Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810 offering the gentry of Georgian England their first taste of spicy dishes in their homeland.
A rather eloquently put advertisement appeared in The Morning Post on February 2, 1810 stating the following:
“Sake Dean Mahomed, manufacturer of the real currie powder, takes the earliest opportunity to inform the nobility and gentry, that he has, under the patronage of the first men of quality who have resided in India, established at his house, 34 George Street, Portman Square, the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club.
Apartments are fitted up for their entertainment in the Eastern style, where dinners, composed of genuine Hindoostane dishes, are served up at the shortest notice… Such ladies and gentlemen as may desirous of having India Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to by giving previous notice…”
Britain’s first Indian restaurant was to be short-lived, however. After only a year of being open, Mahomed was forced to sell the restaurant due to financial losses. Shortly after, he was declared bankrupt. Mohamed started advertising his services as a butler and valet to wealthy gentlemen before meeting his end in 1850.
Due to the failure of HCH, nobody dared to open another Indian restaurant. Then along came Queen Victoria. It’s a much-renowned theory that Queen Victoria made curry cool again. The queen was fascinated with India despite never visiting the country herself. She learnt both Hindi and Urdu and even had one of the wings at Osborne House decorated by a famous Punjabi architect.
Queen Victoria was known to have many Indian staff and curry was a regular feature on the queen’s dining table.
It was around this time that Indian food really began to take off in Britain.
The Veeraswamy, located in a prime London location, Regent Street, was opened in 1926. By 1939 there were six dedicated Indian restaurants in Britain. The post-WW2 influx of Indian migrants saw a growth of cafes and restaurants to meet this new demand. The exotic spices and the comparably low cost added to its appeal amongst Britons who welcomed it as something new and exciting after the war’s rationing.
By 1960 there were more than 500 Indian restaurants in Britain and this number had more than doubled by the beginning of the 1970s. The Veeraswamy is still open to this day, giving it its title as the UK’s oldest Indian restaurant.
In 2005, the City of Westminster unveiled a green plaque on 102 George Street, the original site of Hindoostane Coffee House, commemorating this lesser-known pioneer of Indian food.
For Georgian Britain, it seemed that Mahomed was too ahead of his time but for today’s Britain he would have been a national treasure.