In the early days of the curry house

Around the time that the Guardian published Bee Wilson’s article Who Killed the Curry House, it also republished an article from 1957, Rising popularity of Indian restaurants in Britain. At that time, Indian food was still a novelty in the UK. The article is an interesting read, positioning curry as a new thing to the British while noting a very well-informed audience for the cuisine.

When you have missed the homeward bus… a Northern city can be an inhospitable place. Once there was nothing to do and nowhere to go: now there are Indian restaurants. In the middle of every night, Sunday or weekday, when the cafes and steak houses are shut and their waiters asleep, egg pilao and Madras chicken curry, Bhuna Gosht, Kofta, Jelabi, and Poppadum are coming to birth, filling and astonishing the mouths of those who always miss buses, all over Britain.

There were estimated to be a hundred Indian restaurants in London at that time, a dozen in Manchester, with more spreading over the country, including “towns as unlikely as Northampton“. A brief history is given, with Veeraswamy mentioned, as well as the Koh-i-noor, which opened in 1929. Indian restaurants from that period sound like strange places:

In those days the clientele was limited mostly to the homesick prince, or the lover of the exotic: at one time or another most of the Indian rulers called and fed, with their retinues. Running up accounts with these private armies of secretaries and musicians and doctors was a nervous business, for occasions arose when master and retinue would refuse to pay, both arguing that it was the other’s responsibility. At such moments the proprietor of the Koh-i-Noor would call upon the services of a solicitor in full morning dress, with silk hat.

Many of the 1957 customers were discerning: “The proprietors are at once troubled and delighted by a class of gourmets who raise an instant fuss if they are given Italian rice instead of Siamese first quality, who know and are angry if the spices have been added a minute too late in the frying stage.” It seems that many people had developed a taste for Indian food during the war.

The first person to open an Indian restaurant, Sake Dean Mahomed, is buried in Brighton. However, he had given up on catering before he moved down here, making his fortune by running a bathhouse. However, curry in Brighton was well established by the time the article above was written. According to Rose Collis’s New Encyclopedia of Brighton, the first Indian restaurant to open here was the Taj Mahal in 1948 in Ship Street. (She also notes the Agra Balti House, the ‘first authentic Balti house in Sussex’, opening in 1993).

Theresa May’s “Curry Curse”

Last week, at the Brighton Fringe, I went to see Chris Parkinson‘s new poetry show Unpopular Culture. Chris also appeared as the support act, with his talk on the Eating Habits of Politicians. It’s a great piece, featuring Thatcher’s obsession with eggs, how to eat a hotdog, and that bacon sandwich (which apparently gets several pages in Labour’s internal report on the 2015 election).

One thing I’d not heard about was the story of Teresa May’s local curry houses. Many Indian restaurants have ongoing problems with staffing and are restricted from hiring overseas experts because of Britain’s immigration laws.  This has become particularly controversial after last year’s Brexit campaign. One group of restaurateurs supported leave, partly in the hope of allowing more non-EU immigration. Pasha Kandaker, head of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, was reported as saying “My organisation supported Brexit for several reasons but the main reason was to bring people from abroad to help our industry to survive.”

Theresa May’s announcements after the referendum were the cause of much of this disappointment. But this is not the first time that Theresa May has been involved in curry-related controversy. Prior to being Prime Minister, from 2010 to 2016, May served as Home Secretary. She promised to bring net migration below 100,000 but despite this, migration continued to rise.

In May 2011, Theresa May opened a the Innovation Indian restaurant in her Maidenhead constituency. In March 2012, it was raided by immigration officers from the UK Borders Agency, part of the home office. Five suspected illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were detained. Innovation now appears to be closed and the website is down.

A report in the Daily Mirror goes on to say that eighteen months earlier “her ­favourite tandoori restaurant Malik’s in Cookham, near ­Maidenhead – where she signed the guestbook and was also pictured on their website – was raided and two suspected illegal workers caught. But the owner was not aware of their status.”

The Malik’s owners obviously bear no ill-will to May for what happened. She is still featured on the restaurant’s website of  as part of a gallery of stars who have eaten there – although she appears far below 80’s children’s TV stay Timmy Mallet.

The Perfect Vindaloo?

Wanting to make the perfect vindaloo might seem like a strange ambition.

It originates from my lack of confidence about food. I’ve eaten almost every day of my life, but I still somehow feel like I’m getting it wrong. I don’t know how I made it through university, as I struggled to make those first few dishes and resorted to things in tins. Somehow I’ve kept myself alive, but I’ve never felt good at feeding myself – despite doing it for many years.

Some food is genuinely like sorcery. When I read about places like Fäviken or the Fat Duck, I’m in awe of what they do with food. But even some simple dishes feel like they are out of my league. I can’t bake at all – even packets of pre-prepared pizza dough fail to solidify for me. And, for many years, curry felt like it was beyond my competence. It’s become my favourite food as I’ve grown older, but it always felt like a mystery, the blending of mundane ingredients into something magical.

Food shouldn’t feel like that much of an achievement. Cooking is one of those skills – like keeping a budget, driving or having a haircut – that most adults just seem able to do. Yet I’d never felt competent. And elsewhere, my life seemed to drag in so many other ways, as I lurched between hangovers, between jobs that never seemed to go anywhere. I never seemed to focus on anything (god knows, I’ve been distracted from this blog often enough). I’d imagined my life as something that would have felt bigger by now. This inability to cook seemed emblematic of all my other failures. Food still felt like magic, and by now I should have been good at that. I’m not as bad a cook as I used to be; but I’m also not as good as I could be (or should be, considering how often I invite people to eat at my flat). The horror at the first meals I cooked remains, just like the shame I feel as all the stupid things that I have done.

There’s an old saying that the way you do anything is the way you do everything. Most people interpret this as being about maintaining focus and attention in even the smallest act, seeing that as carrying through to the more important things. There’s another way to interpret it at the same time – that if we can do one thing perfectly, what we learn will influence all of the other things that we do.

So why not get good at making a curry? Get to the point where I can make an amazing vindaloo. Sure, it won’t change my life, but it’s a journey that can take me some interesting places. It’s not as if I am trying to meet 100 people with my name, or carry a domestic appliance round a small country. The things one learns about curry connect to other things: it’s about food & people & travel & life. But it’s also just a simple dish of curry.

Aleister Crowley described magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Which, loosely, also defines the act of cooking. It’s a form of alchemy, taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a dish. If you can do one bit of magick, well, you can do others. It’s getting one thing right, and knowing I can do that. And even if I don’t make a vindaloo that can change my world, I’ll still be able to make a pretty impressive curry.

The Naming of Curry Houses

I’ve always enjoyed The Raj Pavilion in Brighton. It’s your regular British-Indian restaurant and a curry-loving friend lived close by. I was recently hiking with this same friend in Kent, and we found ourselves at a different restaurant called the Raj Pavilion. While both restaurants included the many of the same dishes on the menu, they had few other connections – including the recipes used for the dishes.

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One of the fascinating things about British curry houses (which is also true of Chinese food) is that nobody has ever established a large chain. In fact, the largest curry restaurant in the UK is Wetherspoons, whose Wednesday Curry Club serves more Indian meals than any other organisation. Despite this, there are many similarities between different restaurants. After the second world war, many people worked for the Bahadur brothers and were then encouraged to open their own restaurants. This led to places serving the same dishes across the UK. Another things that recurs are the names.

The first curry restaurant in the UK was the Hindoostanee Coffee House, opened by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1810. In the early 20th century restaurants such as Salut e Hind and The Shafi were opened. Veeraswamy, the oldest surviving Indian restaurant, was opened in 1926 and given the owner’s family name – Edward Palmer had an Indian Princess for a grandmother. Bir Bahadur opened the Kohinoor in London. A series of other Bahadur restaurants followed, including Taj Mahals in Brighton, Northampton and Oxford, and Kohinoors in Cambridge and Manchester.

In her recent article Who Killed the British Curry House, Bee Wilson talked about the changing fashion in curry house names:

You can judge the age of a British curry restaurant from its name. If you see one that is called Taj Mahal, Passage to India or Koh-i-Noor (after the famous Indian diamond), it probably dates back to the first wave of curry houses in the 1960s… The names of 1970s curry houses began to shrug off the colonial past and evoke, instead, a vague sense of eastern exoticism: Lily Tandoori, Aladdin, Sheba – glamorous names to counteract longstanding British prejudices that south Asian food was malodorous and unclean. By the 1980s, however, such orientalism had also begun to seem hackneyed, and new restaurants opening in that decade often named themselves after ingredients, a more subtle form of rebranding: Tamarind, Cumin, or Lasan (Hindi for garlic).

A 2014 survey took place of the most common restaurant names in the UK.  The top ten curry house names were:

  1. Saffron (54)
  2. Taj Mahal (48)
  3. Taste of India (48)
  4. Bengal Spice (40)
  5. Spice of India (40)
  6. Little India (30)
  7. Spice of Life (27)
  8. The Raj (26)
  9. Eastern Spice (23)
  10. Bombay Spice (21)

How many of these have you eaten at?

First shoots from the chilli plants

I planted twenty chilli seeds, following my friend Rosanna’s instructions, and so far only one has germinated. I’ve given up on the others and planted another batch in the hope that some others will join my successful seedling.

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I’ve not grown a plant from seed, except at school – cress on blotting paper in primary, a bean for GCSE. Watching the plant emerge from such has tiny seed has been thrilling. I am so excited that it’s a struggle not to give it a name, because that would be silly. And, while it’s a shame that the other plants haven’t appeared, this one success has given me a little confidence.

Repotting proved harder than expected, and I worried that I would injure the plant. It survived the move and is thriving. I love checking on it for new signs of progress, seeing the signs of each new sprouting leaf:

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I’m now well into onto the second stage of Rosanna’s instructions:

  1. When the shoots are an inch tall remove the clingfilm. Keep the compost most but not wet.
  2. When the seedlings are two inches tall, re-pot into a window box or 9” round pot. Water well and put somewhere nice and sunny. A south-facing windowsill is perfect.
  3. Keep the soil moist but not wet and feed once a week with Baby Bio or similar. Chillies also love tomato food if you have any.

I’ve bought some baby bio and a watering can (the latter from the pound shop’s Charlie Dimmock range, naturally) and will do my best to see this plant to adulthood. I’m going away for a week soon, so there will be strict instructions for my house-sitter. I’m starting to feel very affectionate about this plant. But I am not going to give it a name.

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Korma Vindaloo

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Post-hike curry with Katharine, Romi and Kaylee

I like to tease kormas. I’m not a fan – they’re too sweet for my liking, and seem a little bland to my palette. Consequently, I’d not had one for a long time.

I’ve recently been going hiking with my friends Romi and Katharine. We like to order a curry in the evenings, trying out  restaurants and takeaways along the route. Romi is as much of a fan of spice as I am, so we’ll order the hottest dishes on the menu.

On our most recent trip, the local curry house didn’t have many vegetable options, and wouldn’t make a vegetable vindaloo specially. So we asked for a vegetable madras, spiced up to vindaloo strength. They managed this and did a pretty good job. It had the fire of a vindaloo, but the taste of a madras.

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The next night, we decided to order curry again. This time, we decided to ask for something foolish. Could we have a vindaloo-strength Jalfrezi? Yes we could. Could we have a vindaloo-strength korma? Yes we could.

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The korma vindaloo tasted as ridiculous as you might expect. The creaminess was in conflict with the spice – but for a korma it was pretty good. Although I’m not sure the curry house should really have indulged our experiment.

An obscure Indian-inspired cuisine

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The street leading to Cochin synagogue

We’ve recently had some Israeli visitors at work. This has led to some discussions of kosher food and where to find it in Brighton. It turns out that this town has no kosher restaurants. Yesterday this led to a rambling conversations that ended up somewhere surprising.

One of our guests said that Hove was, at least, better than India for kosher food. We ended up talking about Jewish communities there. It turns out that most of the Jewish population of Cochin moved to Israel in the 1960s, and they have their own cuisine that fuses Indian and Jewish food. It’s quite an obscure type of cookery – the community is about 7000 strong, and there are no restaurants, apart from a private dining option – and only a couple of cookbooks.

Jewish people are said to have emigrated to India as early as early as the time of King Solomon, around 587 BCE; the earliest records date back to 70CE and synagogues are known to have been built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Other Jewish groups moved there in the fifteenth century in response to persecution in Europe. The community in Cochin avoided the horrors of the Goan inquisition, with Cochin being under Dutch control rather than Portuguese. Following Indian independence and the founding of Israel, most Jewish people left, although the synagogue in Cochin has a small but declining congregation.

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I’ve never been rained on as hard as we were in Cochin

One group that moved to Israel settled in the area of Mesilat Zion, near to where one of my colleagues lives. A short distance from Tel Aviv, the moshav (co-operative agricultural community) was founded in 1950 and later taken over by a community from Cochin. The current population here is about 1200 people.

A number of Cochini Jews also settled in Nevatim, which has recently switched from agriculture to promoting tourism. As part of this, Matamey Cochin is a group that hosts Cochini meals in their homes. An article in Tablet magazine ( Jews From Cochin Bring their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners) described the food:

“Our food isn’t like the Indian food you know,” explained Miriam Elias… “We use different spices. We stick to a few basic ones and don’t mix them up like the Indians do.” Not only does their cuisine differ from Indian food from other areas, it differs from Hindu cooking in Cochin, too. First of all, it is kosher and devoid of dairy products (the closest you get is coconut milk), and some dishes are strictly Jewish and don’t exist in the local Hindu menu at all. Many of the dishes serve a certain purpose and are aligned with holidays and specific dates. For instance, the Cochin papadam (which differs from the kind of papadum you get in Indian restaurants) is eaten before the Tisha B’Av fast and is served with various kinds of curry. “When we say ‘curry’ we mean something completely different than what you know as curry,” clarified Bat Zion Elias. “Curry for us isn’t a spice mixture or a hot dish. Our curries are a variety of cold salads made out of cooked vegetables, like tomatoes, onions, or eggplants, sort of like matbucha…”

The Cochini food includes a lot of coconut dishes, which is useful because this can substitue for milk in kosher dishes. There is also an interesting approach to cooking onions:

“…We brown large quantities of onions, and then cook vegetables or whatever it is we are cooking in the onion juice, instead of cooking in water. A lot of our dishes are cooked this way, and it gives them a very distinct and special flavor.”

There are only two books devoted to this type of cooking, along with recipes in a few other books. I’ve ordered a book called Spice and Kosher, a book on the cuisine of Cochin Jews. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this. Eti Gilad’s The Cochini Cuisine looks to have been privately printed and doesn’t turn up on Amazon. My copy of Spice and Kosher arrives tomorrow. I can’t wait to explore something of this new cuisine.

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Cochin’s fishing nets are one of its famous sights

Growing my own chillis

I’d been meaning to grow chillis from seed, but never got around to it. In the past I’ve been terrible at keeping plants and they always died. Some people have green fingers, I have black fingers. When my friend Rosanna offered seeds from her successful homegrown chilli plants, I had no excuses and said I’d take some.

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The tiny seeds (so crunchy) arrived wrapped in clingfilm. Looking at them it seemed amazing that anything would every grow from them.

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Rosanna sent me instructions via Facebook. The first few stages seemed simple enough:

  1. Take a chilli seed, plant it in shallow compost (about one to two inches deep – a takeaway container, an old margarine tub or yoghurt pot is ideal), at a depth of about a quarter of an inch.
  2. You don’t need any special sort of compost – anything will do.
  3. Plant one per yogurt pot or 2-3 per takeaway container. Plant twice as many as you think you’ll need: not all seeds will germinate.
  4. Water well so the soil is damp but not sopping wet. Cover the container with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm in semi-shade (i.e. out of direct sunlight) for a week or two until they sprout. Depending on the time of year this will take between one and four weeks.

I went out to buy compost and plant-pots. It turns out, you can get a lot of cheap gardening things from the pound shop, whose range is endorsed by gardening celebrity Charlie Dimmock. I put twenty seeds out, which is apparently a lot, then waited to see what would happen.

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Only one chilli plant has actually emerged from the soil since I planted them three weeks ago. The others have been sent to the airing cupboard to see if that encourages them to start sprouting. Even though my success rate so far is a mere 5%, that first plant feels like a victory.

The Fate of the British Curry House

I’m currently halfway through Bee Wilson’s excellent book, First Bite, which is about how we learn to eat, mixing historical research with personal stories. I was delighted when the Guardian published her article Who Killed the Great British Curry House.

The piece covers some of the same issues raised in the Vindaloo Stories show about the decline in curry house customers and skilled staff. These problems are now so severe that two or three curry houses are closing each week. Wilson quotes the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association warning that “as many as a third of Britain’s curry houses – around 4,000 in total – will close over the next couple of years.”

Staffing has been a problem for some time, with restaurant owner’s children leaving the business and immigration restrictions preventing trained chefs from overseas working in the UK. Initiatives such as the curry colleges have failed to have any impact. These ongoing problems have been made worse by the post-referendum economy, which is causing both rents and prices to rise. Wilson describes one owner who is making a loss on many meals, but nervous of putting the price up. For many people, curry is a cheap evening out. One chef, Kobir Ahmed, explains how “there were Cambridge curry houses that had not put up their prices in 20 years because they were scared of losing customers”.

Maybe the curry house is just not needed in the today’s Britain in the same way as it used to be. As Wilson points out, there are far more options for eating out than there were. I also think the curry house is suffering from a change in British socialising. More liberal  licensing laws mean that pubs are open later, so there is less drive to the post-pub curry. More pubs are now offering decent food too – indeed, Wetherspoon’s, with its Thursday Curry Club, is the country’s biggest curry chain.

For me, one of the great things about Indian restaurants in Britain is that you can find them everywhere. I’ve been hiking around the country with friends recently and, wherever we go, we can find a curry restaurant. Some have been dire (Stanford-Le-hope, I’m looking at you) others have been amazing. I love the little ways each one stands out from the British curry-house template.

One of my favourite moments in the article was when Wilson described “the soul food of the UK, the bowl of warmth that people turn to when sniffy, sloshed or merely peckish” Curry is a vital part of modern British food, and it’s sad to see it in decline.

PS – Another excellent article from Bee Wilson is It’s time to address the dirty underbelly of “clean eating”.

The Vindaloo Stories Performance

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Last week, on Wednesday 11th, I did the first performance of a show based on Vindaloo Stories. It was lots of fun to put on with a large audience turning out.

Promoting an event in January was hard work, but it was fun. I was interviewed by Melita at Radio Reverb  the night before, and Wednesday started early so that I could appear on Radio Sussex’s breakfast show.

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This was the first time I’ve done a show or event by myself, so I was delighted that it came out so well. Lots of people helped with it – Emily taught me about press releases; David Bramwell, Rosy Carrick and Rachel Blackman gave great feedback; Kaylee did a great job on the tech; and Robin was there on the night for reassurance. Ema at the Marlborough was also a great help throughout.

There should be recordings coming from the radio interviews. In the meantime there was a review posted by the Latest magazine. I also did an interview with Viva Brighton for this show and an upcoming talk on folklore at the Wellesbourne Society. Now to start looking at future venues for the show.

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