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).