-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

old English >

the classic British curry

curry and rice

      Did the British invent curry? No. Is there such a thing as a British curry? Yes.

When I say "British curry" I don't mean something like Chicken Tikka Masala which is a restaurant invention created by British Asian restaurateurs to satisfy the British taste for curries. What I'm talking about goes way further back than the 1970s when Chicken Tikka Masala was first concocted. I am talking about the sort of curry which was served by British memsahibs in colonial India in the 19th century and which subsequently became as British as roast beef.

So let's look at the dish that fuelled an empire.

Firstly let me explain why I am describing the curry as British rather than just English. The British Empire was exactly that, British. The Scots in particular played an important part in shaping the empire and many Scots saw service in India. It was the British as a whole who adopted the curry as their own not just the English.

When the British first established trading posts in India in the mid 17th century they were simply trading partners. The food eaten by the employees of the East India Company would have been largely the same as the food eaten by the local Indian population. And there appears to have been plenty of choice; one East India Company employee wrote in 1759 "The currees are infinitely various". By the time the British had become the colonial rulers of India in the mid 1800's there had been a huge influx of British nationals into India to administer British affairs. The British colonials were by now eating predominantly British-style food although they found that they had to adapt to local conditions and use local produce. Numerous books were written to help newly arrived young British wives advising them how and what to cook and how to manage a household in India.

My favourite author of the time was a cavalry officer named Colonel Arthur Kenney-Herbert who, on his eventual return to England, became a "celebrity chef" of his day. While he was in India he wrote a best selling cookery book under the pseudonym Wyvern entitled Culinary Jottings For Madras first published in 1878. In his introduction Wyvern explains "Our dinners of to-day would indeed astonish our Anglo-Indian forefathers". He continues "Quality has superseded quantity, and the molten curries and florid oriental compositions of the olden time - so fearfully and wonderfully made - have been gradually banished from our dinner tables."

Wyvern's book is mainly concerned with how to cook British and European dishes under Indian conditions but, even so, there is an enlightening chapter entitled Our Curries. He did not write this chapter to describe local Indian dishes nor to give recipes for those "molten curries" of earlier generations of British colonials who had "gone native" in their eating habits. No, he is writing about the Anglicised curries of the Raj and they are ours. They are British curries. The Indian staff of British households may have cooked them but I don't expect they eat them any more than the Bangladeshi staff at your local curry house eat the Chicken Tikka Masala off the menu. Wyvern's curries from Madras are made with a home-made curry powder, onions and garlic cooked in butter, a sweet-sour agent (his favourite was redcurrant jelly), coconut milk and meat stock. He uses additional aromatic spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamoms and flavourings like fresh ginger and herbs to give each curry an individual flavour. Wyvern considers his curries to be on a par with the best British and French food. But he was an old India hand and laments the trend where "curries now-a-days are only licensed to be eaten at breakfast, at luncheon, and perhaps at the little home dinner". By the time Wyvern was writing a memsahib wouldn't dream of serving curry at a dinner party.

Curry recipes were commonly taken home by returning colonials but in Britain the fresh ingredients were either hard to find or were too expensive for ordinary households in Britain. Eliza Acton wrote in 1845 "The great superiority of the oriental curries over those generally prepared in England is not, we believe, altogether the result of a want of skill or experience on the part of our cooks, but is attributable in some measure to many of the ingredients, which in a fresh and green state add so much to their excellence, being here beyond our reach". The lack of fresh curry ingredients fuelled a huge demand for curry powder and a lucrative export industry built up centred around Madras (now Chennai). Mrs Beeton includes the recipes for a dozen curries in her famous Book of Household Management of 1861 and the sauces are all made with curry powder, thickened with flour and can include some chopped apple for a sweet-sour flavour. Her main ingredient is often re-heated meat or fish left over from other meals. Even though Mrs Beeton's curries would all taste much the same they were economical to make and became extremely popular in Britain as away of using up meat from the traditional Sunday roast dinner. This type of recipe became the Classic British Curry for the next 100 years.

The decline in popularity of the traditional roast dinner and the relative affluence of a society that doesn't need to make the most of leftovers has meant that the Classic British Curry has steadily fallen out of favour since the early 1970's. So does that mean that the British love affair with curry has ended? Not a bit of it. We eat more curries than ever before. It's just their style that has changed. Curries are now made in the style of the Indian restaurants which spread throughout Britain in the 1970's and 80's. In any British supermarket you can buy a great variety of ready made curries or jars of curry sauce to add to the fresh meat or vegetables of your choice. Curiously, Chicken Madras is still one of the best selling curries but it's gone back to being more like Wyvern's version rather than Mrs Beeton's.

recipe for Classic British Curry