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A Brief History Of Curry in England: A Dish Fit For A Queen

Posted:
15 September 2016
Posted By:
Sam Bilton
Categories:
Historical How Tos
Gaeng Hang Lay curry pork - close from Alpha via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Curry was almost as popular in the Victorian era as it is today thanks to Queen Victoria’s penchant for this spicy dish. Food blogger Sam Bilton investigates the origins of this classic Indian dish.

Britain has had a foothold in India since 1600 thanks to the East India Company. Long term British residents in India became known as Anglo-Indians. As stories of the exotic food eaten by the Anglo-Indians filtered back home so the interest in Eastern culture grew, particularly during the 19th century.

One Is Very Amused

Indian cookery was given a boost when Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1877. Although she never visited the country herself, she was fascinated by it and was particularly fond of a good curry. Fortunately, she had been given two Indian servants in 1887 who were able to cook her favourite dishes for her, like the one below. Victoria became very attached to one of these servants, Abdul Karim, who taught her how to write and speak a little Hindustani.

'To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb The Indian Way' Extract of a 17th century Receipt-Book (c.1675) - Wellcome Library MS4050/7 (by-nc 2.0)

To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb The Indian Way’. Extract of a 17th century Receipt-Book (c.1675) – Wellcome Library MS4050/7 (by-nc 2.0)

The queen’s enthusiasm for India can be seen at Osborne House, where she displayed Indian furnishings, paintings and objects in a designated wing. Her servants would don elaborate costumes to serve the curries in the lavish surroundings of the Durbar Room. Victoria herself was not averse to dressing like a bejewelled maharani during these dinners to add to the spectacle.

What’s Good for the Queen…

The general populace naturally wanted to emulate their sovereign. As a result a plethora of ‘Indian’ style cookbooks appeared during the latter part of the 19th century, such as Anglo-Indian Cookery at Home by Henrietta Hervey (1895).

Popular cookery writers like Eliza Acton also included chapters on curries in their books. These manuals were chiefly aimed at the middle classes who wanted to replicate the food eaten by the higher echelons of society, including royalty. However, in Modern Cookery for Private Families, Acton observes how hard it is to make an authentic curry:

“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 of 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.”

Fortunately, there were some enterprising individuals like Edmund White who produced Selim’s curry powders for use in the home. These were particularly popular in middle class households who saw curries as an ingenious way to use up cold meats.

The Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight

The Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight

Unfortunately, these pastes and powders bore little resemblance to the dishes they sought to replicate from India. The end result was further marred by the use of other alternative ingredients such as wheat flour to thicken the sauce; apples in place of mangoes; lemon juice for tamarind and a liberal sprinkling of sultanas for the sheer hell of it.

Britain’s Most Popular Dish

Curry would remain the preserve of the upper and middle classes well into the 20th century. It was only after the Second World War when immigration from India to this country increased that more people became exposed to this cuisine. Over the decades our love for this unique blend of Anglo-Indian food has grown, and now it’s almost impossible to think of British food without mentioning the word curry.

 

Recipe for Mutton Cutlets Favoured by Queen Victoria, c.1860

Ingredients

  • 6oz cold roast mutton
  • 3oz sieved breadcrumbs
  • 1 salt spoon salt
  • Coralline (red) pepper to taste
  • 2oz minced mushrooms
  • 1oz truffles
  • ½ tsp curry powder
  • 1½oz butter
  • 1½oz flour
  • ½ pint rich beef stock

Method

Weigh the mutton without skin or bone. Mince finely. Place in a basin. Add crumbs, salt, Coralline pepper and mushrooms. Dice truffles and add. Stir in curry powder. Melt butter in a shallow saucepan. Add flour. When blended, stir in stock. Stir till smooth and boiling, then add the mixed ingredients. Stir till blended. Turn onto a buttered plate. Chill. Divide in eight equal portions. Shape into cutlets. Egg and crumb. Fry in hot fat until golden brown – about five minutes. Slip a stalk of macaroni about 1½ inches long, into each. Dish up in a circle. Fill centre with fried parsley sprigs.

From Court Favourites Recipes by Elizabeth Craig (1953)

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  1. The end result was further marred by the use of other alternative ingredients such as wheat flour to thicken the sauce; apples in place of mangoes; lemon juice for tamarind and a liberal sprinkling of sultanas for the sheer hell of it.

    Oh yes, like my grandmother made for us back in the sixties, with a liberal dollop of curry powder at the last minute that still tasted raw and uncooked when she dished up. In her case she didn’t have any excuse because my grandfather served with the army in india in the 1930s – you’d think she’d picked up some hints about the food and how to cook it. I didn’t taste a proper curry until I was well into my 20’s