Today was a day I look forward to; I had lunch with a British friend of mine at an Indian restaurant close to the UNLV campus. For me, India Palace and the food it serves are like a little culinary piece of home. You see, for as long as I can remember, Indian food restaurants and take-out establishments have been ubiquitous in the U.K. There is one on almost every corner, of every High Street, of every town in the U.K. In the year 2000, there were found to be eight thousand Indian restaurants in the country; today there are more than twelve thousand.
India Palace Restaurant in Las Vegas (my own image)
This site explains more about the history of Indian food in Britain. However, the short version goes a little something like this: India was under British rule until about half a century ago. This resulted in British military personnel working closely with Indian civilians. In 1782 a Bengali surgeon from the British East India Company named Sake Dean Mohamed followed his army captain to England and opened the first Indian restaurant in England. It was called the Hindoostane Coffee House and was located in George Street, in central London. The venture failed financially but it whet Londoners’ appetites for curry and paved the way for the next successful venture; the Veeraswamy which was opened in 1926 by an Anglo-Indian named Edward Palmer, the son of an English soldier and an Indian Princess. Located in Regent Street, central London -it is the oldest, surviving Indian restaurant in the U.K.
Veeraswamy Indian Restaurant – The oldest in London
After the Second World War, Indians and Bangladeshi’s arrived to help rebuild London and they brought with them their cuisine. Initially it was mainly canteens and cafes, which were established to feed the migrant workers and their families. The years of war time food rationing and the blandness of traditional British food prompted the Brits to discover the spicy and colorful dishes, and the rest is history. Now there are more Indian restaurants in London, than there are in Mumbai or Delhi! Interestingly, the majority of U.K. run Indian restaurants are run by Bangladeshi people (Bangladesh is a small country to that borders India to the west). Although very similar, Bangladeshi dishes use less spice than Indian dishes and also make use of beef and coconut milk more. Although they are eaten in India too, biryani (a type of fried rice) and chapatti (a type of flat bread, like a naan) are popular Bangladeshi dishes.
If you have not tried Indian food, you are missing out. Contrary to most perceptions, Indian food is not outrageously hot and spicy. I think everyone remembers the scene from the movie Along came Polly where Jennifer Aniston has Ben Stiller try spicy food for the first time with disastrous consequences. In reality, Indian food can be ordered in differing levels of spice and the flavors are rich, complex and vibrant.
Over the years, Indian food has evolved to suit the English palate. The most popular dish, chicken tikka masala, is actually a hybrid of Indian chicken tikka mixed with a midly-spiced British tomato soup-like sauce. The origins of the dish are unclear but according to Wikipedia:
One claim recounts how a chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam (proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in the west end of Glasgow), invented chicken tikka masala by improvising a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices. His son Asif Ali told the story of its 1971 invention to the BBC’s Hairy Bikers TV cookery programme:
“On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter saying it’s dry. At the time Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu.”
Chicken Tikka Masala – the most popular dish in Britain!
If you are new to Indian food, an excellent non-spicy dish to start with along with tikka masala is Chicken Korma. It is mild and creamy and made with yogurt and spices. Here is a link to my good friend (and fellow Brit) Peter Forke’s recipe:
Another Indian food blog I like is: http://www.indiansimmer.com/
I hope you enjoy taste-testing the culinary delights of India!