Much like the country itself, Indian cuisine is a fascinating melting pot of ethnic influences. From the days of colonial rule when British settlers first sampled the local specialities to the present day where you can find Indian restaurants and curry houses on every street corner, it’s no surprise this diverse range of dishes and exotic flavours has worked its way into the hearts of the British nation. But did you know that the British influenced Indian culinary culture too?
By the mid-18th century, the East India Company was firmly set up in India and Britain had established a trade monopoly with thousands of settlers living in different regions of the subcontinent, acclimatising to a variety of new tastes. Chutneys, curries, rice and Indian breads were introduced to the British and sent across the ocean to become big hits back home. Victorian England went crazy for curry houses and in 1861, curry shot to the top of the ‘most fashionable’ lists when Isabella Beeton published a recipe for curry powder in her ‘Book of Household Management’. It’s hardly surprising that curry became so popular in Britain – an aromatic dish of warming, exotic spices is the ideal antidote to the chilly weather. Also, it was an excellent way of turning roast dinner leftovers into a tempting new meal.
But the colonies brought some interesting changes to Indian cuisine too. The British brought their beloved beer with them but needed to add more hops to ensure it would not spoil on the long sea voyages. This natural preservation actually gave the beer a unique taste and led to the refreshing, modern day Indian Pale Ales.
The British also invented the classic gin and tonic in India. Initially this long, cool drink was an important medicinal beverage due to the anti-malarial qualities of quinine (now a key ingredient in tonic). This bitter syrup was mixed in with gin, lime and sugar in order to protect British officers from the deadly disease whilst disguising the taste.
Whisky was another beverage the British introduced as well as tea – now an important part of the Indian menu. The British also brought ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and licorice to Indian shores – spices integral to Indian cooking to this day.
Curries became watered down with spice potency controlled through creamy yoghurt and coconut and other Anglo-Indian foods developed such as English pork chops marinated in Indian chillies and spice. Soups and salads became accepted into Indian cuisine and it is thought that mulligatawny was dreamed up by Indian cooks for British officers that had a taste for Tamil stews.
By the time the British vacated, each Indian state had felt the influence on not only their cuisine but on certain eating habits. Dining at a table instead of the floor and using crockery instead of traditional banana leaves are just some of the ways that British culture affected Indian life in both the kitchen and the home.
A visit to one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants provides the ideal opportunity to taste a selection of contemporary food, rooted in traditional Indian cuisine but incorporating a host of exciting influences and tastes.