The UK is a real melting pot when it comes to food culture. Ultimately, however, no cuisine has stolen the heart of foodies across the nation quite like that of the Indian subcontinent.

Let’s face it, you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone who isn’t partial to a good curry here in the UK. But where did it all begin? Well, Britain’s love affair with Indian food is one that spans several centuries, with a complex and multi-faceted history that has gradually brought us to where we are today.

We thought it would be interesting to chart a brief history of Indian food in the UK, in order to better understand how it became one of the nation’s most loved cuisines.

Early beginnings

The history of Indian food in the United Kingdom can be traced back as early as the Crusades when the very first eastern spices were brought back to the British Isles in the rucksacks of soldiers returning from religious conflicts overseas.

These spices made their way into British kitchens, resulting in some of the earliest incarnations of Indian food in the UK, although these dishes would be far from what we would recognise today as a curry!

Ever since the 17th century, England’s presence in India was becoming increasingly robust as the British Empire gradually acquired direct rule of the subcontinent in the early 19th century as the British Raj. Through this period of sustained involvement in India, stories of Indian culture – and in particular the food – began to make their way back to the British Isles through immigrants and long-term residents, capturing the imaginations of the British people back home.

The first British cookbook to contain an Indian recipe was The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, authored by Hannah Glasse. The first edition of this publication, made available in 1747, contained three recipes of Indian pilau. In subsequent editions, recipes for rabbit curry and Indian pickle were included too.

Indian woman collecting red chillies

The gradual popularisation of the Indian restaurant

In the early 19th century, the very first restaurant to serve exclusively Indian food was opened in Mayfair, London. Sake Dean Mahomed, an ex trainee surgeon who had served in the East India Company’s army, opened The Hindostanee Coffee House in 1810, exposing a great number to their very first experience of traditional Indian food, which seemed a world apart from the oftentimes bland British dishes that people were typically familiar with.

Although interest in Indian food and Indian culture was strong at this point – particularly among those returning to England from the subcontinent – the ‘eating out’ culture in Britain was very different to what we are familiar with today. At this time, the upper classes tended to have their own residential cooks, meaning they were much more likely to entertain at home rather than gathering in restaurants. It would be a long time until Indian restaurants were to become a staple feature of British highstreets.

By the early 20th century, the number of South Asian individuals calling Britain home – estimated at around 70,000 – made the increasing popularity of Indian food inevitable. Around this time, a handful of Indian restaurants began to spring up in London, with the likes of Salut-e-Hind in Holborn and the Shafi in Gerrard street catering for the middle class.

In 1926, the first high-end Indian restaurant opened in the capital city. The doors of Veeraswamy were opened by founder Edward Palmer, whose great-grandfather – a General in the East India Company – married a Mughal princess. Veeraswamy went on to attract an impressive roster of clients, including the Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.

spices and aromatics

The democratisation of the curry

It was in the 1970s that Indian food truly took off, enchanting the palates of the British public en masse.

Mass migration of South Asian factory workers in the mid-20th century created an increased demand for Indian eateries, and in the 70s these establishments began to adapt their menus for a white, working-class clientele.

By around 1982, approximately 3,500 Indian restaurants were up and running in Britain, and ‘going for a curry’ had officially become your common-or-garden night out.

Today, you may be surprised to learn that there are in fact more Indian restaurants in Greater London than there are in Delhi and Mumbai combined.

Additionally, along with the absorption of Indian food into the public imagination, the UK has also merged and adapted this cuisine in order to create dishes that are, for all intents and purposes, quintessentially British. Take, for example, the ever-popular Chicken Tikka Masala. This dish is actually not Indian at all, and was invented through a process of improvisation right here in the UK.

All of these fascinating events and moments in history have culminated over time to form a love for Indian food that is now widespread in the UK.

Here at Sachins, we are delighted to contribute to this ever-evolving culinary dialogue, serving up traditional Punjabi dishes with a contemporary twist to devoted diners in the North East of England.

We are proud to be one of the most iconic and celebrated Indian restaurants in Newcastle upon Tyne. If you are looking to sample authentic Punjabi flavours in a vibrant and inviting setting, book a table at Sachins today.

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