Curry Tales of the Empire

Indian curry is an extraordinarily popular genre of food, visible not only in the shape of curry houses across the world but also as take-aways, frozen curry meals and curry powders sold in grocers’ stores. But what is the history of the Indian curry? Was it Indian to begin with or a colonial imposition evolving from a simplified and over-generalized understanding of local food cultures?  This essay traces the history of Indian curry as we know it today and the lingering tastes of Empire that we engage with in our everyday lives. To an Indian, the term “Indian curry” is confusing and often appears as a superficial understanding of the complex culinary cultures that exist in India.  In reality, there are thousands of Indian curries in India. No one Indian curry from one particular region of India is similar to another, nor is there one universal magic curry powder that could satiate all cravings for varied Indian dishes.

Figure 1. Common spices used in Indian curries. Image source: Author’s personal photo.

Understanding “curry”

Indian curries vary not only in India but across the world too. Indian curries available across the world via Indian diasporic communities vary not only according to the area of India in which they have their roots, but according to the location in which they are served. For instance, most curry houses in Britain and Canada tend towards North Indian tastes, whilst in the US and Southeast Asia, South Indian flavours predominate. In Trinidad, in the Caribbean, and Fiji, in the South Pacific, they tend to be a mixture of North and East Indian tastes. These variations are a product of history: curries in these different spaces were influenced by waves of immigrants from different parts of India who brought their unique ways of cooking “curry” to their new homes. The Indian curry is thus as diverse as India. The defining tastes of curries in many parts of the world have their roots in the regional, caste and religious origins of the migrants who brought them there.

In fact, “curry” is not an Indian word at all, but an imperial imposition which lumped together a vast range of different dishes. Lizzie Collingham explains that the Portuguese, who arrived in India in the 16th century, called all dishes consumed with rice or breads in India “Carrees”, which was derived from the Tamil word Kari.[1] For the Tamils, Kari referred to a unique dish prepared with a specific set of spices in the form of a sauce. In India, every dish consumed with rice or naan (Indian flatbread) has a specific name, for example Sorshe Ilish, a Bengali dish made with hilsa fish and creamy mustard paste; Pithale, a Marathi dish using gram flour; Chettinad gravies, a Tamil dish made with vegetables, fish or meat with sesame, mustard and asafetida; or Gatte Ki Subzi, a Rajasthani dish with vegetables, gram flour dumplings, tomato puree, buttermilk and spices. While all these have one thing in common – gravy – their taste, consistency, ingredients and preparation methods are completely different. To the Portuguese, however, they were all classified as “Carries” and for much of the world, “Curry” they have remained ever since.

The misuse of the term curry that began with the Portuguese was continued by the British from the time that they established a presence in India in the 17th century. For the British, kebabs, soups, and do-piyajas (a relatively thick base made with mashed onions) were all categorized as Indian curries, a categorization which makes no sense to Indians. The British used the term in a generalized way which failed to discriminate between a diverse variety of culinary styles across India. As Lizzie Collingham rightly observes, the term curry was, and remains, largely meaningless to Indians.[2]

Curry and the British in India

In part, this lack of discrimination may have resulted from the fact that, at least in the early years of their presence, many of the British tried to avoid eating Indian food. As various scholars of the British Empire in India have shown, the British made every attempt to preserve their “pure” Britishness in India, and that included their culinary skills and preferences.[3] Curry therefore served as a generalised term for a wide variety of “native” foods which the British sought to avoid. Such avoidance, however, was not always possible. The ingredients of British foods were often not easily available in India. Moreover, most lower-class British administrators, soldiers and planters who couldn’t afford cooks – especially cooks trained in British culinary styles – and who lacked culinary skills themselves, often turned to consuming what was readily available locally.[4] Eventually, the influence of Indian curry spread to all classes of British in India and found its way into regular British consumption habits and choices in the subcontinent. By the mid-nineteenth century the figure of an Indian Curry “Coolie”, an Indian hawker selling fresh ingredients for curries and sometimes prepared curries, had become a common sight in various parts of British India.

Figure 2. Curry Coolie. Image source: Bridgeman Images.

The curries consumed by the British, however, were usually altered to suit their tastes. Indian dishes prepared in established regional styles were considered unpalatable by the British, hence local cooks were trained to dilute their recipes to suit British palates by reducing the use of ghee, butter, chili, cardamom, cloves, yogurt and other elements which contributed to the body and spiciness of the various recipes. Nonetheless, by the late nineteenth century, curries had become accepted to the extent that cookery books aimed at British expatriates began to appear. The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India, was published in 1880 by a British author using the pen-name ‘Thirty-five Year Resident’.[5] Curries, and how to Prepare Them, by Joseph Edmunds, claiming to contain recipes by three “eminent chefs de cuisine”, was published in 1903, and others followed, including hundreds of recipes diluted to suit British tastes.[6] By the 1900s, the British culinary scene in India had been widely “colonized” by these diluted forms of a variety of Indian dishes which were lumped together, in the British imagination, as “curries”.

Figure 3. “Our Cook Room” (1858): British engineers employed in Bengal Engineering preparing chicken curry in their kitchen. Image source: Bridgeman Images.

Bringing Empire Home: Curry in Britain

The taste for Indian curries, once established, did not remain confined to the British in India. It soon travelled to Britain and found a special place in British everyday life during the Victorian era and beyond. As in India, the history of the British adoption of Indian curry in Britain was just as textured. The first Indian curry house, known as the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in Westminster in 1810 by Sake Dean Mahomed, an Indian immigrant also known for his shampoo business. Mahomed had set up the restaurant aiming for a market of British imperial officials who had returned from India and longed for Indian curries. The restaurant attracted little footfall, however, and within two years, Mahomed was forced to declare bankruptcy and close.[7]

Mahomed’s restaurant was perhaps ahead of its time. In 1823, the Brighton Pavilion was opened. Built as a seaside retreat for the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, the Pavilion featured Indo-Saracenic architecture, including minarets and domes, celebrating the centrality of India to the British imperial project as “the brightest jewel in Britain’s crown. The Royal Pavilion sparked a fashion for all things Indian and interest in Indian culture and food spread rapidly. By 1824-25, the Oriental Gentleman’s Club was one of a number of establishments serving curries to the gentry. For those without the resources to build their own pavilions, curry offered an accessible means of partaking in the craze for India. Historian Uma Narayan notes that the growth of the obsession with curry can be read as British citizens partaking in the imperial activity of “consuming India,” which was also an imperial message hinting that what Britain conquered, it also consumed.[8]

By 1840s, curries also began to be referenced as a part of socio-political conversations in Britain. In 1845, the Duke of Norfolk attracted notoriety when he suggested that labourers starving as a result of the Great Famine in Ireland should relieve their hunger by eating curry powder mixed with water. The ninth edition of Punch Magazine, already influential amongst the educated classes, satirized the Duke’s callous attitude with a spoof recipe attributed to him.[9]

Figure 4. Punch Magazine, Vol. IX, 1845.  Image source: Punch Magazine.

Around the same time that the earliest curry houses were established, curry also began gaining some popularity as a household item in British homes. Before the 1820s, the only mention of curries in British newspapers was in recipes tucked away in a corner feature, or a fleeting reference to food consumed in India. From 1824 onwards, however, Indian curry appears not only as a food consumed by the British in India, but as a consumer good available for the British to taste and try at home. One of the earliest references to curry powders and spices being sold in Britain is found in an advertisement in the Morning Post, 11 December 1824, priced at 2s and 6d per bottle.[10] Realizing there was a profitable market to be captured, many companies began launching their own curry powders in Britain.[11] By the mid 1800s, the number of companies selling Indian curry powders and pastes in Britain had mushroomed, the biggest players being W. Yates; Hickson’s and Co.; Cooke and Co.; Selim’s and Halford’s, each claiming that their product was more authentic than the others. For instance, W. Yates published this advertisement during the mid 1820s:

Yates respectfully informs the Public, that he continues to manufacture ORIGINAL CURRIE POWDER, patronized by the Nobility and Gentry… W.Y warrants his preparation to possess all the virtues of the Indian currie powder, being made from the same kind of ingredients and possessing the superior advantage of freshness, which the length of the voyage necessarily impairs in the currie powders imported from India.[12]

Yates therefore claimed that their product was superior to other imported Indian powders. In their 1829 advertisements, Cooke and Co advised customers “to be particular to inquire for Cooke’s preparations, as there are spurious imitations.” However, Halford’s claim to authenticity was the most striking. To highlight its authenticity, Halford’s adopted a brand image for its curry powders showing an Indian man using Indian traditional instruments to make curry powders. William White, the owner of Selim’s Co., took a different approach to marketing, claiming that curries offered health benefits. In his pamphlet Curries: their Healthful and Medicinal Qualities, White argued that curries were the secret recipe for the marvelous health of Orientals and hence consumption of authentic Indian curries made with Selim’s paste would ensure similar health for British consumers.[13] Interestingly, this approach reverses dominant colonial discourses portraying the colonized body as dirty and diseased, in a form of positive Orientalism which sought to make the exotic East attractive to the dominant West.

Figures 5 & 6. Halford’s versions of trademarks and labels between 1820s-early 1900s. Image source: Author’s photos.

By the 1840s, these companies dominated a well-established market catering for the upper classes and, although the brand names have changed, the industry has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Fascination with Indian exotica, including food, was further increased by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title ‘Empress of India’ in 1877. Along with the curry powder industry, another industry started booming in Britain, that of cookbooks, which specifically engaged with various curry recipes. Some focused solely on curries, like Daniel Santiagoe and Captain William White, while others included a few curry recipes, like the well-known Mrs. Beeton, Mrs. Maria Randell and others. From time to time, collaborative partnerships developed between the cookbook authors and curry powder manufacturers. Many authors made a little note at the end of their recipes for their readers, which indicated that for best possible tastes and best possible results curry powders from a specific manufacturer should be used. For instance, Eliza Acton, in her Modern Cookery, specifically recommended the use of “Messrs Corbyn and Co. curry powder” which could be bought at 300 High Holborn,[14] and Captain White in his cookbook always encouraged his readers to use curry powders and paste produced by his own company, Selim’s.[15]

The growing British love affair with curry, allied with the importance of Indian labour in the imperial economy, resulted in curry being transported far beyond Britain.  Wherever Indians travelled within the Empire, they took curry with them. Consequently, a taste for curry became established in regions ranging from the Caribbean to Canada and from South Africa to Australia.

The significance of curry within the British Empire went beyond being simply a food for migrants or a status symbol for the middle-classes, however. Curry was introduced to British military rations and played a major role during both world wars, not only for the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who served in theatres from the Western front to Burma, but also for British soldiers and sailors. Canned curries, including beans, vegetables and sometimes meat were most commonly supplied by Halford’s. With soldiers from all social classes thrown together through conscription in these massive conflicts, a taste for curries spread beyond the affluent to all classes, and with increased migration of Indians from Commonwealth countries to the UK after World War 2, Indian restaurants and take-aways became essential features of both upmarket shopping areas and working-class neighbourhoods throughout the country. Chicken curry remained a staple of British army rations in the post-war period and when a range of new curry menus were introduced in 2015, officers explained to AP News that they were popular with the troops because curries were something they were used to eating at home, showing how fully curry had been assimilated into the diet of all classes in the UK by the 21st century.[16] Indeed, in 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook remarked that Chicken Tikka Masala was the real national dish of Britain.

The story of Indian curries, then, sheds light on much larger histories of colonialism, migration, adaptation, acculturation and globalization. The history of the Indian curry reveals the complexity of imperial relationships between metropole and colonies and between dominant and subordinate classes, as each adapted to the other and the two interpenetrated each other in processes which were always conditioned by power and yet in which all were able to exercise some agency. Thus, curry can be seen as a paradigmatic example of postcoloniality, in which the boundaries of the colonial world have melted and morphed into something which is fundamentally derived from the processes of Empire, and yet which are now forming a quite different world.

Arunima Datta (@migrationhist) is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Idaho State University. Her main area of research focuses on South and Southeast Asian history, British Empire and British history. Much of her research has simultaneously also focused on themes of labour history, transnational migrations, women’s and gender history. Her book Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya was recently published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. She is currently working on the history of travelling ayahs and amahs in Britain. A part of this research was recently published in the Journal of Historical Geography.

Notes & references

[1] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

[2] Collingham, Curry.

[3] Dennis Kincaid,  British social life in India, 1608-1937 (New York: Routledge, 2018); David Gilmour, The British in India: A Social History of the Raj (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018); Margaret MacMillan, Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India (New York: Random House, 2005)

[4] Collingham, Curry.

[5] Thirty-five Year Resident, The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India (Calcutta: Thacker Spink & co., 1880)

[6] Joseph Edmunds, Curries, and how to Prepare Them (London: Food & Cookery Pub. Agency, 1903)

[7] Arunima Datta, “Shampoo Empire,” History Today, 70: 3 (2020), 40-49.

[8] Uma Narayan, “Eating cultures: Incorporation, identity and Indian food,” Social Identities, 1:1 (1995), 63-86.

[9] “The Duke of Norfolk’s Cookery,” Punch Magazine, IX (1845), 203.

[10] Morning Post, 11 December 1824.

[11] As seen in newspapers across the 1800s

[12] Morning Post, 26 June 1824.

[13] William White, Curries: their Healthful and Medicinal Qualities (Sherwood and Bowyer, 1844)

[14] Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery For Private Families (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1845)

[15] William White, Curries.

[16] See here:






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *