The Ghost of Korma Past: From Ethnic to Empire

By Raviakash Deu

Until the 1950s and post World War Two, the British vigorously rejected any food or perceived cultural introduction of anything that could be termed ‘Indian’ (or arguably, ‘foreign’ altogether), a natural extension of their objections toward the arrival of settlers from the subcontinent. Public awareness, and selective consumption of, immigrant-based cuisines and cultures, however, began to shift gradually alongside mass immigration. While the Afro-Caribbean community evidently endowed Britons with ‘sound-system culture’, South Asians bore the banners of saris and samosas - both diasporic commonwealth cultures providing a view to only that much of their culture which might have been digestible to the average Briton, cautiously matured in white understandings. It’s a synthesis that is still exploited today in tokenistic discussions of multiculturalism that centre around stereotypes of “saris samosas and steel bands.''


Less clear perhaps, is how British folk came to be fixated on classifying a continent-wide cuisine through the ‘Indian restaurant’ label - a gross oversimplification at the same time as it fetishizes and exonerates those partaking in it. While the oversimplification is readily apparent in just the demographics alone (most establishments are either owned or managed by either Pakistanis or Bangladeshis), the more problematic aspect comes in the form of the lexicon which this penchant for simplification inspires. The turn of phrase ‘going for an Indian’ is somewhat matched in its widespread usage by the expression ‘out for a curry.’

Much in the same way ‘going for an Indian’ overlooks the precise ethnic make-up of the industry, ‘out for a curry’ encompasses the belief that almost all of the Indian cuisine is limited to ’curries.’ More restrictive still, it implies only those curries that have become popularised through British palettes.

This bias has its roots in a historical colonial narrative, which we see in restaurants catering their menus to Englishmen who had lived in India, “the Indian khichris, curries, Bombay duck and chutneys and other delicacies have become a regular must’. It seemed if the ‘Indian restaurants’ of old were to be held in any high regard, they almost certainly had to welcome validations wrapped up in a tone of British conceitedness and colonial supremacy. An unshakeable truth, at least until the 1960s, was that food should be served in “good old Indian taste” i.e. to the pleasing of the “Old India Hands”.


Leading the post-colonial food fetish was Veeraswamy’s, the oldest Indian restaurant in London still surviving today, (just off Regent St). Veeraswamy’s was established by a spice importer who became an official caterer for the Indian Pavilion at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Unsurprisingly, its customers were of the upper-middle class and elite factions of English society, as well as figures of Indian royalty and other officer-class Britons who at one time resided in India. White diners who hadn’t quite broken out of their ‘master’ alter-egos could find solace here from native cooks and servants playing the obedient subject. They addressed the customers as ‘sahib’ when they called out ‘bearer, bearer!’


As repatriated ex-colonials made up the consumer base for restaurants like Veeraswamy’s, the cuisine was plagued by the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment held in other sectors of British society. Without any obvious and personal ties to the Raj, these individuals showed little-to-no interest in feasting on South Asian cuisine. Whatever concern they did have seemed to promote its health drawbacks.

Although curry powder was now part of the trade and was being added to various English dishes during the 19th Century, the pungent spices were actually thought to conceal otherwise spoiled food, with Indian cooks looked upon as “dirty and their dishes permeated by disease germs.”

Even as late as 1955, the British author of a series of Indian cookbooks talked of an ‘impression, difficult to eradicate, that curry-eating is bad for you, it causes dyspepsia, makes you evil-tempered and tends to shorten your life”. He adds, it is “an outlook perpetuated by writers who depict purple-faced, curry-eating colonels who retire to England and vent their spleen on the natives.”


The Ghost of Kichidi Present: From Empire to Exotic

Between the 1950s-1970s, the small handful of restaurateurs that existed before the end of Britain’s Raj grew to much larger numbers. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis arrived to live and work in postcolonial Britain. By 1973, the prevalence of South Asian food had grown to the extent that a Yorkshire Post article of the same year noted, “if the aroma of morning meals had wafted along with the friends of Oak Lane and other pavements in the area, the smell of fried bacon would have been overpowered by the scent of typical Punjabi day-starters such as chapatis and buffalo milk ghee and chilli-pepper omelettes.”


It was around this time that South Asian food began to move away from its colonial association's in the UK and began to adopt a more rebellious, youth-based persona. Used as a method of disassociation from the perceived 'anti-curry' empiricism of generations prior, young Britons in mid-size towns turned to South Asian food as a means of shunning the plain tasting ‘meat and two veg’ meals favoured by mainstream English society. ‘It was a bit of fun that you’d try the hottest curry, even if it was so fiery it blew the roof of your mouth off’ - you’d have a ‘madras’ or a ‘vindaloo’ or a ‘tindaloo’. Of course, little attention was paid to whether any of these were honest or accurate representations of the sub-continent cuisine but at that point, all that was really needed was the right shade of red or yellow gravy, and one could go about their day considering themselves reasonably worldly.


So very formulaic became these little misadventures into the exotic that it was hard to determine which came first, the homogenization of the clientele, or the homogenization of the restaurants themselves. Restaurants generally fell under the following names: Taj Mahal’s, Rajah’s, Mumtaz’s, Stars of India, curry gardens. Decor and lighting were identical: red flock wallpaper, ornamental hardboard Indian arches and red or orange lighting in eastern lampshades - most fascinating of all was the menu. Identical dishes paired with almost comically exoticised names.


Second-class establishments that had managed to underplay their own regional uniqueness’ through serving a ‘generalised Indian food from no area whatsoever she faulted the cooks as ill-equipped to do justice to the foods they prepared because of their lack of skills. Through copying competitors sauces ‘inevitably have the same colour. taste and consistency. The dishes generally come ‘mild, medium or hot’. Early 80s critics disparaged restaurant fare as a ‘terrible parody of Indian food’ in which ‘a c common sauce is slopped on’ and ‘everything tastes the same’ This is because, just like how ex-colonial figures filled up the seats of Indian dining during the British Raj, the public's understanding of mainstay curry house diners focused on the white male clientele that took advantage of late-night hours of operation to arrive drunk after pubs or clubs closed, behave disrespectfully if not violently and possibly try to leave without paying. Several Bradford restaurant reviews concluded when praising particular establishments that they offered ‘good value for a fiver’ despite dishes having proved ‘a let down… no real sauce [and] too much oil’; ‘good grub in copious quantities’; a chance to ‘fill your boots for under £2”; or qualified as a reliable ‘soak up curry after the pub’.


And so here we see a typical tale, a clash of English culture and South Asian culture. Some people found it good to “soak up the alcohol”, others have cited the smell of curry as a source of deep resentment. The view that Asians and their surroundings “stank of curry” abounded and became deployed to landlords to explain why they refused South Asians as tenants.


Cooking with agency

We hope we’ve demonstrated that food isn’t so simple, but is part of the complex workings of South Asian diaspora identity, and wrapped up in all the challenges the generation before us faced when immigrating to Britain.

But as our communities overcame the barriers into British society, they developed agency alongside the gradual acceptance. Selected cities and neighbourhoods with sizably Asian populations came to view their numerous restaurants as an opportunity to tell an affirmative story about local ethnic diversity. They did so precisely in areas plagued with social and economic problems and where race relations proved persistently precarious. Styling themselves as Britains ‘curry capitals’ became a central plank in a succession of local regeneration efforts.


Take Bradford, with a population that’s a quarter Asian. Optimists described curry as enabling a ‘trade renaissance for Bradford.’ Asian families running flourishing chains like Aagrah and Mumtaz became hailed as success stories in their own right - Aagrah’s owners for eg had arrived in Britain from Kashmir in the early 1960s and started out as bus drivers and mill workers - as well as commended for bringing hundreds of new jobs to a city in dire need of employment opportunities. Enthusiasts celebrated curry as having become central to Bradford’s economic and cultural traditions. After the virtual disappearance of textiles, South Asian restaurants came to count as one of the city’s ‘traditional industries’ while Aagrah restaurant chain earned praise as a ‘Yorkshire institution’.


Other cities like Manchester and Leicester followed suit, the former advertising the more than fifty restaurants serving 65,000 diners/week on a street known as the ‘curry mile’ and the latter offering ‘TASTE OF ASIA’ weekend package tours. Similarly, since the late 1990s local authorities in East London Tower Hamlets borough have embarked on a concerted campaign to promote the Brick Lane area as ‘Banglatown’ - on account of having the largest Bangladeshi population in Britain - or ‘London’s Curry Capital’. Efforts to publicize the scores of Bangladeshi-run restaurants and cafes alongside other Asian shops and cultural offerings in the East End aimed at deemphasizing poverty and ethnic conflict in favour of stressing vibrant cultural diversity


What has started to emerge in the last two decades are culinary alternatives that challenged common British conceptualisations of an undifferentiated Asian population and culture. They assert unique national, regional, class and religious backgrounds when refashioning the cuisine.

About the author:

Raviakash - Rav for short/ease, is a full-blooded feature writer from Birmingham, UK. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature, going on to a Master's in Shakespeare Studies at King's College London. He currently lives in the Capital where alongside his career in marketing, he runs a Bhangra dance academy. He is deeply passionate about writing feature pieces which explore art, culture and beyond.


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