HISTORY OF "INDIAN" RESTAURANTS & CURRY HOUSES IN BRITAIN

Contents Past

"A WORK IN PROGRESS"

 

 

The history of Indian food in Britain is now almost four hundred years old and not only has the cuisine undergone a great change in the United Kingdom but also in its native land. Apart from the reports of occasional explorers, the story really starts with the arrival in Surat of the English merchants of the East India Company in 1608 and then again and more successfully in 1612.

Soon lascars - seamen, mainly from Bengal - were helping to man British ships and despite The Navigation Act of 1660 stating that 75% of the crew of a British ship had to be British, a number began appearing in London throughout the century.

The first recorded case of an Indian being christened here was bound up with British commercial adventures in South Asia. The baptism-on 22 December 1616 at St Dionis Backchurch in the City of London-took place in the presence of governors of the East India Company. Many of the first Asian arrivals in Britain came as servants to returning East India Company agents.

By 1804 the number of lascars in London was quoted as 471 and yet by 1810 it had risen to over 1400, around 130 of which would die each year such was the poor condition of their circumstances. Concern about their plight led to the creation of The Society for the Protection of Asiatic Sailors in 1814 and in 1869 complaint was made to the India Office in London that there were upwards of 400 destitute Asians on the streets.

As the influence of the British in India grew, so did the interest in Indian food back in Britain, leading to the publishing of recipes and the commercial creation of curry powder in 1780. The first appearance of curry on a menu was at the Coffee House in Norris Street, Haymarket, London in 1773 but the first establishment dedicated to Indian cuisine was the Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street, Portman Square, London in 1809 as recorded in The Epicure’s Almanack. It was opened by Dean Mahomet (or Mohamed/Mahomed) from Patna, Bihar, India, via Cork in Ireland. He appreciated the interest in all things Indian and offered a house "for the Nobility and Gentry where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection". Decor was very Colonial, with bamboo chairs and picture-bedecked walls, and it proved to be well received. As with many 'coffee houses', however, it did not serve coffee, but was simply cashing in on a popular name of the time. Unfortunately, outgoings were greater than incomings and Mahomet had to file for bankruptcy in 1812, although the restaurant did carry on without him in some form until 1833.

Lascar desertion continued to be a big problem with many ending up on the streets whilst others became entertainers or sold herbs and spices as did the famous Dr Bokanby who sold herbs in London’s Petticoat Lane in 1861.

As the nineteenth century dawned, the only eating establishments offering Indian cuisine were community meeting places for those who had jumped ship in London looking for a new life or, more often, been put ashore without any means of support. Some of these were Vandary (Indian chefs) who jumped ship to seek work in London’s growing restaurant community but not enough to provide any real impetus for the cuisine.

The first recorded Indian restaurant of the twentieth century was the Salut e Hind in Holborn in 1911 but the first to have any real influence was The Shafi opened by Mohammed Wayseem and Mohammed Rahim in 1920. Coming from North India they opened their cafe in London’s Gerard Street (now the centre of London’s Chinatown) and employed four or five ex seamen. It soon became a kind of community and Indian Student Centre. Indian students in the UK rose from 100 in 1880 to 1800 by 1931.

Soon The Shafi was taken over by Dharam Lal Bodua and run by an English manager with employees such as Israil Miah and Gofur Miah who were later to run their own establishments. One of Dharam’s great friends was Bir Bahadur from Delhi who opened The Kohinoor in Roper Street (pulled down in 1978) and was to have a major influence on the industry.

Ayub Ali Master opened a Curry cafe in Commercial Road, London in 1920s. He also later, started the Indian Seaman's Welfare league in 1943.

These restaurants were, not surprisingly, mainly for Asians but in 1927 the first fashionable Indian restaurant opened when Edward Palmer opened Veeraswamy’s Indian Restaurant in London’s Regent Street where it still thrives today owned by Ranjit Mathrani and Namita Panjabi. Edward Palmer had been greatly encouraged by friends and acquaintances after his successful running of the Mughal Palace in The Empire Exhibition at Wembley a few years before and he brought staff from India and created a traditional atmosphere such that it became called “The ex-Indian higher serviceman’s curry club”. Many of the people from all over India who were later to become the backbone of the new ‘curry’ restaurant industry, learned their trade at The Veeraswamy. In 1935 Veeraswamy's was sold to Sir William Steward, M.P., who ran the restaurant for 40 years. He travelled the world in order to source produce and was dubbed 'the curry king' by The Times. His other claim to fame is the introduction of curry in a can. It was at Veeraswamy that lager is first said to have been introduced into Indian restaurants during a visit by the Prince of Denmark.

Queen Victoria, shortly after the Prince Consort's death, arranged for her son to marry Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the beautiful eldest daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark. The couple wed at St. George's Chapel, Windsor on 10 March 1863. The Princess became Queen of England until her death in 1925. Prince Axel of Denmark first met Edward Palmer when visiting the Empire Exhibition at Wembley on May 2nd 1924. Palmer ran the fantastic Mughal Pavilion at this early 'Disneyland' venture and the King and Queen of Denmark also visited on 24th and 27th June. Having heard of the opening of Veeraswamy's, the Prince visited and was enchanted so much that he made a present of a case of the royal beer, Carlsberg and gave orders for a case to be delivered each year. Many staff learned their trade at Veeraswamy's at that time so Carlsberg became the beer of choice as they moved around Britain opening their own establishments.

The name of the restaurant was later changed to The Veeraswamy during ownership by Sarova Hotels and to Veeraswamy under the present ownership.

Meanwhile Sordar and Shomsor Bahadur had come from India to join their brother and opened The Taj Mahal, Brighton; Taj Mahal, Oxford; Taj Mahal Northampton; Kohinoor, Cambridge; Kohinoor, Manchester all before the outbreak of the Second World War and mainly staffed by ex-seamen.

Other establishments for the seamen, usually from the province of Sylhet, opened throughout the years between the wars, such as Abdul Rashim and Koni Khan’s coffee shop serving curry and rice on Victoria Dock Road around 1920.

Gradually the development of Indian restaurants spread outwards from London between the two Great Wars and many of the restaurants that have influenced those established today were created. Amongst those in London pre 1939 were The Durbar on Percy Street owned by Asuk Mukerjee from Calcutta, and his compatriot from the same city Nogandro Goush who owned The Dilkush in Windmill Street. Asif Khan from Punjab had The Shalimar on Wardour Street and Jobbul Haque of Urrishi owned The Bengal India on Percy Street.

Abdul Gofur opened a cafe shop at 120 Brick Lane as well as others in New Road and Commercial Road and Ayub Ali Master came back from America in 1938 and opened Shah Jalal at 76 Commercial Street London. Shirref’s in Great Castle Street opened in 1935 and Halal, which still thrives today, opened in St Marks Street E1 in 1939.

Such was the influence of the Bahadur family that it was estimated that nearly all first generation East Pakistani, or what was to become Bangladeshi, restaurateurs learned their trade from the Bahadur brothers.

Many cafes opened up around the seaports of Britain by ex seamen but they had great difficulty in obtaining the necessary rice and spices. During the Second World War the social focus shifted to The Gathor, a basement cafe at 36 Percy Street, London but soon after Sanu Miah opened The Green Mask on Brompton Road, which became a centre for prominent East Pakistani’s and their politicians. Also in 1942-3 Mosrof Ali and Israil Miah opened The Anglo Asian at 146 Brompton Road, London and by 1957 Mosrof Ali also had The Durbar in Hareford Road. His last business was The Curry Garden Indian in 1975 before retiring in 1979.

The 1950s saw a great influx of Punjabis in the Southall area due to the specialised employment policy of Woolf’s Rubber Factory whose executive had personal experience of the excellence of Punjabi staff and Bengalis continued to settle around the Tower Hamlets area.

Until 1962 members of the Commonwealth were allowed to enter Britain freely but even thereafter many Asians came from Africa and a bigger group came from Kenya in 1968.

The fifties and sixties saw a rapid growth in Indian restaurant numbers in Britain, especially London and the South East, where over 45% of Indian restaurants are still located.

Gradually the Indian restaurant concept spread all over Britain, even though those running the restaurants were often not Indian at all. Until Bangladeshi Independence in 1971 at least three quarters of ‘Indian’ restaurants in Britain were Pakistani owned. After 1971, the geographical differences became clear, with over half the restaurants owned and managed by Bangladeshis, most of whom were from the one area of Sylhet. Once you reach Birmingham, however, the situation changes with the number of Bangladeshis decreasing and Pakistanis increasing. By the time you reach Bradford and Manchester, the restaurateurs are almost entirely Pakistani , Kashmiri and North Indian and once you reach Glasgow the concentration is almost entirly Punjabi as it is in the Southall, Wembley region of London.

In Birmingham Abdul Aziz opened a cafe shop selling curry and rice in Steelhouse Lane in 1945 which became The Darjeeling, the first Indian in Birmingham, owned by Afrose Miah although some say it was The Shah Bag on Bristol Street owned by Abul Kalam Nozmul Islam who also owned Anuh Bag. The growth really got underway in the 1950’s. The Aloka opened on Bristol Street in 1960 and Banu on Hagley Road in 1969.

Manchester started with the Bahadur brother’s Kohinoor in Oxford Street followed by Malik Bokth with The Everest, Nojir Uddin who opened Monzil and Lal Miah who opened The Orient. Rajdoot, long a favourite in Manchester, opened in 1966. Malik Miah Guri, manager at The Kohinoor, moved to Birmingham and opened The Shalimar at Dale End.

In Bradford,The Sweet Centre on Lumb Lane which opened in 1964 was one of the earliest after The Kashmir in Morley Street in 1958. When the owner of The Shafi, Mr Dharan died in 1963, Ahmed Kutub, who worked there, went to open his own restaurant in Newcastle and in the 1950s Rashid Ali moved from a cafe shop in London’s Drummond Street to Cardiff to open his own establishment. The first restaurant to open in the north was The Anglo Asian on Ocean Road, South Shields run by Syed Lukman Ali.

There are recipes(Manchester LIbrary) dating back to 1769, written by the house keeper at Arley Hall in Cheshire. The first curry houses in the North West were cafes, set up for the men who had come to the region from the Asian subcontinent in the 1950s to work in the textile mills.

North of the border, the first record is of a restaurant opened in Glasgow by Dr Deb from Nawakhali before 1939 and since that time the management staff in most existing restaurants seem to have developed from just two original Punjabi style establishments giving rise to a great similarity of menu. Khushi's (Edinburgh)was founded in 1947 by a man called Khushi Mohammed, a door-to-door salesman who opened a restaurant to cater to his homesick compatriots.

According to most pundits, however, the first curry shop opened in the city in 1954, although there had been cafes for seamen and others of Asian origin before this. The Taj Mahal was opened in Park Road by Sultan Ahmed Ansari. The great man died in 1995, having triggered the mushrooming effect that has created the Glasgow curry scene of today - that is unless you listen to the other stories that say the first was Green Gates in Bank Street in 1959!

Whichever is correct, it was a time when you could have a feast for just over 3 shillings (15p today). The credentials of the Taj Mahal are confirmed by Ansari's daughter, Noreen, who remembers going to the restaurant after school. For his part, Nasim Ahmed, whose father Noor Mohammed started Green Gates and then went on to found the Shish Mahal dynasty, remembers 2 shilling (10p) curries and being pressed into service as a waiter and kitchen porter.

Menus were basic and people would set their own cutlery to encourage speedier service. Then the Shish Mahal opened in Gibson Street offering a very different scene, with dinner-jacketed waiters and flock wallpaper, soon to be followed by the Koh-i-Noor, opened by their cousin, Rasul Tahir. Unfortunately, once the curry centre of Glasgow, the inlfuence of Gibson Street is no more. The Koh-i-Noor moved to its present incarantion in Charing Cross and the Shish Mahal to the premises that were originally occupied by Taj Mahal, Ansari having sold out after 30 years to move into the hotel business.

The cuisine moved up-market again with the Indian (as opposed to Pakistani) influence of Balbir Sumal's Ashoka in the 1980s, which eventually led to the development of The Harlequin Group by his one-time partner, Charan Gill. Although Glasgow can celebrate 50 years of curry history in 2004, but, before they get carried away - would it be too impolitic to point out that Kushi's was opened in Edinburgh in 1947 - so which city was first, after all?

In the sixties and seventies, owners began to make serious monies from the industry, with people such as Rajiv Ali, now Chairman of the South East Bank in Bangladesh having found his fortune with a curry house on Whitechapel Road E1. Haji Abdul Razzah came to Britain with an early wave of immigrants and lived in Kentish Town in 1960. He returned to Bangladesh in 1985 and now owns The Polash Hotel in Sylhet having made his fortune from ‘chicken tikka masala’.

The three main influences on the growth of Indian restaurants were firstly the growing affluence and cosmopolitan nature of the British public and secondly the introduction of the tandoor in the sixties.

The tandoor came, originally from the Middle East with the name deriving from the Babylonian word ‘tinuru’ meaning fire. Hebrew and Arabic then made it tannur then tandur in Turkey, Central Asia and, finally Pakistan and India, who made it famous worldwide. The first tandoor in India in a restaurant is said to have been in the Kashmiri Moti Mahal in New Delhi in 1948 and several restaurants have claimed to be the first to have a tandoor in Britain. Initial research suggested the man responsible was, in fact, Mahendra Kaul who started the excellent Gaylord group and it was The Gaylord in Mortimer Street who advertised it in a Palladium Theatre programme in 1966. Mr Kaul had taken the tandoor to America for the Worlds Fair in 1964 then loaned it and his staff to a restaurant in Whitfield Street, London that no longer exists, before starting the Gaylord. He is still a partner in Chor Bizarre in London making him one of the most experienced people still working in the industry. Recently viewed archived documents at Veeraswamy indicate, however, a tandoor in use much earlier, in 1959 and so, this famous restaurant seems to have been responsible for the earliest introduction of tandoori style dishes to the UK, although it would be some ten years and more before the tandoor became widely used in Britain. If you had visited Veerawamy's, as it was then called, in December 1959 you could have enjoyed Chicken Tandoori (allow 15-20 minutes) for the princely sum of ten shillings and sixpence. The first evidence of a tandoor in Glasgow is not until 1978 but is likely to have been some years earlier.

The other major influence was the continued growth of immigration to provide the people to staff the growing number of Indian restaurants. 360,000 Bangladeshis are forecast for the year 2050.

In 1960 there were just 500 Indian restaurants in Britain but by 1970 this had grown to 1200. With the influx after Bangladesh Independence numbers grew rapidly to 3000 in 1980 and by 2000 there were almost 8000 Indian restaurants in Britain turning over more than £2 billion a year employing some 70,000 people as one of the major industries in the country. Chicken Tikka Masala, a British-Bangladeshi creation predating the relatively short-lived balti craze has become so popular that it is available in a wide variety of forms ranging from crisps to pies and statistics show that 14.6% of all first choices in restaurants are for the dish which has no real recipe and can vary from hot to creamy and red to green.

The first to claim its invention are descendents of Sultan Ahmed Ansari who owned The Taj Mahal in Glasgow in 1950’s but it is also claimed by Ali Ahmed Aslam who took over the restaurant from him and called it Shish Mahal circa 1970. Sheikh Abdul Khalique from Essex also claimed the creation of CTM as it was nicknamed by Colleen Grove in Spice-n-Easy Magazine in 1994, as have half a dozen other chefs and, according to folklore, it came about when gravy loving Brits wanted a sauce with their Chicken Tikka and Condensed Tomato Soup with added spices was used on the spur of the moment in a flash of commercially motivated creation .

In 1982, Taj International Hotels flew in the face of advice and opened The Bombay Brasserie in Courtfield Road SW7 under Adi Modi and changed the entire Indian restaurant scene once again by setting a new benchmark for quality.