by Claire Chambers
In 1810, a 51-year-old from Bihar named Sake Dean Mahomed opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House. It catered to retired colonial administrators, whose Indianized tastes were no longer satisfied with British food and manners. At the Coffee House, these nostalgic epicures lounged on bolsters, smoked hookahs, and ate various spiced dishes. Mahomed was ahead of his time, though, as curry restaurants would not take off for more than a hundred years, with the founding of high-end London establishment Veeraswamy in 1926. After just two years, he went bankrupt. He had earlier published a book, The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1793), which was unique for having been written in English to give European readers a glimpse of his Indian homeland. Its creation was probably part of the author's attempt at integration in County Cork. He had lived there for over 20 years and married an Irish woman, Jane Daly, before moving to London after his Irish patronage was withdrawn. Now reinventing himself again, Mahomed, Jane, and their children shifted from London to Brighton. There Mahomed began offering Indian massages, eventually being appointed 'Shampooing Surgeon' to George IV and William IV. In 1822, he published another book, this one a quasi-medical tract on the benefits of massage and bathing.
As the first proprietor of an admittedly short-lived curry restaurant in Britain, Mahomed must take some credit for this dish's popularity. Often now hailed as Britain's national dish, curry's centrality to British popular culture is underscored in one of the best jokes from Hanif Kureishi's novel The Black Album (1995). Against a backdrop of the racial and religious tension surrounding the Rushdie affair, Kureishi's Marxist lecturer character Brownlow ominously pronounces, 'I could murder an Indian'. As we will see, curry houses are a dominant setting in much writing by authors of Muslim heritage in the UK. This should not surprise us because, as Ben Highmore points out in his article about British curry history, 'the predominant food culture of the high street restaurant is Bengali (Bangladeshi)' − a nationality which is of course mostly Muslim. As a scribbling Indian restaurateur, Mahomed was a pioneer, and his culinary experiences have even inspired a self-published crime novel by the British writer Colin Bannon, The Hindostanee Coffee House (2012).
Later in the nineteenth century, an important figure to history and the literary imagination is Queen Victoria's Munshi, Abdul Karim. Victoria was very close to this servant from Jhansi, and as with the Queen's previous beloved servant John Brown, the two of them were rumoured to be having an affair. Karim is from the ranks of the many South Asian Muslim servants who came to Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He caused controversy by worshipping at Britain's first purpose-built mosque in Woking and was disliked and distrusted by the Queen's household for the influence a man of his race, religion, and lowly origins had on the Crown. One of the ways to the Queen's heart was through her ample stomach. She had a deep affection for Karim, the man who introduced her to curries. Food historian Ivan Day explains that Queen Victoria's love for curry made Indian dishes 'very fashionable' in the late nineteenth century, since she had 'an Indian staff who cooked Indian food every day'. Victoria bestowed many honours and substantial tracts of land on Karim for the curry cookery and Hindustani language lessons he gave her. Despite his loyal service, after the Queen's and later Karim's death, royal emissaries systematically dispossessed his family of almost all the Hindustani lesson records and personal letters that passed between Karim and Victoria. As Rushdie observes in The Satanic Verses, Karim was 'done down by colour-barring ministers'.
Attia Hosain, who is best known for her fiction about India, wrote a promising but unfinished novel about diasporic Britain, 'No New Lands, No New Seas', between the 1950s and 1970s. One of the fragment's most interesting insights is into the postwar contributions to material culture, particularly food, that South Asian Muslims made to Britain. In an influential article from 1964, Raymond Breton coined the term 'institutional completeness'. The expression denotes migrants' establishment of halal butchers, restaurants, and grocery stores to create for themselves a home from home in the foreign land. These often food-based institutions operate in part to shore up and continue the migrants' traditions and culture, but also cater to and change the palates of indigenous Britons.
Accordingly, in Hosain's novel, migrants track down outlets that serve their 'own kind of food'. The narrator points out the importance of sociable cooking and eating in South Asian culture. (By contrast, Britons allegedly erect barriers of books and newspapers to prevent social interaction during meals.) Murad's favourite restaurant sells 'cheap, wholesome and tasty' meals. The diner has gone through several name changes. Before the War it was known as the 'Great British Indian Restaurant'. In 1942, responding to the rise of nationalism, its proprietor, Chaudhary, changes this to 'Great Indian Restaurant'. After Partition, patrons fiercely debate the politics of this name until Chaudhary calls an uneasy truce by renaming it the 'Great Indo−Pakistan Restaurant'. Aiming to please everyone, the nomenclature impresses no one, and Chaudhary laments his naming difficulties:
it was surprising how many names were already in use. In the changing landscape of London dark dots were multiplying and spreading into smudges abounding in Taj Mahals, Moti Mahals, Stars & Moons of India and Pakistan.
Chaudhary finally settles on the saccharine, uncontroversial title 'The Pride of Asia' for his establishment. In this humorous section of the text, Hosain advances serious observations about the rise of South Asians' cuisine and their increasingly factional politics in Britain. The more Chaudhary changes the restaurant's name, the more ersatz its food becomes. Over time, it caters to British tastes rather than those of the South Asians who were its original clients.
Hosain accurately suggests that at this time, Indian restaurants with names like the Taj Mahal were proliferating in Britain. This photograph taken around 1970 of a curry restaurant in Bristol is just one real-world example:
The late owner's daughter, Monira Ahmed Chowdhury, explains that this photograph depicts her father, Feroze Ahmed, in front of the first restaurant he opened, the Taj Mahal in Bristol. From Bengali Muslim stock, Feroze was a pioneer of Indian restaurants in the southwest of England. Shortly before his death in 2000, he wrote a short essay for Origins, a collection of Bristolian migrants' personal reflections. In it, he describes moving from Oxford in 1959 to open Bristol's first 'Indian' Restaurant. He also opened the second (named Koh-i-Noor) and third restaurants in Bristol and the inaugural Indian restaurant in Bath, thereby revolutionizing West Country cuisine.
In her lively history Curry in the Crown, Shrabani Basu affectionately parodies the typical names of the British−Asian curry house. She does this in a similar manner to Hosain, listing 'The Jewel in the Crown, or The Gurkha Tandoori, or the Taj Mahal, or Maharajah'. Basu's book discusses what she terms the 'Bangladeshi curry crusaders'. Around the era of decolonization, Sylhetis were coming to Britain in large numbers. Some established restaurants because they had previously been lascars who worked on the crews of ships and learned to cook while onboard. However, it would be wrong overly to stress the East Bengali/Sylheti/Bangladeshi origins of these pre- and post-World War II restaurateurs. Basu shows that on a single road, Drummond Street near London's Euston Station, a sweet shop's owners were from Pakistan, a chaat (snack) shop proprietor hailed from Bombay, and the Pathak pickle makers were Kenyan Indians.
One thing that makes British life easier for migrants to accept is the development of their own food practices. By shopping and eating together, the 18 migrants who share a house in Urdu author Abdullah Hussein's novella 'The Journey Back' begin to form their own clan or biradari. Hussein depicts the 'white flight' that often accompanied the arrival of South Asians and black people in the early days of mass migration. The whites' self-created vacancies are taken by new arrivals from India and Pakistan, who set up their own eateries. In this era of the 1960s to early '80s, white people often explained their dislike of living near Asians through allusions to the smell of curry (a thinly disguised racial taunt). But Hussein charts the way in which this attitude of disgust gradually metamorphoses into an appetite for 'hot, spicy curry'. He shows that some South Asians turned their homes into small cafés which became cultural hubs in the early days of migration. There 'the customs and bureaucratic procedures of the country were explained to the newcomers. Records were played all day long'.
Geoff Nash calls Salman Rushdie the 'ghost at the feast' of what we might term British Muslim writing. Of Muslim heritage, Rushdie has of course outraged the religious sentiments of many Muslims through his portrayals of 'Mahound' and fictionalized versions of the Prophet's wives and companions in The Satanic Verses (1988). There is no room in this essay to address the endlessly thorny issue of the Rushdie affair. But in parts of The Satanic Verses that have a British location, Rushdie joins the ranks of the chapaterati with his depictions of the Shaandaar ('outstanding, brilliant, delicious') café. This restaurant is situated in London's 'Brickhall' (the name amalgamates Indian Southall and Bangladeshi Brick Lane), a district where Polish Jewish migrants have made way for South Asians. The restaurant is run by the pluralist Bangladeshi Muslim Sufyan and his gargantuan, misogynistically-portrayed wife Hind. Inspired by her open-minded husband, Hind creates delectable pan-Indian food, but the café ultimately appears to be a cultural dead end for these characters. Here, 'for all his education', Sufyan is compelled to 'behave like a servant' towards the restaurant's clientele. And although Hind should feel triumphant at her culinary and entrepreneurial success in this female-headed business, all she experiences is a sense of alienation in this foreign land, this Vilayet. The spectres of racism stalk the streets, 'but when you turned in the direction of the words you saw only empty air and smiling faces'. Hind consoles herself with videos of Bengali and Hindi movies, which seem more like the 'real world' than the 'pastiche' of London. In time, a rival café, the Pagal Khana ('Crazy Food' or 'Madhouse'), overtakes the Shaandaar, attracting a cult following among hipster British Asians and celebrities such as Pavarotti, James Mason, and Amitabh Bachchan. This reflects the phenomenon, described in Shrabani Basu's book, in which certain London-based Indian restaurants became gentrified and celebrified, especially from the 1980s onwards.
Zahid Hussain's novel, The Curry Mile (2006), is set in Manchester, and describes the intergenerational rivalry between Sorayah and her father Ajmal as they compete for a National Curry Award in the close-knit Rusholme restaurant trade. Religious studies scholar Philip Lewis observes that 'one of the strengths of Hussain's novel . . . is Ajmal's dawning realization that discrete Pakistani and English social and cultural worlds − “ours” (apne) and “theirs” (goray) − no longer exist for their children'. The Curry Mile explores Sorayah's high-wire act of trying to maintain a good relationship with her father and follow him into the restaurant trade. Eventually she becomes a success in the business world, as her father was hoping would happen for a child of his. She does this without breaking the family and notwithstanding her gender, which Ajmal sees as a handicap.
In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie's narrator comments that 'food passes across any boundary you care to mention'. As we have seen, since the early nineteenth century, Indian food has transformed British restaurant culture. In the process, it has been hybridized by the addition of cream, Worcestershire sauce, and tinned tomatoes to the usual spices. Writers working in Urdu, English, and Bengali have evoked both South Asians living in Britain and the restaurant fare they produce. British Muslims are now routinely portrayed in sections of the mainstream media as an unfamiliar postwar 'invasion'. The chapaterati show that their presence has much deeper roots, influenced royalty, and added literary and gastronomic value to Britain. Seek out and savour their fiction's masala blend.