Curry as an English Masterpiece

Many people will know that several of the most popular “Chinese” dishes served in North American restaurants are in fact American inventions based more or less on Chinese ingredients and techniques. Fewer, perhaps, will know that the same can be said about “Indian” food, with British taste as the instigator.

I learned more than I ever knew before about the origins and development of curry from this wonderful article from NPR.

Growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s, eating Indian was just becoming a big deal for young experimental palates. They came into fashion a year or so after Chinese had become popular. When I moved to Manchester around 1970 I was wonderfully surprised to discover curried chips as an option in the fish & chip shops.

Whenever I travelled back to the UK since the 1980s, I always knew there would be a decent “curry house” somewhere close to where I was visiting, no matter what part of the country. They were more common in smaller towns and villages than a pub with decent food.

A surprising (to me) tid-bit:

“More than 80 percent of of curry house owners in the UK can trace their roots back to Sylhet, a city in the east of what is now Bangladesh, [Lizzie] Collingham explains in [her book] Curry. Sylhet’s waterways were key to trade during the Raj, hundreds of Sylhetis ended up working on British steamships. “They often had the horrible jobs of working in the engine rooms,” Collingham says. “So quite a lot of them tended to jump ship. They had a tough time finding work in England, and many of them ended up in restaurant kitchens. “Some of these immigrants saved up enough money to then open their own restaurants.”

Group dynamics is a fascinating thing:  That percentage of British curry makers from a single Bangladeshi city reminds me that a majority of the Chinese who settled in Vancouver in the 20th century came from a very limited geographic area in China, or so I believe, and a large majority of nail estheticians (manicurists) in western North America are, or were trained by, Vietnamese boat people from California refugee camps. No connection meant other than seeing very specific groups of people fanning out to conquer odd bits of the world.

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