Most people aren’t used to seeing the words “British curry” in a sentence together, but in reality, the roots of Japanese curry are firmly planted in the UK.
The now-extinct “British curry”
British curry first made its way to Japan from the UK during the Meiji Restoration. It’s an era known for “the cropped cut replacing the Samurai top knot”; a symbol of Westernization. As Japanese people changed their hairstyles, they also began to look up to the West, and back then anything from Europe must have dazzled them. I don’t know just how brilliant British curry must have seemed to the Japanese people of the time, but this is where its popularity originates.
The were two main routes for curry to find its way from Britain to Japan. These are as a dish on a Western menu and as a dish on a Navy menu. Whichever route it took though, this curry was first invented in the UK and came to be known as “British curry.”
But what was this curry like? Even if you try to search out a British curry restaurant in London, you would most likely have no luck. I stayed in London for 3 months in 2014, and even though I searched every nook and cranny for a British curry restaurant, I never managed to find one, so I expect that there aren’t anymore.I did manage to discover something that resembled British curry when I went to Ireland, but it looked like it was a curry served as part of elementary school lunches. It even tasted similar. I felt that it wasn’t particularly disgusting, but it wasn’t particularly tasty either.
After that I spent several days at the British Library poring over old books, in which I did find a few recipes written in the late 19th century. Using these recipes I was able to conjure an image of what this curry may have been like and attempted to make one through trial and error.
From the recipes that I discovered, I found that one major style of British curry was one which used the leftover meat from a traditional Sunday roast dinner. In the UK, there is a culture of eating a roast dinner or roast lunch on a Sunday. Family or friends will gather on a Sunday afternoon, where a large joint of meat will be roasted in the oven and then slowly enjoyed by everyone at the table as a main dish.Since these joints of meat are often very large, there are usually leftovers. These leftovers are then utilized throughout the following week in one way or another and it seems as though curry was developed as one of these ways. I did also manage to find a recipe for stew, that had existed in the UK for centuries already, that had been modified into a curry.
The “curry powder” revolution
The thing that these two British curry recipes have in common is their use of curry powder. As you know, curry powder is a blend of multiple spices that was invented in the UK. The invention of this powder was revolutionary and still forms the foundation of curry making in Japan, even today. There is one reason why British people invented curry powder and this is because unlike in India, British people lacked the skill to combine individual spices to make curry. There’s no doubt that British people learned about the combination of spices required to make curry from Indian people. However as the rational-thinking Brits would find it inconvenient to have to wrack their brains over which spices to use to make the curry each time they cooked it, they decided to pre-combine the spices.
It was during the period in which Britain colonized India that the recipe for curry was first brought over from India to the UK. The East India Company, a chartered British company that still features in World history books, started out as a company that focussed on mainly Asian trade. It engaged in colonial management and trade with each Asian nation between the 17th and late 19th century. During this period, Indian cuisine made its way to Britain, becoming more and more familiar to the British people over time. In 1877, British India with Queen Victoria as Empress was formed. This accelerated the influx of Indians into England and accommodated the spread of Indian food. This then allowed for the creation of British curry from its Indian counterpart.
The greatest contribution of curry powder was giving people in the UK the ability to recreate the essence of mysterious and complicated Indian cuisine. Because of this powder it was inevitable that Indian cuisine and its diverse flavors would evolve into a uniform dish of British curry within the UK.
This symbolic dish helped Indian cooking gain popularity and attention, and in the blink of an eye spread its way throughout the UK once many people became able to recreate and taste it for themselves. This process is not unusual. When Italian cuisine was just beginning to gain traction in Japan, the original dish of “neapolitan” was developed through pasta, which has a multitude of styles and flavors.
Curry powder was what made it possible to create Indian-like curry in one step in the UK. British people, who owned the advanced curry powder should have been able to make delicious curry, but based on the materials that I saw, and the curry that I managed to make in the UK during my stay there, this was not the case.
For many, food should be simpler and more delicious.
The other curry from the UK
At that time there was another curry easily distinguishable from British curry. This was Anglo-Indian curry. During the colonial period, British people sometimes married Indian citizens, leading to cohabitation and often to mixed-race children. This resulted in the modification of traditional Indian curry to suit a British palate, may of which were created by Indian women. This means that both British curry and Indian curry existed at the same time. So which one came out on top?
The answer is the Anglo-Indian curry. As Indian people were the best at using spices and making curry this result was inevitable. British curry was also only created as a convenient way to use up meat, while Anglo-Indian curry was created for a more positive purpose to accommodate the food culture of a home inhabited by both British and Indian people. Therefore we have the half-hearted British curry and the well-loved Anglo-Indian curry. It’s quite natural that such a difference in quality should be found.
One of the dishes that represent these Anglo-Indian curries is the chicken tikka masala. I believe that the roots of this curry lie in the Indian chicken butter masala (murg makhani). If we were to put that in terms of an Indian restaurant menu in Japan, it would equate to butter chicken curry. This dish is a rich curry made of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, cooked in a tandoor, and then mixed with tomato, butter, and heavy cream among other ingredients.
Chicken tikka is often called boneless chicken tandoori in India, so you can imagine what it’s like. Chicken tikka masala is often claimed to be a British comfort food and you can go to a supermarket in any town and find ready meals of chicken tikka masala and rice in the frozen food aisle. These can be bought and eaten quite quickly. They’re also high-quality and surprisingly tasty.
The development of modern Indian restaurants
The unique evolution of Indian food in the UK shows no signs of slowing down. The popularity of modern Indian restaurants is particularly noteworthy. Especially the popularity of luxury Indian food. In Japan, even at the best Indian restaurants you can buy food and drink for ¥5,000 – 6,000 yen, while the dinner bill for customers who go to modern Indian restaurants in the UK often exceed ¥10,000 yen. There are at least 10 of these restaurants in London. French-style techniques and arrangements are applied to an Indian cuisine base and the dishes are made to be enjoyed with a glass of wine. Interiors are stylish and typical Indian music is not played in the background. The fact that over 5 Indian restaurants are gaining Michelin stars every year is further proof of the prevalence of this style.
It isn’t just high-class restaurants, but there is also a huge number of restaurants that casually serve modern Indian cuisine. These places are stylish, fashionable, and delicious. Lately, restaurants in five star hotels in India have started to emulate the UK, where the high standards of curry cannot be found anywhere else.
The once-popular British curry is now obsolete there. What British people have instead ended up developing are unique takes on Indian dishes. And here is where Japanese evolved differently. This is because the British, not Anglo-Indian, curry that came over to Japan during the Meiji Restoration developed uniquely into a Japanese take on the dish. The 60 years that Japanese people, who had never encountered Indian curry, had to grapple with British curry was more than enough time to establish a new dish in the form of Japanese curry.