The British love a good curry, so much so in fact that it has become the most popular cuisine eaten outside the home, with eight percent of the adult population eating a curry at least once a week. So what is it about the curry that makes some many of us crave a weekly dose of chicken korma or lamb vindaloo? When I asked people this question most replied that it was because a curry was something hot and spicy and, more importantly, tasted good with lager. Well it is true that many, many lagers are drunk with a curry all over country every Saturday night, but for all the talk of blindingly hot vindaloo and insanely fiery fals, it would seem that most of us prefer something tamer, as the vast majority of curries eaten are actually the milder varieties. So the British love affair with the curry must have other causes and it would seem that part of the reason for this is that the British have always had a taste for a “curry”.
A clue to why this type of dish made such and easy transition into the British diet can be seen in early descriptions of curries found given by travellers in the sub-continent. This is a late 17th century description of curry was given by the Dutch explorer Jan Huygen van Linschoten, “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat soure, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel which is their daily meat the rice is in stead of bread.” The important part of this description is “as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes” as these where historically commonly used as souring agents in European dishes, such as in this 16th century English example; “Take youre chekins and season them with a lytle Ginger and salte, and so putte them into your coffin and so put in them barberies, grapes or goose beryes, and half a dyshe of butter…”. It seems that Linschoten is describing this new, but not altogether alien dish, in terms that are familiar to him such as “gooseberries or unripe grapes”, rather then the actual local fruits used (most likely tamarind pod pulp). This comfortable familiarity with a foreign dish is stated ever more explicitly by the early 17th century Italian traveller, Pietro della Valle "In India they give the name of caril to certain messes made of butter, with the kernal of coconut (in place of which might be used in our part of the world milk of almonds)''
It seems that Europeans have been long familiar with and enjoyed the combination of fish, fowl or meat braised with fragrant spices and sweet/sour sauces and the British urge for a curry is the latest manifestation of this. The earliest British collection of recipes, was written by the cooks of Richard II, in the 14th century and is known a the “Forme of Cury” (“Cury” is and early variation of “cooking” and is not thought to be related to the modern word ‘curry’, but we wonder). From this and other similar documents it is apparent that people enjoyed the combination of fragrant sweet/sour flavours, mostly in the form of purees, thick soups, stews or sliced meat smothered in sauces, until the development of ‘modern’ European cuisine in the mid-17th to early 18th century. Before the development of this ‘modern’ European cooking, which highlights the ‘natural’ flavours of individual ingredients, what people had in mind was the balancing of the separate flavours of the meal with no single flavour dominating. This was considered not only to ‘taste good’, but to be healthy and proper, as an “unbalanced meal” would damage your health. Ingredients seen as sweet were balanced against sour, ingredients seen as being ‘cold’ in nature were balanced by the addition of ingredients with ‘heat’. Spices in this model, provided a ready, concentrated form of dietary ‘heat’, the most popular spices, not unsurprisingly were also the ‘hottest’. Also, as the use of forks was not widespread until the 17th century meat was cut up into convenient sized pieces before being served. The consequence of this was that pre-modern British food resembled cuisines that follow similar dietary philosophies (such as present day Indian and North African food) and therefore were similar to today’s curries in many ways – pieces of meat in a thickened and aromatically spicy sweet/sour sauces. In Shakespeare’s lifetime chickens where seasoned with ginger, nutmeg and pepper were baked with preserved lemons, dates, currants or prunes and served with a sauces made with the broth from the cooked chicken, sharpened with lemon, gooseberry or sour grape juice, and thickened with egg yolks or ground almonds. Likewise beef, duck or pigeon was stewed in red wine flavoured with onions, spices, herbs, cherries and prunes, in a manner, which apart from the use of wine, are very similar to the increasingly popular in the West, tagine style cooking of Morocco. While these recipes are no longer made in Britain, even today it is possible to come across the occasional survivor from this older tradition. One of these survivors is “Devonshire ‘squab’ pie”, which does not contain not young pigeons as its name suggests, but is a delicious combination of lamb or mutton stewed together with spices, onions and apples, the final result being so incredibly similar to a Moroccan tagine (it even feels somehow wrong not to serve it with couscous). Even the humble mince pie was originally a combination of meat, fruit and spices, the meat being included in some recipes as late as the beginning of the 20th century.
Obviously, these dishes are not precisely the same as our modern concept of a ‘curry’, but they do demonstrate that well before the first roll of flock wallpaper was pasted onto a curry house wall, the British had well and truly developed a taste for this style of cuisine and that in many ways the present popularity of curry is a return to our culinary roots.