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.