My wife and I stopped eating meat 27 years ago, shortly after getting our first German Shepherd. We weren't trying to save the planet (although it would help tremendously if all of us stopped eating meat), nor were we doing it for health reasons (although most of us would be healthier with less meat in the diet). We did it for animal rights reasons, and I encourage you to do the same. That same year, our older son, John, began his M.Phil. studies at Oxford University. That encouraged us to get to the UK more often and now we were looking for restaurants where we could expect to find vegetarian dishes. Indian restaurants fit the bill, since the majority of Indians are Hindu and Hindus are vegetarian, and so over the years we have eaten in a lot of what the British call "curry houses," that first became popular there in the 1930s and 40s.
But here's the interesting thing about that. Most Indian restaurants in the UK were not started up by Hindus from what we now think of as India, but rather by immigrants from Bangladesh (which, along with Pakistan, separated rather violently from India in 1971). This all came to light in an article in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago.
The menu in a British curry house is richly evocative of the history of the Indian subcontinent. Biryani was refined from the Persian pilau by the kitchens of the Mughal emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605. Vindaloo first appeared in 1797 when Britain invaded Portuguese Goa [a city on the western coast of India]; the dish is a mispronunciation of the Portuguese carne de vinho e alhos, or meat cooked with wine vinegar and garlic. The rogan josh and dopiaza (“two onions”) were both also originally Persian, while madras curry was a colonial invention, after English merchants arrived in Chennai in 1640.
But modern British curry-house owners have a narrower lineage: 80 per cent to 90 per cent can trace their roots directly to Sylhet, a city of about 500,000 people which lies in the east of Bangladesh and borders the Indian region of Assam. [See map below] Sylhet is not known for its cuisine: its most distinctive speciality, says Lizzie Collingham, the author of Curry: A Biography, is its dried punti fish, hung from rafters and surrounded by flies until it is ground into a deep red fermented paste.
Nor were the Sylhetis who came to Britain chefs: they were originally boatmen, hired to stoke the engines of British steamships. The job was unbearable and Sylhetis became notorious for jumping ship in ports around the world. In London, a small community took hold in the East End in the 1940s and some entrepreneurial Sylhetis soon began setting up boarding houses and cafés and then bringing over their relatives.This is a classic example of immigrant innovation coupled with chain migration, but it couldn't last. Children born in the UK became better educated and less willing to work in the family restaurants. Changing immigration laws have made it harder to recruit willing workers from the "old country." And, of course, competition and changing eating habits have all taken their toll. Keep these things in mind next time you have dinner in the UK.