SHA 2013: Leicester, Curry Capital!

The Call for Papers for the SHA 2013 conference in Leicester opens this week, and further information will be posted on the SHA website and this blog in due course. In addition to the stimulating conference programme, SHA 2013 will provide opportunities to sample Leicester’s cuisine, which is as diverse as the city itself. A later blog post will focus on the region’s home-grown food and drink, but this week we take a look at what has fast become Britain’s national dish (or one of several, at any rate): the curry.

Indian takeaway

Britain’s place at the centre of a global empire ensured that the spices and cooking techniques characteristic of a curry, and the people with skills and experience required to cook one, found their way from South Asia to Europe. Britain’s first dedicated curry house, the Hindostanee Coffee House, was opened by Dean Mahomed near Portman Square in central London in 1809, although curries catering to the tastes of returning colonial administrators and their families were served in coffee houses and at home since at least the middle of the eighteenth century.

Curry, along with all things Indian, grew in popularity during the nineteenth century; Queen Victoria, as the Empress of India, built an Indian-themed state room at her home on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House. Culinary tastes among the middle classes moved on, but in the major British ports, including London, Liverpool and Cardiff, former Indian sailors opened cafes, mainly catering for fellow Asians.

Immigration from South Asia after the Second World War, in particular refugees from the conflicts between India and Pakistan after partition and independence in 1947, war in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh in 1971, and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, brought new permanent communities to Britain. Leicester was one destination for South Asians displaced from their homes by war or economic need; the city’s textile factories and post-war rebuilding schemes provided work and opportunities to settle. Some of the new arrivals entered the catering trade, and a distinctive British Asian cuisine has evolved.

One of the most famous sketches of the British Asian comedy troupe Goodness Gracious Me saw the group ‘going out for an English‘ on a Friday night in Mumbai. Having got ‘tanked up on lassis‘, they mispronounce the waiter’s name, ask for the blandest food on the menu, and over-order bread rolls and chips. The sketch gently mocks the stereotype of the British visiting Indian restaurants after a night in the pub, ordering aggressively spicy curries and too many portions of rice and naan. We’ve all done it. The three-minute sketch, originally broadcast over ten years ago, has now entered popular culture, and is frequently cited in academic papers and book chapters exploring the place of food and reflexive humour in representations of South Asians in modern Britain.

The 2013 conference committee has collated some of our favourite places to eat and drink in Leicester; to set your mouth watering we have added them to this map, and will continue to update it during the run-up to the conference.

[CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], via Flickr