The curry at a crossroads
HUMOURIST Naveed Mahbub titled one of his columns Korma Karma (The Daily Star September 26, 2014), narrating story of the glamorous curry kingdom of the 'Chefs from Sylhet' in the United Kingdom.
The story of the 'curry' travelling all the way across the riverine routes and the oceanic depths is the subject of this article. Mr. Mahbub has mentioned that one Sake Dean Mahomed is reputed to have started the first curry house in Britain, named Hindustani Coffee House, in Central London in 1809.
I have a story also, from a book written by one Robert Lindsay, the British East India Company's resident administrator of Sylhet from 1778 to 1788. He mentioned in his Anecdotes of an Indian Life, published in 1840, that a man named Syed Ullah travelled all the way from Sylhet to the United Kingdom with the intention of killing Robert Lindsay in retaliation for the killing of his father in Sylhet during an incident of shooting by police under Lindsay's order. Lindsay (by then Lord Lindsay) convinced Syed Ullah that he was only doing his duty, and the man accepted that explanation. Lindsay learned that Syed Ullah was a good cook, widely reputed for his 'best in the world curry,' and engaged him as a cook in 1809.
Now, the year 1809 appears in the case of opening of Hindustani Coffee House in Central London by Sake Dean Mahomed. (Mr. Naveed Mahbub has surely got this from some authentic source.) But the year 1809 also appears in Robert Lindsay's book as the year of appointment of Syed Ullah as cook by Robert Lindsay. (In the appendix of the book it appears as a finding of one Nurul Islam in his 'Probashir Kotha')
Who, then, was the first curry cook in the United Kingdom?
I am not inclined to believe that Hindustani Coffee House of Sake Dean Mahomed was really opened in Central London in 1809. Was it not too early for Britishers to get used to and attracted by Indian curry only half a century after British intrusion into India? In my opinion, it took a longer time for the Britishers -- civil servants, tea planters and others -- to get used to a new recipe and take a liking to it. If there was at all a Hindustani Coffee House in London, it may have been opened in 1909 instead of 1809, when there must have been a few whites used to curry for a restaurant serving Indian food to survive in London.
The writer is a retired officer of BCIC.