The (South Asian) History of Curry Powder

Today, as much as we accuse those who use the word “curry” of painting subcontinental food with a broad brush, the history of curry powder is inherently South Asian.

Sharanya Deepak

October 18, 2021

The (South Asian) History of Curry Powder
Spices displayed for sale (Pexels/Edoardo Colombo)

In 1811, the morning papers of London published an advertisement, where a man named Sake Dean Mohamed — a (truly ridiculous) Anglicized spelling of Sheikh Din Mohammed — introduced his new venture, the Hindoostane Coffee House. The new London coffee house was a restaurant showcasing dishes and recipes from the Indian subcontinent, then a British colony. Mohamed promised to provide an experience “Indian dishes of the highest perfection...to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England.” In 18th century England, restaurants featuring Indian-influenced dishes — like “molo tunny soup,” a British concoction of the Tamil dish rasam, or “burra khana,” a spread of Indian dishes — already existed in the imperial capital, but the Hindoostane was the first Indian restaurant owned and devised by an Indian.

With his new venture, Mohamed wished to entice newly returned officers and memsahibs from the subcontinent, whom historian Lizzie Collingham introduces in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors as retired governors and administrators called “nabobs.” The word “nabob,” a derivative of the Urdu nawab or prince, marked these men as not only those with wealth, but also those who enjoyed the excesses of life in India. “British racial and cultural arrogance meant that they set out to shape Indian society to their own ends,” Collingham writes about the nabobs. “However, they discovered, just as the Mughals had done before them, that India’s impact on its rulers was inescapable.”

This very imprint would lead to the creation of one of Britain’s favorite cuisines: curry. Borne of South Asian influence, curry — the physical product of the fusion between British and Indian palate — would become a household staple and a popular option for dining out. Today, as much as we accuse those who use the word “curry” of painting subcontinental food with a broad brush, the history of curry powder is inherently South Asian.