Cultural Influences on British Cuisine through Colonization
By Elyssa Madden • December 15, 2017
The question of “What is British cuisine?” has changed multiple times throughout the years. Both the country and the cuisine have become hubs for diversity, inclusion, and the mixing of cultural differences. What started as the British Empire’s search for new ingredients led to the introduction of new tastes, flavors, and dishes into the country’s own classic cuisines. While the traditional foods in England are steeped in the rich history and heritage of the culture, the centuries of successful colonization have allowed the modern face of the cuisine to thrive in dynamic diversity. By establishing British colonies in subcontinent India, it allowed for new cultures and influences to infiltrate the preparation of British food, therefore, creating a melting pot of diverse tastes and flavors.
Before Britain began to colonize the rest of the world, the country first had its own foreign invaders that were the original influence on British cuisine. It started in the 9th century when Danish and Norwegian Vikings brought the techniques of smoking and drying fish to the Brits. From there came the Normans with French influences and rabbits to the cuisine, and the introduction of spices from Knights returning to England after their crusades in the Middle East.
The biggest influence on British cuisine came from the colonization of India. Britain’s quest for spices is what drove the rapid rise of their empire, and India was the jack-of-all-trades. The subcontinent flourished in delicacies, such as: cumin, cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, and coriander — all spices now commonly found within the kitchens of great British chefs. Before the 1800s, Indian food was still a mystery to the Brits; in 1809 the first Indian restaurant, Hindoostane Coffee house, opened for business in London, but it closed after three years due to lack of popularity. Over the 19th century, Indian cuisine became very fashionable thanks to the support of Queen Victoria, and curry was starting to accompany every meal. It was during the British Raj, British rule of Indian subcontinent from 1857-1947, that Anglo-Indian cuisine was invented. It derived from British housewives interacting with their Indian cooks, and then merging the two cuisines together to make one.
The introduction of new dishes with exotic Indian flavors had a profound, positive impact on the palates Englishman; the most notable of these dishes being chicken tikka masala and mulligatawny soup. It is now debatable that the most popular dish in England is no longer fish and chips, but is instead chicken tikka masala. While there is no direct origin for this English-interpreted cuisine, some believe it came from the Punjab region of subcontinent India. The dish is made of roasted chicken in spiced curry sauce accompanied by a bed of rice. There is no one correct way to make chicken tikka masala, but turmeric, coriander, and cumin are usually always included in the ingredients. A popular Anglo-Indian cuisine is the mulligatawny soup or “pepper water.” It was created during the British Raj for those who demanded a soup from a cuisine that did not have one. The dishes’ basic ingredients are curry, turmeric, and pepper. There are many different ways to make mulligatawny soup, and today’s versions are completely different from the original with the additions of meat, apples, and chicken broth.
Diversity in British cuisine is directly related to the country’s growth as an empire. Before this, traditional English dishes would feature meat, potatoes, and one form of vegetable, because these were the products readily available in the country. So, while the country’s own geography has a played a role in its more traditional dishes, like fish and chips, the most considerable influence has come from the British colonization in subcontinent India. The spices produced in India’s landscape was something the Brits could not attain on their own at home. Therefore, the acquiring of these spices impacted the variety of cuisines that can now be found in modern day England. Not only that, but it helped transform traditionally bland English dishes into something more flavorful. The migration of Indians to England in the 1950s and 60s reinstated the “curry craze”, which increased the amount of Indian restaurants in the country.
Foreign influences, mainly Indian, have helped infuse British cuisine and create a more multifaceted food culture than ever before. England has now become a melting pot of diversity in both its population and cuisine. The transformation of views towards British cuisine, a cuisine typically ridiculed for being boring, bland, and basic, has helped changed the entire British dining experience. With people now thinking of British cuisine in a positive light, it has opened the doors to new opportunities for chefs wishing to pursue that area of cooking.