SO FAR SO GOOD

There is a lot of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi food in Luton now, but there hasn’t always been.

Curry contributes more than £5bn to the British economy. In 2001, Britain’s foreign secretary Robin Cook referred to Chicken Tikka Masala as a “true British national dish”.

By the 18th century, East India Company men wanted to recreate a slice of their time spent in India. They satisfied their appetite at coffee houses. Curry was served in the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket As early as 1733. By 1784, curry and rice had become specialties in some popular restaurants in the area around London’s Piccadilly.

The first Indian restaurant was the Hindoostanee Coffee House which opened in 1810 at 34 George Street near Portman Square, Mayfair. 

Curry gained popularity as an excellent way of using up cold meat. In fact currying cold meat is the origin of jalfrezi, now a popular dish in Britain. Between 1820 and 1840, the import of turmeric, the primary ingredient in making curry, in Britain increased three fold.

However, the bloody revolt of 1857 changed the British attitude towards India. The upper classes ate curry less, but army mess halls, clubs and the homes of common civilians still served it.

Curry needed a jolt and who better to promote it than the Queen herself. Queen Victoria was particularly fascinated by India. Victoria and Albert built Osborne House between 1845 and 1851. Here she collected Indian furnishings, paintings, and objects in a specially designed wing.

A Monarch’s Love

Victoria employed Indian servants. One among them, a 24-year-old named Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi, became her ‘closest friend’. According to Victoria’s biographer A.N. Wilson, Karim impressed the monarch with chicken curry with dal and pilau. George V, Victoria’s grandson, had little interest in any food except curry.

By the early 20th century, Britain had become home to around 70,000 South Asians, mainly servants, students and ex-seamen. A handful of Indian restaurants sprang up in London, the most famous being Salut-e-Hind in Holborn and the Shafi in Gerrard Street. In 1926, Veeraswamy opened at 99 Regent Street, the first high-end Indian restaurant in the capital. Its founder Edward Palmer belonged to the same Palmer family frequently mentioned in William Dalrymple’s famous book, ‘The White Mughals’. Edward’s great-grandfather William Palmer was a General in the East India Company and was married to Begum Fyze Baksh, a Mughal princess. Palmer’s restaurant was successful in capturing the ambience of the Raj; notable clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, amongst others.

The Slow Burn

Curry was yet to establish itself firmly in British cuisine. In the 1940s and 1950s, most major Indian restaurants in London employed ex-seamen from Bangladesh, particularly from Syhlet. Many of these seamen aspired to open a restaurant of their own. After the Second World War, they bought bombed-out chippies and cafes selling curry and rice alongside fish, pies, and chips. They stayed open after 11 pm to catch the after-pub trade. Eating hot curry after a night out in the pub became a tradition. As customers became increasingly fond of curry, these restaurants discarded British dishes and turned into inexpensive Indian takeaways and eateries.

After 1971, there was an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants into Britain. Many entered the catering business. Peter Groves, co-founder of National Curry Week, states that “65%-75% of Indian restaurants” in the UK are owned by Bangladeshi immigrants.

Today there are more Indian restaurants in Greater London than in Delhi and Mumbai combined. As Robin Cook aptly puts it, this national popularity of curry is a “perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”.

Read more of this article here.

Luton’s Old Times

Luton Council built a hospital on Farley Hill in the late 12th century where poor travellers could stay. There was another hospital in Luton, this one for sick people. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. In the late 12th century King John granted Falkes de Breaute the manor of Luton. His home was known as Fawkes Hall, which derived into Vauxhall. His heraldic emblem was the griffin and the name and his emblem became associated with the area and later with Vauxhall Motors who made their headquarters in Luton. The factory employed locals from 1905 to 2002. The factory only builds commercial vehicles there now.

In the Middle Ages Luton had 6 watermills. By the Middle Ages the town had six watermills, hence the historic names of Mill Street and Castle Street. One mill gave its name to Mill Street. In 1137 the Lord of the Manor built a new church. In 1139 he built a castle with a motte. Castle Street got its name from these structures.

In 1336 there was a great fire in Luton which destroyed much of the town. Fire was a constant danger in those days because most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, if they burned they could be easily rebuilt. Luton soon recovered from the disaster.

As well as a market Medieval Luton had a fair. A fair was like a market but it was held only once a year. After 1338 Luton had a second fair in October.

Traditionally the town was famous for brick making in the 16th century and later for hat-making during the 17th century and 18th century.

A Tradition of Change and Re-Invention

For centuries Luton continued to be a quiet market town serving the surrounding countryside. In the 16th century, a brick-making industry grew up in Luton. Until then most houses were of wood but in the 16th century, many people re-built their houses in brick. In the 17th century, a straw hat-making industry began. In the 18th century, it came to dominate Luton.

During the civil wars of the 17th century, there were 2 skirmishes in Luton. The first occurred in 1645 when some royalists entered Luton and demanded money from the townspeople. Parliamentary soldiers came and in the ensuing fight 4 royalists were killed and 22 were captured. A second skirmish occurred in 1648 when a royalist army passed through Luton. A group of stragglers was caught by parliamentary soldiers in an inn on the corner of Bridge Street. Most of the royalists escaped but 9 were killed.

In the 18th century, Luton continued to be an agricultural market town serving the local villages. Hatmaking was its only important industry. In 18th century Luton there were the same craftsmen you found in any market town such as brewers, bakers, butchers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. In the early 18th century a writer said: ‘It has a market house and a large Monday market for corn with which this area much abounds’.

Luton Hoo was built in 1757 for the 3rd Earl of Bute. It was designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1791). However, it was largely rebuilt after a fire in 1843.

For centuries there had been a ford across the Lea. In 1797 a bridge was built and Bridge Street was created.

Luton in the 19th Century

Luton grew rapidly in the 19th century. In 1801 the population was 3,095. By the standards of the time, Luton was a fair-sized market town. By 1851 the population of Luton had exceeded 10,000 and it continued to boom. In 1901 it had reached 38,926 more than 10 times the 1801 level.

The straw hat-making industry continued to dominate Luton although some felt hats were made after 1877.

There were many improvements to Luton during this century. From 1834 Luton had gaslight. In 1847 a Town Hall was built. The first in Luton newspaper began publication in 1854. The same year the first cemeteries were opened (as the churchyards were becoming overcrowded).

Like the rest of the country, Luton suffered an epidemic of cholera in 1848. However, conditions in Victorian Luton gradually improved. In 1850 a Board of Health was formed and they set about building sewers. A water company was formed in 1865 and by 1870 the whole town had a piped water supply. Meanwhile, the railway reached Luton in 1858.

Luton Council built the covered market in 1869 as a plait hall, where plait could be bought and sold. Then Luton Council built its first hospital in 1872. The same year they built the first Luton swimming baths.

The Crown and Government made Luton a borough in 1876 and formed the Luton Chamber of Commerce 1877. Shortly after, Luton formed Luton Town Football Club in 1885.

For Queen, Curry and Country

Indian restaurants first appeared in England in the 19th century, catering for Asian seamen and students, and then multiplied in the 1950s and 60s to feed the newly arrived south Asian factory workers. But their boom time only began in the 70s, when they adapted their menus for a working-class, white clientele.

By 1982, there were 3,500 Indian restaurants in Britain and ‘going for a curry’ became an established and popular evening out.

Eyeing the popularity of Indian food, mainstream operators from pubs to schools to B&I catering have been quick to add ‘curries’ to their menus, drawing inspiration from the most popular dishes on a typical Indian restaurant menu. What they may not match in authentic flavour or ‘Indian restaurant experience’ they have made up for in competitive pricing and the advantage that diners in a party who might not fancy Indian food can choose something else from a varied menu. Rather than attempting to ‘move Indian food on’ from the traditional Indian restaurant offering, mainstream operators on the whole have chosen to replicate the model within their own formats, often using ready-prepared products to deliver it. So there has been a recycling of existing ideas rather than any real innovation.

But things are starting to change…

After years of consistent growth and a consistent format, things are changing in the Indian restaurant world: the trend of steady growth may be faltering, or even reversing. The ritual of the Indian restaurant experience (poppadoms, warming trays, hot towels etc), once uniquely exotic and exciting for UK diners, now faces fierce and diverse competition. A new wave of Indian eateries, with different approaches and different food is diversifying the market, raising Indian food’s general popularity.

Read more of this article here.

Luton in the 20th Century

During the 20th century the hat-making industry, which had dominated Luton for so long went into decline but new industries came to Luton. One of these was engineering. Vauxhall came to the town in 1905. Soon Luton became known for car manufacturing. In the early 20th-century Luton made gas cookers and meters, as well as ball bearings. A chemicals industry also began in Luton in the early 20th century.

Luton grew rapidly in the 20th century. It had a population of about 50,000 in 1914 but by the 1960s it had grown to over 130,000.

Conditions in Luton improved in the 20th century.

In 1904 the council purchased Wardown estate and made it a park. The first cinema in Luton opened in 1909. Trams ran in the streets from 1908, but busses became more popular in the 1920s.

The local unemployed in Luton destroyed the town hall in 1919. Ex-servicemen burned it down, and it took until 1936 for the council to build a replacement.

Wardown house became a museum and art gallery in 1931.

Also in the 1920s and 1930s the council set about demolishing the worst slums in Luton and they built the first council houses. They built the New Court House in 1937.

Luton Council extended the boundaries in 1928 and 1933 to include Leagrave, Limbury and Stopsley. Luton and Dunstable hospital opened in 1939.

Bombs fell on Luton during the Second World War. The German bombing killed 107 people and destroyed or damaged over 1,500 houses. After the war, Luton council had to replace these and also demolish many remaining slums. Luton council built new council houses and estates at Farley Hill, Stopsley, Limbury, and Leagrave. They built the M1 in 1959.

Luton TODAY

Car production ended in Luton in 2002. It was the end of an era for Luton although the town continues to prosper. In 2019 the population of Luton was 213,000.

Today Bangladeshis run 85-90% of the Indian restaurants in the UK, most of which still rely on tried and tested Anglicised favourites such as vindaloo or tikka masala. Much of the output of these restaurants, whilst tasty, is neither authentic or traditional Indian food. Try a modern dish like the vegan karela (23), and see how far Indian food in Britain has come!

Find out more about Luton here and here.