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Spicing up British life: How the food trade ripened in Britain

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The many joys and delights of world cuisines are bound to be strong uniting factors in any given society. In Britain, this has certainly been the case. The food trade has informed economic exchange and diplomatic relationships. Our most bustling cities are host to a diverse array of restaurants, which have enriched our taste buds to the point of no return!

But how much influence have our global interactions had on our plates and palates – and where did it all start?

Variety is the spice of life

No one could have imagined that our most common herbs and spices like cloves, nutmeg and even standard peppercorns used to be extremely pricey in England, and bought by wealthy families only.

The truth is, it took a while to get here. The use of herbs dates back to early communities, but the term “spice” didn’t appear in Britain until the end of the 12th century. Controlling the spice market was pivotal for empires, so different European powers competed to cross Asian seas for centuries. They finally reached India by sea in 1498.

By the middle of the 17th century, the British East India Company gained monopoly of all trade in India, and British cooking began to develop in line with our current tastes. Spices and sugar became more accessible and prices dropped. As time went on, pepper became the most important part of the East India Company’s trade and it was imported to the UK, and then exported to other countries.

The first curry house in Britain

One of the earliest entrepreneurial Muslims to come to Britain was Shaykh Din Muhammed who joined the East India Company Bengal Army as a trainee surgeon at the tender age of 10. Moving to Ireland at the age of 25, and later to London, he tested out several business ideas.

Shaykh Din opened the first Indian restaurant in 1810 and was the owner of the ‘Hindoostanee Coffee House’ just off Baker Street. Although both ventures failed leading to his bankruptcy, the London curry scene was set.

Shaykh Din then went on to Brighton where his combination of aromatherapy and hydrotherapy treatments was very successful, leading to the establishment of ‘Mahomed’s Indian Medicated Vapour Baths’. From this enterprise, he gained a national reputation – and hospitals even started referring patients to him.

Today, most chefs working in Britain’s ‘Indian’ restaurants and takeaways are Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, showing how the food trade has evolved with changes in UK demographic.

Middle Eastern food in Britain

Middle Eastern food has also become a firm British favourite, and the industry is constantly expanding.

One of the most revered cookery writers in Britain is Claudia Roden, born to a Jewish Egyptian family in 1937. She brought the Cairo of her childhood to British cooks and books. Her book first published in 1968, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, is widely recognised.

As well as a growing number of Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish, Turkish, Moroccan and Egyptian restaurants in the UK, Middle Eastern food is on demand in British supermarkets. For instance, hummus is in the top five of the country’s most enjoyed dips after it was introduced to Waitrose in the late 1980s.

Going for an English

As immigration has continued, foreign flavoured restaurants are increasing in popularity. Attitudes towards ethnic minority communities have sometimes been at odds with the demand for global cuisines, which, in one example, led to the famous Goodness Gracious Me comedy sketch ‘Going for an English’. However, the food trade continues to thrive in Britain and is influencing how we perceive ourselves and the communities around us.

It’s not just curries and falafels fuelling this process. Next time you’re indulging in a full English, fish and chips, a Shepherd’s Pie or a Sunday roast, trace back the steps of the sugar in your baked beans and the pepper in your mash. You might just be surprised.

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