History Stories

When Americans think of English food, they might call to mind fish and chips, or perhaps a steaming shepherd’s pie with mushy peas on the side. But England’s most popular food isn’t chips, scones or crumpets—it’s chicken tikka masala. Indian cuisine has been at the heart of the British food scene ever since the East India Company first barged onto the subcontinent in the mid-18th century. From cocktails and beers to soups and curries, the influence is felt everywhere.

The British crown had a commercial presence in India beginning in 1612 and established a trade monopoly there by the mid-1700s. This meant that thousands of Brits lived in sweltering India, hankering for the foods and beverages of home. In the 1800s, thirsty colonists despaired when beer spoiled during long, hot trips across the ocean in cargo bays. Resourceful British brewers compensated for the harsh conditions of the voyage by adding more hops, using a natural preservation method that also resulted in a delightful drink. Our modern-day India Pale Ales, or IPAs, descend from this practice.

Beer isn’t the only beverage to benefit from a passage to India: gin and tonics also owe their existence to British colonialism. While the British East India Company wasn’t the first to realize the anti-malarial properties of quinine (that distinction belongs to the Romans), they were the first to drink it in cocktail form. As early as 1825, British officers began combining their daily doses of medicinal quinine syrup and decidedly non-medicinal gin into one pleasant beverage, covering up the bitter quinine taste with lime and sugar.

The Indian influence doesn’t stop with drinks. Chutneys, curries, rice dishes and all manner of Indian bread products have become fixtures of British cuisine. In the Victorian age, a craze for all things curry overtook England. Curry houses were fashionable, and in 1861 Isabella Beeton included a recipe for curry powder in her landmark “Book of Household Management.” This infatuation with a cuisine so different from the standard roast and pudding fare may seem surprising—until you consider the warming effect of a steaming bowl of spicy curry on a cheerless soul in dismal London. Curry also offered Victorian cooks a great way to use up leftovers: something had to be done with the rest of that Sunday roast.

A curry house staple, mulligatawny soup first appeared in British cookbooks during the Victorian age. It’s believed the soup was created by Indian cooks for British officers who enjoyed traditional, peppery Tamil stews but would only eat them in soup course form. (The name is an Anglicization of the Tamil term for “pepper broth.”) Recipes for mulligatawny vary widely: curry powder, apples and chicken broth are often added, but Australians sometimes add tomatoes and bacon to the mixture as well. Below you’ll find a recipe for a simple vegetarian mulligatawny, featuring apples for sweetness and lentils for flavor and body. If you prefer your mulligatawny meaty, just use chicken broth instead of vegetable stock, and stir two cups of cooked chicken breast or thigh meat into the pureed final product.


Start to finish: 1 hour
Servings: 4-6

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
3 tablespoons curry powder
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 apples, chopped
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 cup lentils
8 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 lime, juice and zest
2 cups cooked shredded chicken meat (optional)
Chopped cilantro, mint or green onions (optional garnish)

In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or soup pot, melt butter on medium heat. Add salt, cumin, coriander, pepper, ginger and garlic, and cook until garlic is aromatic but not browned, about 1 minute. Add curry powder, onions, celery, carrots and apples and sauté until vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Next add crushed tomatoes, lentils, 6 cups of the vegetable stock, turmeric, cinnamon and bay leaf, stirring continuously. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 40 minutes or until lentils are soft. If liquid level seems low, add up to 2 cups of the vegetable stock. When lentils and vegetables are tender, puree soup with immersion blender or in a blender until smooth. Add lime juice and zest, chicken if desired, and season with salt to taste. Garnish with optional cilantro, mint or green onions.

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