Since the 1980s, the ‘Indian’ restaurant sector in Britain has been dominated by Bangladeshis, who make up an estimated 80% of the businesses and workforce.

Over 60% of Bangladeshi men and 30% of Bangladeshi women are employed in Britain’s hotel and catering sectors, with over a quarter of Bangladeshi men employed as chefs, cooks or waiters and with high levels of self-employment. Bengali involvement in Britain’s ‘Indian’ catering sector, and the origin of Britain’s relationship with curry, is longstanding, with roots in British imperialism.

As East India Company employees and officials returned to Britain, having made their fortunes in India, they also brought back with them their taste for curry. British cookbooks first began to include Indian recipes from as early as 1727, with the publication of Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Ann Shackleford’s The Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767) and John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery (1783) also contained Indian recipes. The Indian dishes in these cookbooks required the importation of spices for the production of ‘curry powder’.

From the 1840s curry powder – a spice mixture – was available for purchase in Britain, among other Indian food products including pickles and chutneys. Historians suggest that this spice blend 'curry powder' was widely produced and consumed in the late eighteenth century. As early as 1784, a store in London’s Piccadilly advertised that it sold curry powder. Between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric, the main ingredient in Britain’s curry powder, increased threefold.

In terms of eating establishments, curry and rice had been served in a handful of fashionable restaurants in London’s West End since the 1730s. Historian Visram writes:

‘By 1784 curry and rice had become house specialities in some fashionable restaurants in London’s Piccadilly, the Norris Street Coffee House advertising it as such as early as 1773’. (Visram, 2002:6)

The first dedicated Indian restaurant in the West End catering to British diners was the Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street, Mayfair, which opened in 1809. Its owner Dean Mohammed was the son of a Bengali army officer. The success of this restaurant was, however, short-lived, but soon other Indian restaurants appeared, which catered largely for Britons returning from service in the British Raj and for well-to-do Indian students in the city. These included Salut e Hind in Holborn in 1911, Shafi café in Gerrard Street in 1920 and Veeraswamy in Regent Street in 1927.

Many of the West End’s pioneering Indian restaurants hired ex-seamen from Sylhet in their kitchens. The earliest record of a Sylheti working in a London restaurant is from 1873. The first Sylheti-owned restaurant in the West End opened in 1938, when Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi took over the Dilkush in Windmill Street, Soho, although it was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.

Alongside the emergence of London's high-end curry restaurants, the 1920s also saw the establishment of small Bengali-owned cafés in East London, which catered for a Bengali seafaring clientele. In the 1920s and 1930s, the small settled community of Bengali seafarers in the East End began to open lodging houses, providing food, welfare, support and shelter for the growing community of newly arrived lascars

These early cafés, run by former lascars and ship’s cooks, offered meeting places for newly arrived Bengali seamen seeking company and support and were fundamental to the emergence of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants.  Ayub Ali ‘Master’, perhaps the most well known of the East End’s early Sylheti settlers, opened a lodging house for lascars at 13 Sandy’s Row and opened Ayub Ali’s Dining Room, a ‘curry café’ serving mostly seafarers, at 76 Commercial Street, near Brick Lane. This café was soon rebranded as The Shahjalal Restaurant to attract the steadily increasing number of Bengalis who had settled in the area after the Second World War.

By the late 1940s there were several Sylheti-owned cafés selling hot drinks and snacks in Brick Lane, catering to the growing number of post-war Bengali migrants. Among the first of these was Pakistani-owned Star Café, established in 1958 at 66 Brick Lane. It was owned by Lahore-born Abdul Rezak and closed a decade later. A close relative of Rezak recalls the menu at Star Café:

‘There were just two curries at that time – there was chicken or meat curry, and rice or chapatis or paratha. And I can still remember meat curry was one shilling and sixpence, chicken curry was two shillings and sixpence. And these were mostly kosher foods ... when we came to this country there was no halal meat, so we ate kosher. It’s the same as halal – the Jews are our cousins.’

Star Café opened at 9am and closed at 8pm every day of the week. The café's main customers were Bengalis and other South Asian men who lived in what was still at the time a predominantly Jewish residential area.

The number of ‘curry cafés’ in Brick Lane expanded considerably in the 1960s, to meet the demands of single men living locally.  A former Brick Lane restaurateur said:

‘We had handful of, oh, three, four restaurants in Brick Lane and the surrounding area, and they weren’t marketing towards European clients. Whatever was set up in Brick Lane, they created for themselves, like, for minority community work, ethnic workforce, you know. And people who didn’t have their family with them – the bachelors – they needed that support.’

A turning point in the history of Brick Lane’s restaurant trade, when Bengali-oriented cafés transformed into curry restaurants with adapted offerings to attract a white clientele, was the opening of The Famous Clifton. This once infamous restaurant opened its doors in 1967 at 124 Brick Lane and was owned by Pakistani-born businessman Musa Patel.

The 1980s witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of curry restaurants in Brick Lane. In 1980, Brick Lane was home to four restaurants and four cafés serving curry. A decade later, the number of cafés serving local Bangladeshis remained the same but there were now six curry restaurants, which mainly targeted white, middle-class customers. Brick Lane’s tourist economy and identity as London’s ‘Curry Capital’ emerged in the late 1990s, with the redevelopment of the street as ‘Banglatown’.

What once began as a taste for imported Indian spices, has transformed into one of the fastest-growing food retail sectors in Britain. ‘Indian’ restaurants and takeaways can be found in every corner of the UK, from the iconic urban curry quarters in Manchester, Birmingham and Bradford, to the small high street takeaway businesses in towns and villages, while ‘Indian’ chilled and frozen foods have become a popular everyday staple in all major supermarket chains. In 2001, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook famously claimed that ‘chicken tikka masala was ‘Britain’s true national dish’. In 2011 the dish was overtaken by chicken jalfrezi.

Today, it is estimated that the ‘Indian’ restaurant and takeaway sector in Britain is worth £3.5 billion (rising to £4.3 billion if outside catering and supermarket sales are added). There are around 10,000 small businesses, of which 80% are Bangladeshi-owned, employing around 80,000 people.