In my soon-to-be-released novel, Mansfield Parsonage, my heroine, Mary Crawford, loves Indian food. How, you may ask, is this possible in 1812? Its not like there were Indian restaurants in London that early in the 19th century!
Well, there’s were you are going to be surprised. The first Indian restaurant in London was the Hindoostane Coffee House, which opened in 1810. There is even a plaque commemorating it in Westminster.
Indian cuisine, and personal chefs from India who could prepare it, were both of great value to the those who had been exposed to it in the course of Colonialism – so anyone who worked for the East India Company and/or in the military or their family members could have been a lovers of curry and channa masala. Mary Crawford, as the niece of an Admiral, could have plausibly been one of those who yearned for naan bread.
Alas, the Hondoostane Coffee House went out of business after a year. I take poetic license in my book and have it remaining open into the spring of 1812, just so poor Mary doesn’t have to rely on the Admiral’s cook to get a decent bite of tandori chicken. Here is the excerpt from the book, wherein the Crawfords, the Grants, and Edmund Bertram discuss where the Crawfords’ got their taste for the exotic tastes:
“Well …” Henry drew the word out. “[The Admiral’s] new cook is from Calcutta.”
Amid the laughter, Mary cried out, “Unfair! Now he gets an Indian cook. I love Indian cuisine and cannot have it here, yet the Admiral gets curry every night.”
“If you gave us a recipe, I am sure Cook could make some Indian dish,” Mrs Grant said with a tinge of worry as if she had failed Mary by not suspecting a secret longing for channa masala.
“My dear Mrs Grant, I don’t believe Cook could get the ingredients for an Indian dish nearer to here than London,” Mary lovingly consoled her sister. “Moreover, Indian dishes are made with such complexity that I am afraid Cook would either poison me or herself to avoid having to make them.”
“I’ve never had Indian cuisine,” Edmund admitted, “yet I have long wanted to try it.”
“Then visit my uncle and me when you next come to London, sir,” Henry offered amiably. “The Admiral loves Indian cuisine and you will enjoy all the Indian dishes you could ever want. You must be warned, though, that some of them are spicy enough to have your tongue off.”
“How did the Admiral come to like Indian dishes. Did he serve in India?” Edmund asked.
“No, he has not had that pleasure. His taste for Indian dishes is second-hand; several of his good friends did serve in India and it was on their tables that he first sampled it. One of my uncle’s officers, Captain George Elliot, even has an Indian cook aboard his ship, but considering that Caption Elliot’s father is Governor-General of India, his love of Indian cookery is very natural. My uncle’s enjoyment of the flavours of Indian cuisine was so great he became determined to get an Indian cook, but such cooks are hard to come by, even in London. It took him nearly three years before he could hire his present cook. The fellow had jumped ship at Cardiff, and had made his way to Bath, where he was promptly snatched up by the Admiral.”
There actually was man from Calcutta who jumped ship at Cardiff and made his way to London to work as a cook; I read an account of him in a copy of a newspaper from the time. However, the owner of the Hindoostane Coffee House arrived in London via a more conventional route. The restaurant’s proprietor, Sake Dean Mahomed, had served in the British army before moving to England.
In 1814 Mahomed and his wife (an Irish girl for whom he converted to Christianity in order to marry) moved to Brighton where he opened up a bath house offering champooi, an type of Indian massage and cleaning that was rendered as “shampooing” in English. Mahomed, “described the treatment in a local paper as “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when every thing fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints.” This business was an immediate success and Dean Mahomet became known as “Dr. Brighton”. Hospitals referred patients to him and he was appointed as shampooing surgeon to both King George IV and William IV.”