In the last 13 years of Queen Victoria’s life, she spent a lot of time with Abdul Karim, who originally came from India to wait at the Queen’s table but soon became part of her closest circle. And despite all the opposition, Victoria and Karim continued. Alexander Bassano / Spencer Arnold / Getty Images hide caption
Alexander Bassano / Spencer Arnold / Getty Images
Alexander Bassano / Spencer Arnold / Getty Images
They met at breakfast. On the third morning of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in June 1887, a tired Queen Victoria was greeted by a tall, bearded young man in a scarlet tunic and white turban. Victoria was 68, Abdul Karim 23. When he knelt to kiss her feet, she was impressed by what she called his “fine, serious face” in her diary. That day, an inexplicable connection was made with the Queen, who was still mourning the death of her beloved Scottish servant and companion, John Brown, who was attracted to Karim.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary friendship – and the subject of a thick new film. Victoria & Abdul is a nostalgic colonial frenzy redeemed primarily by Judi Dench’s rousing performance as a headstrong old lioness, but it puts the spotlight on this highly unconventional relationship that has dominated the lonely queen’s final years and the boundaries of race, class and religion in an era defined by these hierarchies.
Karim had been sent from Agra to London as a “gift from India” to wait at the Queen’s table. But Victoria was so taken with the young Muslim that she asked him to teach her Urdu (then Hindustani). Within a year he had gone from what the English disparagingly called “kitchen boy” to “Munshi” (teacher) of the queen.
For the next 13 years, until the Queen’s death in 1901, Karim was by her side, even spending a night alone with her in her cottage in the Scottish Highlands where she and Brown had spent time together. Karim was viewed as a replacement for the late Brown – derogatory in the film as “Brown John Brown” – and his closeness to the Queen, although her feelings were clearly maternal, shocked the royal household.
But a spicier result of this friendship was the upgrading of a dish already popular in England: curry.
A few weeks after kissing her feet, Shrabani Basu writes in Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Most Confidante (the book the film is based on), Karim Victoria cooked “fine Indian food: chicken curry, Daal undal a fragrant pilau. “In a diary entry of August 20, 1887 the Queen noted appreciatively:” Had an excellent curry prepared by one of my Indian servants. “
This was hardly the first time Victoria tried curry, a dish that had become popular in England in the late Georgian period, with a variety of curry pastes and powders available in stores. “She definitely had curry before Karim,” says British food historian Annie Gray, who records Victoria’s luscious appetites in her book The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria. “Long before Karim, Curry de Poulet was on the evening menu at Windsor Castle on December 29, 1847.”
Victoria & Abdul
The true story of the queen’s closest confidante
But, as Gray points out, the curries Victoria had eaten in her youth were very different from the curries Karim had made for her. “Those early curries, which I call Raj or Anglo-Indian curries, weren’t what we’d recognize today,” she says. “They used fruit, were high in turmeric and galangal, and were creamy and mild. I made a Raj style curry once and it started by frying cucumber and apple – and I thought, really? Merit, it’s really nice, if still a little crazy. In any case, in Victorian England, curry was a way to use leftover meat and vegetables. It wasn’t considered high class food. “
Apparently the queen thought differently. Soon curry was regularly served at her dining table. The Swiss chef from Victoria, Gabriel Tschumi, who started working as an apprentice in the kitchen in 1898, described how the Indians made everything from scratch, using only halal meat and grinding their own spices: “For religious reasons, they could eat the meat, that came to us did not use in the kitchen, so they killed their own sheep and poultry for the curries. The curry powder that was in store in the kitchens was also not used, although it was of the best imported variety, so that part of the household had to do it for their particular use, and there they worked the Indian way, grinding their own curry powder between two large round stones and preparing all their own flavors and spices. “
In the late 1880s, says Gray, curries were on Victoria’s menus twice a week – as a lunch (chicken curry) on Sunday and as dinner (fish curry) on Tuesdays. “Curries were known as the ‘Indian dish,'” says Gray. “There were two high-level tables – the household table and the queen’s table. The ‘Indian dish’ would only appear on the queen’s table.” Tschumi claimed it was “served for lunch every day whether guests attended or not,” but Gray denies this, pointing out that the surviving ledgers do not mention curry for lunch every day.
In fact, there’s no real evidence that Victoria really enjoys it. The only time curry appears in her diary is on that very first occasion when Karim prepares it for her. “She never mentions it again,” says Gray, who strongly suspects that this legendary curry wasn’t even made by Karim, but by the Indian chef he and the other four Indian servants hired to cook for her.
“There are all these myths about Victoria eating curry every day and for breakfast, which is just not true,” says Gray. “Her breakfast consisted of mutton chops, sausages and a beef steak. She had a sweet tooth, a penchant for whiskey (once in her red wine), and a lifelong fondness for Brussels biscuits (a type of rusk) and fresh fruit. Her The Doctor, Dr. Reid always advised her to eat less and take digestive salts to cope with her upset stomach and gas, but no, although she cooked curry, she didn’t eat it every day. “
Just as curries simmered in the royal kitchens, so did the royal household, who watched with growing resentment as the lowly Indian servant continued to bask in the queen’s favor, received land permits, promotions and honors, and walked around with a sword and a chest Medals. “He had reduced the budget to a level of low jealousy,” says Gray. Everyone, including the Indian servants, found him pompous, greedy, and conceited.
But the queen would not hear a word against him. She dismissed all complaints as “racial prejudice” and was furious when she learned that her Indian servants were called “the Black Brigade”. In their eyes the “gentle and understanding” Karim was the one sinned against. Despite all opposition – also from Dr. Reid and her son and heir Edward – she vigorously defended the “unfortunate persecuted Munshi”.
Through the intrigues and intrigues, the queen continued her Urdu class. She was a quick learner and filled her little red and gold phrasebook with everyday Urdu phrases, including two morose complaints about her meals: Cha Osborne mein hamesha kharab hai (Tea is always bad in Osborne) and Unda thik ubla nahin hai (Not the egg properly cooked.)
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Karim, whose English had greatly improved, delighted her with glittering stories about the Taj Mahal, the street bazaars of Agra and the way religious festivals were celebrated in his homeland. Victoria had been proclaimed Empress of India in 1876, but had never visited the country. For the gourmet queen, tasting an Indian mango soon became an obsession. The mango scene in the film, Basu says, is based on fact. Victoria actually ordered a mango from India, despite Karim warning her that she would not survive the six-week sea voyage. In fact, when the overripe ball arrives and is presented by a servant, it is decidedly declared “out”.
“Victoria was an adventurous eater,” says Gray, “she ate everything – Indian, Chinese (she loved the bird’s nest soup), new fruits, curry. Victoria, who lived a hundred years ago, did. I don’t think she popularized curry per se, it was already that popular, but her devotion to Indian culture, including food, helped make it its time was ahead. “
On her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the Queen was in the middle of what her disgruntled doctor called “Munshi mania.” She was unforgiving – even the news that he had gonorrhea did nothing to diminish her affection for him. But when Victoria’s reign came to an end, Karim’s also came to an end. Barely hours after the queen’s funeral, the new monarch Edward VII drove the Munshi out and ordered him to be deported to India.
“The new king no longer wanted to see turbans in the palaces or smell the curries from the royal kitchens,” writes Basu.
It was too late, of course. Curry has crept into the English palace and palate. The Swiss cook, who wrote about the Indian servants grinding masalas, later noted that under Edward VII, curry and rice were regularly cooked by non-Indian cooks and that George V, Edward’s Curryholic son and Victoria’s grandson, went up every day Curry existed.
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tennessee.