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. As he knelt to kiss her feet, she was struck by what she described in her diary as his “fine serious countenance.” Some inexplicable connection was made that day, with the queen, who was still grieving the death of her beloved Scottish servant and companion John Brown, deeply drawn to Karim.
It was the start of an extraordinary friendship — and the theme of a syrupy new film. Victoria & Abdul is a nostalgic colonial romp redeemed mainly by Judi Dench’s stirring performance as an obstinate old lioness, but it shines the spotlight on this highly unconventional relationship that dominated the lonely queen’s final years and broke 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 by the young Muslim man that she asked him to teach her Urdu (then called Hindustani). Within a year, he had gone from being what the English dismissively referred to as the “kitchen boy” to the queen’s “Munshi” (teacher).
Over the next 13 years, until the queen’s death in 1901, Karim was constantly at her side, even spending a night alone with her in her cottage in the Scottish Highlands, where she and Brown had passed the time together. Karim was viewed as the late Brown’s replacement — snidely referred to in the movie as “the brown John Brown” — and his closeness to the queen, though her feelings were clearly maternal, scandalized the royal household.
But a spicier outcome of this friendship was the elevation of a dish already popular in England: curry.
A few weeks after kissing her feet, writes Shrabani Basu in Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant (the book on which the movie is based), Karim cooked Victoria “a fine Indian meal: chicken curry, daal, and a fragrant pilau.” In a diary entry on Aug. 20, 1887, the queen noted appreciatively: “Had some excellent curry prepared by one of my Indian servants.”
This was scarcely the first time Victoria had tasted curry, a dish which had become popular in England in the late Georgian period, with a variety of curry pastes and powders available in the stores. “She definitely had curry before Karim,” says British food historian Annie Gray, who chronicled Victoria’s lavish appetite in her book, The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria. “Long before Karim, curry de poulet appeared on the dinner menu at Windsor Castle on December 29, 1847.”
But, as Gray points out, the curries Victoria ate in her youth were quite different from the one Karim cooked her. “Those early curries, which I call Raj or Anglo-Indian curries, were not what we would recognize today,” she says. “They used fruit, were heavy on turmeric and galangal, and were creamy and mild. I once cooked a Raj-style curry and it started off with frying cucumber and apple — and I thought, really? But if you take it on its own merit, it’s really nice if still slightly bonkers. In any case, in Victorian England, curry was a way to use up leftover meat and vegetables. It was not regarded as a high-class food.”
The queen evidently thought otherwise. Soon, curry was being served on a regular basis at her dining table. Victoria’s Swiss cook, Gabriel Tschumi, who joined the kitchens as an apprentice in 1898, described how the Indians did everything from scratch, using only halal meat and grinding their own spices: “For religious reasons, they could not use the meat which came to the kitchen in the ordinary way, and so they killed their own sheep and poultry for the curries. Nor would they use the curry powder in stock in the kitchens, though it was of the best imported kind, so a part of the household had to be given to them for their special use, and there they worked Indian-style, grinding their own curry powder between two large round stones and preparing all their own flavoring and spices.”
In the late 1880s, says Gray, curries feature on Victoria’s menus twice a week — as a lunch dish (chicken curry) on Sundays and as a dinner dish (fish curry) on Tuesdays. “Curries were referred to as the ‘Indian dish,'” says Gray. “There were two high-ranking 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 “each day at luncheon whether the guests partook of it or not,” but Gray disputes this, pointing out that the surviving ledgers make no mention of curry for lunch every day.
Indeed, there’s no real evidence of Victoria actually relishing it. The only time curry pops up in her diary is on that very first occasion when Karim makes it for her. “She never mentions it again,” says Gray, who strongly suspects that this legendary curry wasn’t even cooked by Karim, but by the Indian cook whom he and the other four Indian servants had employed to cook for them.
“There are all these myths about Victoria eating curry every day and for breakfast, which is just not true,” says Gray. “Her breakfast was mutton chops, sausages and a beef steak. She had a sweet tooth, a taste for whiskey (once adding it to her claret), and a lifelong penchant for Brussels biscuits (a kind of rusk) and fresh fruit. Her physician, Dr. Reid, was forever advising her to eat less and take digestion salts to deal with her stomach upsets and flatulence, but no, though she ordered curry to be cooked, she didn’t eat it every day.”
As curries simmered in the royal kitchens, so did the royal household, which watched with growing resentment as the lowborn Indian servant continued to bask in the queen’s favor, receive land grants, promotions and honors, and walk around with a sword and a chest of medals. “He had reduced the household to a level of abject jealousy,” says Gray. Everyone, including the Indian servants, found him pompous, grasping, and conceited.
But the queen wouldn’t hear a word against him. She dismissed all complaints as “race prejudice” and was furious when she found out that her Indian servants were being called “the Black Brigade.” In her eyes, the “gentle and understanding” Karim was the one sinned against. In the teeth of all opposition — including from Dr. Reid and her son and heir Edward — she robustly defended the “unfortunate persecuted Munshi.”
Through the plotting and intrigue, the queen carried on with her Urdu lessons. A quick learner, she filled her little red and gold phrase book with everyday Urdu phrases, including two peevish complaints about her meals: Cha Osborne mein hamesha kharab hai (The tea is always bad at Osborne) and Unda thik ubla nahin hai (The egg is not properly boiled.)
Karim, whose English had greatly improved, regaled her with spangled stories of the Taj Mahal, the street bazaars of Agra, and the way in which religious festivals were celebrated in his homeland. Victoria had been proclaimed Empress of India in 1876, but had never visited the country. For the gourmand queen, tasting an Indian mango soon became an idée fixe. The mango scene in the film, says Basu, is based on fact. Victoria did indeed order a mango from India, despite Karim warning her it wouldn’t survive the six-week sea voyage. Sure enough, when it arrives and is presented by a footman, the overripe orb is peremptorily declared to be “off.”
“Victoria was an adventurous eater,” says Gray, “She ate anything – Indian, Chinese (she loved the bird’s nest soup), new fruits, curry. My grandmother, for instance, thought curry was this funny foreign stuff, she wouldn’t eat it. Victoria, living a hundred years ago, did. I don’t think she popularized curry per se, it was already so popular, but her embracing of Indian culture, including its food, helped make it ahead of its time.”
By her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the queen was deep in the throes of what her exasperated doctor called “Munshi mania.” She was implacable — even the news that he had gonorrhea did nothing to dent her affection for him. But as Victoria’s reign drew to a close, so did Karim’s. Barely hours after the queen’s funeral, the new monarch, Edward VII, evicted the Munshi and ordered he be deported to India.
“The new king did not want to see any more turbans in the palaces or smell the curries from the Royal kitchens,” writes Basu.
It was too late of course. Curry has insinuated itself into the English palace and palate. The Swiss chef who wrote about the Indian servants grinding masalas would later note that under Edward VII, curry and rice were cooked regularly by non-Indian cooks, and that George V, Edward’s curryholic son and Victoria’s grandson, insisted on curry every single day.
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.