Britain’s great curry crisis

It has even featured in the campaign for referendum about whether the U.K. should stay in the EU

May 26, 2016 01:15 am | Updated November 11, 2021 04:30 am IST

Fiery chicken tikka

Fiery chicken tikka

Chicken tikka masala was once famously described as Britain’s national dish — but the country now seems to be falling out of love with its curry houses.

I once had a chicken korma — nothing special, but perfectly adequate — in a curry house called Indian Garden in the tiny north England market town of Easingwold. It’s since closed down — a common fate these days. On average, five Indian restaurants and takeaways are closing every week. But this particular curry house had fallen out of favour by causing the death of one of its customers.

Erosion of service Mohammed Zaman, who owned this and five other Indian restaurants, has this week been sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter by gross negligence. His restaurant served a curry containing peanuts to a man who had made clear he had a peanut allergy — the sort of allergy that affects approximately 1 per cent of the U.K. population. The >tikka masala he took home triggered a severe anaphylactic shock .

Another of Mr. Zaman’s customers had been taken to hospital just three weeks earlier, again because she had been served a curry containing nuts even though she was allergic. The prosecution at the trial said that to save money, the restaurant had switched almond powder for a cheaper mix containing peanuts.

It’s terrible publicity for a curry industry already on the ropes. Most Indian restaurants and takeaways in the U.K. pride themselves on providing food which is good quality and excellent value. But this tragic death and the resulting court case will reinforce the impression that some curry houses cut corners on ingredients.

Even without Indian Garden, the residents of Easingwold still have two other curry houses to choose from — that’s one more than the number of traditional fish and chip shops in the town. The Indian takeaway is almost as familiar a part of the British street scene as the pub. But for curry houses, as with pubs, business is none too good.

More than 80 per cent of Indian restaurants and takeaways are Bangladeshi-owned and run — serving not Bengali-style food but an Anglicised version of North Indian cuisine which few in North India would recognise (or wish to eat). The food was seen as fun, cheap, and “going for a curry” became a national pastime. In 2001, in what was probably the high noon of Indian cuisine in the U.K., the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, declared chicken tikka masala the national dish.

Not any longer, I suspect. There are still perhaps 10,000 curry houses across Britain, but the industry is shrinking. Some forecasts suggest that fully one in three of these businesses is struggling to survive. Young members of the Bangladeshi community are often not keen on the long hours and low wages prevalent at the cheaper end of the catering industry. And it’s no longer so easy to bring chefs over from Bangladesh because of the tight restrictions on would-be immigrants without formal qualifications.

Brexit referendum The “great curry crisis” has even featured in the campaign for next month’s referendum about whether the U.K. should stay in the European Union. Employment Minister and advocate of “Brexit”, Priti Patel — whose parents came to England from Uganda — has argued that “our curry houses have become victims of the EU’s uncontrolled immigration rules”. She says that while experienced Bangladeshi chefs find it difficult to get a visa, cooks from European Union member countries in Eastern Europe can come and work without restriction.

But Indian food, especially the more downmarket fare, seems to be falling out of favour. Youngsters increasingly go for a pizza or barbecue-style chicken rather than a curry. In the more fashionable city districts, Vietnamese street food is the “in” thing.

Plenty of Indian restaurants are still thriving, and dosa outlets and Bombay street food joints are doing well. That may point the way. The best prospect for the Indian food industry is perhaps to go upmarket, and offer dishes which have something — for British customers at least — fresh and new about them. But the old-style tikka masala has lost a lot of its spice.

Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent.

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