Bangladeshi brothers building on a great tradition
By SYED BELAL AHMED
For more than 200 years the British ruled in India. On their departure in 1947, they left many legacies in which culinary tradition played very little part. Back on British soil however, a takeover of a very different nature began. From Britain, India gained a unifying language, salted beef tongue and rissoles. From India, on the other hand, the British gained their favourite food ever – curry.
In fact the British love affair with Indian food began many years before. In 1810 the Hindoostanee Coffee House in Portman Square, presided over by Sake Dean Mahomet, was the first Indian owned and operated restaurant in London. In the late 19th century, spicy food was becoming more and more fashionable with the middle classes. The passion was even shared by Queen Victoria who employed Indian staff to cook spicy food every day.
The popularity of curry waned in the early 20th century, but with increased fascination about the empire, culinary interest in the East renewed. Returnees from India had become accustomed to exotic spices and flavours and craved an antidote to the bland fare available in the days of post-war rationing. They did not have to wait long. Their appetite was satisfied by Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian immigrants who opened up curry houses and coffee houses in bombed out buildings and old cafes. The British curry revolution was underway and here to stay.
Today, curry and in particular, the home-grown dish of Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) has become the nation’s favourite food. In fact, CTM is now even recognised to be the national dish. Indian restaurants flourish in every corner, every town and high street of the UK. Balti – a concoction that originated in Birmingham – has now made history as the first curry in Europe to apply for trademark status.
At the forefront of this curry phenomenon are the British-Bangladeshis. After Bangladesh became independent in 1971 the settlement of immigrants increased, particularly with workers from the north eastern area of Sylhet. Today, around 80% of the Indian restaurants in Britain are operated by people of Sylhet origin.
Many of the first generation restaurant entrepreneurs came originally to work in other industries, such as textiles or manufacturing, and turned their hand to catering when those traditional industries declined. By 2000 there were almost 8,000 Indian restaurants turning over more than £2 billion ($3.1 billion) and employing some 70,000 people. Now, Indian restaurants number more than 12,000 and contribute £4.2 billion ($6.3 billion) to the economy of the UK. They have become as much a part of British life as fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
The curry industry has also seen a burgeoning of allied industries. Entrepreneurs have stepped up to fill in gaps in the retail market, like rice brands such as Tilda, sauce manufacturers Pasco, and Indian beer producers Cobra and Bangla Beer. Indian food itself is now one of the fastest growing food and drink sectors in the UK. In spite of suffering a recession, staffing shortages caused by the cap on immigration and a crippling level of VAT, ethnic restaurants have survived and are thriving. As such, they have, by and large, fared far better than that other famous British institution – the public house.
About 11 years ago, I and my brother, Syed Nahas Pasha, launched Curry Life magazine with the aim of raising the profile and standards within the curry industry. With 25 years’ experience working in publishing and journalism we had both run our own restaurants and wanted to use our knowledge to help other entrepreneurs. We have been overwhelmed by the response. What started out as a humble newsletter has grown to a glossy 50-page publication read all over the world, widely recognised to be the voice of the curry industry.
Curry Life has helped hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs to improve their quality and skills and provided inspiration to perform on the global stage. In 2002 we launched our first international food festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Every year since then we have taken a team of top chefs from the UK to promote the unique brand of British curry cuisine at locations in South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In India, in cities such as Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune and Bhubaneswar, we have showcased the talents of some of the best Indian and Bangladeshi chefs Britain has to offer.
Taking curry back to the place where it was born is always a challenge (it has been likened to taking coals to Newcastle), but Indian diners are universally intrigued by the success of curry in the UK. At the opposite end of the scale, in Slovenia in Central Europe, where curry is not well known, our annual festival backed by the British embassy created an unprecedented demand for Indian food in the country’s capital of Ljubljana. The success of the festival led us to partner with Hotel Park to open a restaurant, Curry Life Figovec, reflecting the best of curry cuisine.