Is curry our next big export?

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A couple of years ago the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, asked me to head a body of chefs and owners to encourage Indian restaurants in Britain to take on apprentices to both help tackle rising youth unemployment and also create a new talent pool. He made the request because it was becoming increasingly difficult to bring employees to the UK from the subcontinent.

In June, chefs flocked to the World Curry Festival. The event was held not in Delhi, Karachi or Dhaka, but in Bradford. The 10,000 or so curry houses in Britain invariably shock a first-time visitor from the subcontinent – over there, for a start, the word curry is not really used. Your local Taj Mahal or Kohi Noor restaurant is a thoroughly UK invention. Along with the Mini, pubs and the television, it’s something we have created here and we should feel a sense of pride about that.

When we celebrate all things British in business, the curry house should rank among our top 10, as should the fish and chip shop and the pub. Go to Spain, New York, Hong Kong or Dubai and you will see the latter two exported from here tile by tile. Generally, they do very well but they are there largely to serve Brits who are either tourists or work in those locations.
If high-street curry houses here were created for people of Asian origin they would never have become popular. According to folklore, the dreadful chicken tikka masala emerged in the 1970s when a guy in northern England visited his local Indian restaurant and ordered a chicken tikka and when it arrived at the table he said, in true Brit style, that the dish lacked sauce. So it went back to the kitchen, where the chef opened up a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup and emptied it into a pan, stirred in some cream and sent it back to the diner. Hey presto, chicken tikka masala was born and has since become a much-loved national dish.

You may have heard this story before and the reason I am relaying it here is because it isn’t true. I know that’s the case because about 20 years ago I made it up. At the time I ran an Indian food magazine called Tandoori. I used to be inundated with phone calls from journalists compelled to write curry stories because their readers were obsessed with Indian food, and I grew tired of being treated like a ‘curry information bureau’.

To amuse myself I would invent stories like this, and it has been gratifying over the years to have the tale told back to me – most notably when I bumped into Heston Blumenthal about eight years ago in Delhi. He was there with the BBC to record a programme about the origins of Britain’s favourite dish. Neither he nor his producers were much pleased when I fessed up.

The truth about chicken tikka masala is that it derives from a dish created in Old Delhi some 50 years ago called murgh makhani, or butter chicken, but I prefer my version of the story. We all like the tale of the northerner because it makes the dish a British creation. When we celebrate the best of UK business, we should acknowledge the wily entrepreneurs largely from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh who embraced this elaborate pretence by calling chicken tikka masala a ‘chef’s special’ and charging an extra couple of quid for it.

The British curry, of course, is no longer a ‘Brit Bangla’ domain – the biggest seller of a hot Indian meal is the giant Wetherspoons pub chain and the supermarkets sell millions of ready-made meals as well as sauces and pastes.

Out of the 10,000 or so curry houses in Britain, fewer than 10 of the operating companies behind them have more than six branches. It’s a scattered sector, which is largely family-owned and run, so no Pizza Express-type brand has emerged on our high streets. The idea of launching one is on my endless “to do” list of things.

I told Eric Pickles of my plans for this and my firm belief that there is space for an Indian restaurant chain that should start in Britain and then head to other cities around the world. In his hushed but firm voice, he advised me: “Take it to Delhi.” It’s not a bad idea. After all, pubs are very popular over there. Perhaps a British curry – along with a UK beer – could be our next big business export.

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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