Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Is there really a curry crisis?

All right, it's in Keighley!

This is Bradford, Britain’s undisputed curry capital and home to a bewildering range of restaurants serving Asian food. From Prasad’s exceptional vegetarian food through a range of decent quality mid-market curry houses to the classic providers of the mucky curry – the Sweet Centre on Lumb Lane, the Kashmir, the Karachi and the International all within a spit of each other and close to the University for that critical student market.

Yet some people suggest that the business is struggling:

Analyst Peter Backman, of Horizons FS, says that while the restaurant industry has just stopped growing, the Indian restaurant sector is doing even worse, with profits falling. Pat Chapman, founder of the Curry Club, and author of the Good Curry Guide, notes, "You just instinctively know they are struggling", while Backman adds that he is "increasingly gloomy" about the sector's outlook for the next few years, believing Indian restaurants will "continue to lose share to the rest of the eating out market" if the recession continues.

I’m going to take these guys at their word – after all they’re the experts in these matters. The problems, we’re told, are three-fold:

  • The Indian restaurant business hasn’t innovated – everywhere we go there’s the same menu, a seemingly endless list of variations on rogan josh, CTM and balti this and that.
  • The children of the industry don’t want to work there preferring other jobs with shorter hours and earlier nights
  • The government’s immigration policies mean that the tradition of importing chefs from the sub-continent has broken down and there simply aren’t the chefs to fill the hole

It seems to me that there’s another part of the restaurant business that might provide a lesson for the curry house – the Italian. Just as you’re hard pushed to find a High street without an Indian, every place has its share of Italian restaurants. And these restaurants, on the whole, target exactly the same mid-market customers as do the curry houses. Moreover, the Italian developed a consistent offer (usually presented on a menu slightly bigger than a broadsheet newspaper) with a set of familiar dishes that crop up time and time again.

The secret wasn’t exceptional food but consistency, reliability, friendliness and value. And the good ones thrived and survived. Even in a place like Bradford where the curry house is king there are plenty of Italian restaurants. I don’t doubt that, in these tough times, these restaurants are struggling and that some may go to the wall.

For Bradford – curry central (although unlike most other places Bradford’s curry restaurants are mostly Kashmiri-run rather than Bengali-run) means even more of a challenge for restaurants. And the cannier restaurateurs have stopped trying to cram another sleekly-designed place onto Leeds Road. Instead they look to nearby towns – Omar Khan has opened a new restaurant in Skipton and Shipley’s Aagrah has places at Pudsey, on the A64 near York and at Thornbury.

As to innovation there is some – Jaldi Jaldi, Mumtaz’s fast food chain is interesting and creative, for example – but not in the menu. We are stuck with a false search for authenticity:

Ranjit Mathrani, the chief executive of Masala World, which employs 5,000 people and, among others, owns London's Veerasawamy, the country's oldest surviving Indian restaurant, claims the chef shortage has brought the group's expansion up short as surely as the recession.

The company, he points out, could not use "curry college" chefs, because they only allow chefs to cook dishes from their home regions, he says, so they can offer their customers authentic Indian food.

The proper answer to Ranjit’s problem is to remind him that the curry we eat in Britain is the result of an evolution in the dishes brought here from South Asia. What we need is for some more adventurous chefs and a willingness to cut the classic Asian menu down from its choice of fifty or sixty different main courses.

Perhaps a new generation of home grown chefs – needed because we can’t import them from Mirpur or Sylhet any more – will begin to change the menus again. Or maybe the best Asian family restaurants will take the Italian route and eschew innovation in favour of getting the basics right. And, in the end, success will come to the places that set out an offer people like at a price they can afford with service that makes you feel at home.

There isn't a crisis but a little home grown creativity might not go amiss!

1 comment:

SadButMadLad said...

I've always wondered how the chefs from Pakistan seem to have expert knowledge to cook many curries which are purely British inventions like Tikka Masala.