Curry houses are under threat from skills shortages and falling standards. But Tony Naylor has a 10-point plan to modernise the nation's Indian restaurants.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the British curry house was a defining UK institution. We couldn’t have enough of stale, brittle poppadoms and painfully hot vindaloos, washed down with dismal lagers. But in 2017 we’re mired in a (copyright everyone) ‘curry crisis’.
According to industry bodies, under current immigration rules, recruiting chefs from the Indian subcontinent is prohibitively expensive (they must earn at least £29,570). There is now a dire shortage of skilled curry chefs, two restaurants are closing every week and, reportedly, a third of our estimated 12,000 curry houses are in jeopardy. Earlier this year, The Guardian asked: ‘Who killed the great British curry house?’
It’s a good question because, for me, this is about more than recruitment. From Glasgow’s Babu Bombay Street Kitchen to London’s swanky Gymkhana, a small vanguard of restaurants are demonstrating what the future of UK Indian food could look like, but if diners have gravitated away from curry, it’s largely because high-street curry houses have failed to modernise. They serve mediocre food which, if cheap, is no longer cheerful.
Here’s my 10-point plan:
1. Ban the phrase ‘curry house’
Yes, I know. I’ve used it above as a shorthand, but that catch-all patronises a vast Asian landmass teeming with specific culinary traditions. Instead, we must…
2. Drill down
Few of us have tasted, say, a true Goan vindaloo or sattvic cooking (Ayurvedic, vegetarian, no onion or garlic). It’s time to support restaurants that identify as Gujarati or Keralan, to refer to them as such and to encourage a new wave of culturally and regionally authentic cooking.
3. Less choice, better quality
Notoriously, Indian restaurants tend to serve encyclopaedic menus of dishes blanketed in a loosely tweaked base sauce. Shorter menus of clearly differentiated dishes are essential.
4. Bring it home
Do you remember the ‘homestyle’ curry hype? When the future was all about preparing food as Asian mums do at home (deft, expressive spicing; patient cooking etc.). But it’s still rare (Hansa’s and Prashad in Leeds, and Gujarati Rasoi in London) to find Asian women in pro kitchens. Struggling restaurants: women chefs can change your fortune!
5. Think outside the takeaway box
Restaurants need to ditch the standard formula (meat + sauce + rice = curry), and create confident fusion dishes, that, like London-based Gunpowder’s crispy venison ‘doughnut’, dovetail with prevailing trends. During the recent BBQ boom, where were the Pakistani grill restaurants pushing their mighty seekh kebabs and lamb chops?
6. Forget Michelin
The idea that to be taken ‘seriously’, southern Asian food must reframe itself as a refined restaurant cuisine is nonsense. Indian street food offers precisely what modern diners want: gutsy, vivacious, casual sharing dishes.
7. Ditch the glitzy design
I’ve eaten incredible south Asian food in scruffy cafés and lo-fi restaurants such as Bundobust in Leeds and Manchester. That’s the future: less bling, more investment in food.
8. Provenance power
With a cuisine that often has meat centre stage, it's an opportunity to put provenance in foreground, and tell the background stories of rare-breed meats, game and sustainable fish.
9. Drink up!
Curry and beer are natural bedfellows, but venues must embrace craft beer (see Brighton’s thriving Curry Leaf Café), innovative cocktails and move with the times.
10. Cost-benefit analysis
Many Indian restaurants have held their prices for years but they need to reinvest and evolve. If we want a vibrant Indian food scene, prices must rise. The era of the £8 rogan josh is over. We must pay more for great Indian food.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.