William Makepeace Thackeray, the 19th-century English satirist, was born in Calcutta, and once penned an ode to curry. “ ’Tis, when done,” he wrote, “a dish for Emperors to feed upon.”
Curry today, done well or otherwise, feeds Britons of all stations. (The British use the word “curry” as a catchall term for all types of Indian food.) Most Britons, at least according to various opinion polls, consider chicken tikka masala, a British colonial adaptation consisting of chunks of chicken drowned in yogurt and a spicy tomato paste, their national dish – more so than fish and chips with mushy peas.
Curry is so important to the national palate that it has its own committee in Parliament. Nearly every town has a curry restaurant, known here as a curry house; even the village of Ballater, Scotland, nestled among mountains and with 1,500 residents, boasts two.
But the curry industry has found itself in a pickle: There are not enough curry chefs in Britain.
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The Conservative government’s restrictions on immigration are causing an acute staff shortage, said Shahanoor Khan, secretary general of the British Bangladeshi Caterer Association. Already, he said in an interview, a third of the nation’s 12,500 curry houses are at risk of closing because they cannot find chefs.
The first generation of curry chefs who opened restaurants in the 1960s were mostly from East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh, and are now retiring, but they cannot find cooks to replace them, Khan said. Younger, better-educated and more assimilated British Asians are reluctant to take on the family business because of the grueling hours and low pay.
Indian restaurants are changing, too. Customers are increasingly demanding authentic fare that reflects India’s culinary diversity and sophistication, a trend also seen with the rising number of Michelin-starred Indian restaurants. But Indian cooks trained in Britain are few and far between, and chefs say it takes at least seven years to properly train one.
“Because of immigration, you have tikka masala,” said Paul Scully, a Conservative lawmaker and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group of the Curry Catering Industry. Curry proves that immigration is no threat to Britain’s “cohesive society,” he said, criticizing Theresa May, the home secretary, who told the Conservative Party conference last month that migrants were endangering national cohesion.
Mohammad Azad, executive chef at Cafe Saffron in Shropshire, said he has tried to hire Europeans. But there were “so many barriers in the kitchen, starting with the language,” he said at a curry chef awards ceremony.
At the ceremony, at the elegant Lancaster London hotel overlooking Hyde Park, politicians, entrepreneurs, minor celebrities and curry chefs mingled and watched an incongruous troupe of women clad in aprons dance to Bollywood music, waving ladles in the air as the winners were announced.
“When it gets busy in the kitchen and you start shouting in Bengali, it’s difficult for a Romanian to understand,” Azad said, raising his voice above the din.
Staff shortages are common among all types of restaurants, but they are particularly worrying for those specializing in curry.
Indian restaurants employ about 100,000 people and generated 4.2 billion British pounds ($6.3 billion) in sales last year, accounting for about a fifth of the entire restaurant business, according to data compiled by Karan Bilimoria, a member of the Parliament’s curry committee and the creator of Cobra beer. Bilimoria is also leading efforts to build “curry colleges” across the country with the aim of expanding the Indian restaurant business, which produces twice as much revenue as Britain’s steel industry.
Politicians and entrepreneurs like Scully and Bilimoria are urging the government to relax immigration rules. Britain currently puts a cap on skilled migrants arriving from outside the European Union and requires chefs seeking entry to be paid at least 29,570 pounds a year, which is 5,000 pounds more than the average salary in the industry.
Most Indian restaurants are small family-owned businesses, and owners struggle to match the wages that the government demands. New restaurants also normally take 18 months to break even, said Motin Miah, a restaurant owner based in Harpenden, northwest of London.
At a debate held at the House of Commons two weeks ago, Scully said the curry industry would benefit from Britain leaving the European Union. It would give Britain “more flexibility to control our borders and tackle some of the unintended consequences of immigration from outside the EU,” he said. “Things such as bringing curry chefs over might benefit.”
The irony of a crackdown on migrants is not lost on curry chefs, given the history that binds India and Britain. After all, curry came to British shores when merchants in the East India Co. returned home with their Indian cooks.
The East India trading company controlled vast swaths of land in India for more than a century until it was taken over in the mid-1800s by the British crown, which began its own colonial rule. Merchants directly ruled the eastern territories of Bihar and Bengal, some of which make up present-day Bangladesh. The company had its headquarters in what is now Kolkata, where Thackeray was born.
Company officials regarded themselves as the Indian elite, wearing local clothes and even referring to themselves as Indians back in Britain, said Lizzie Collingham, the author of “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.”
Curry powder was concocted in India to suit the taste of its British overlords, simplifying the dazzling array of regional cuisines.
“The British invented the curry powder to put into their English stew,” she said. “It’s a pastiche of what the British and the Europeans thought of as Indian food,” she added. “It was like saying all Europeans eat stew.”
Curry became widespread in Britain in the Victorian era, but fell out of favor in the beginning of the 20th century. It was revived in the 1940s, when Sylheti migrants from present-day Bangladesh began working in the catering business after toiling on British ships as boiler stokers. They took over bombed-out fish and chip shops and transformed them into curry shops that became popular among inebriated men returning from late-night soccer matches.
Indian restaurants flourished in the 1960s, when immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were welcomed here. “But it wasn’t really Indian food,” Collingham said. “These Indians had learned what the British in India would eat and served it back in Britain.”
Now, new Indian restaurants are trying to move beyond curry, she said, but tighter rules are choking the culinary exchanges that come with immigration.
Bilimoria agreed. “Should we expect our curry to be cooked in Delhi and flown over to us?” he asked. “No,” he said. “We need chefs right here.”