Curry houses are as common on British streets as the local chippy, while tikka masala is routinely named the nation’s favourite dish.
But despite the continuing popularity of Indian cuisine, industry leaders say our curry culture is in crisis.
More than 30 people from Indian restaurants across Portsmouth came together at Gandhi restaurant in North End to talk about the problems they’re facing and discuss ways of reversing the decline – not for bringing in the hungry punters, but employing the right staff.
The meeting was part of a series of ‘roadshows’ organised by the Catering Circle group which are taking place across the country.
Abdul Kadir, from Baffins, was among those at the meeting.
Mr Kadir owns Bombay Express balti house in Albert Road, Southsea, and has been part of Portsmouth’s curry scene for 30 years.
Mr Kadir said curry restaurants and takeaways were in a ‘dying situation’ and said it would be disastrous for the country if the industry as a whole failed.
He said: ‘We have never experienced anything like this, even in the past five years, let alone the past 30.
‘If we don’t do anything now we are in a serious trouble. If this business fails we are wiping off £5bn from our economy. Is that what the British government wants?’
Mr Kadir said banks had become more reluctant to lend money, causing further headaches for new businesses and those which wanted to expand.
But he said the biggest problem they were facing were staff shortages and a lack of training options for people coming into the industry.
‘We just don’t have the skilled staff.
‘Second and third generation Bangladeshis are not coming into the industry and there are not enough people who are willing to work the hours involved. But if we are not open late, who is going to feed all these people who go out in the evenings?’
Mr Kadir called on the government to work with the industry to support chefs’ training and education.
He said: ‘The government has not given us any support whatsoever and that is our biggest concern.
‘Why can’t Indian cooking be taught at Highbury College?’
Tougher immigration rules are also taking their toll on the curry industry.
New tier 1 and tier 2 immigration policies make it nearly impossible for chefs from the sub-continent to move to Britain.
The tier 2 rules state that non-European chefs who work in the UK must make a minimum salary of £30,000 per annum.
The 20,700 tier-two applicants who arrive in Britain each year add only about 0.07 per cent to the size of Britain’s labour market.
Also at the meeting was Sayed Aminul Haque, from North End, who has seen Portsmouth’s curry industry grow, prosper and now run into trouble.
Mr Haque agreed that insufficient training was hitting curry houses hard.
He said: ‘‘A major point is the lack of training.
‘If you don’t have good training you don’t know how to operate a good restaurant.’
Ruhul Shamsuddin, from Essex, is the creative director of Catering Circle.
Mr Shamsuddin said the labour shortage should actually be easy to fix.
He said: ‘There are loads of people out there who are looking for work, so it’s all about how to get them trained properly and into the workforce. Immigration policy has had an impact and it seems there’s no incentive for them to do well anymore.
‘We just need to be smarter about how we do things.’
Mr Shamsuddin said saving the industry was complicated as it was driven by small business.
‘We don’t want to be mainstream like Tesco where you get big blue chip giants taking over the corner shops and everything else – this is not the pattern that we want for the restaurants.’
But despite outside pressures, Mr Shamsuddin said it would ultimately be up to curry house owners themselves to find a way through the crisis.
He said: ‘There are curry house closing down more left right and centre, but I think that also has a lot to do with a person’s business acumen.
‘It’s easy for someone to blame it on immigration and all of this, but a restaurant has to see itself as a business model. We have to start thinking outside the box.’
Korma, tandoori, rogan josh and vindaloo. Navigating your way around a curry house menu can be confusing for beginners, although everyone seems to have their favourite.
But curry tastes have evolved over the past few decades, as restaurant owner Ruhul Shamsuddin explains.
Mr Shamsuddin said the trend was towards healthier dishes and foods lower in fattening carbohydrates.
‘People are cutting out carbs and ordering more tandoori and grill dishes,’ he said.
‘Another trend I’ve seen in my restaurant is for brown rice, because it’s a healthier type of rice, and for sweet potatoes.’
Mr Shamsuddin said Indian restaurants now often displayed nutritional information showing how many calories there are on their menus.
He said: ‘More restaurants are having calories counts to help people decide which meal they want to have. Restaurants are also trying to introduce more seafood and healthier dishes.’