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The Rise and Fall of the Curry House
Words by Thuli Weerasena
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently.
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British-Asian culture was invented, as everyone now knows, around 38 seconds into the song Mundian To Bach Ke, when the bass from Knight Rider drops and the song escapes its voice and tumbi orbit, becoming a phenomenon. Of course, this is not really the case. As the writer Akhil Sood details in his oral history of the song, Panjabi MC’s success, as well as the moulding of bhangra into new, exciting forms, was part of a long search for identity that British-Asians had been undergoing in the wake of Thatcher, and the heavy racism suffered by South Asian communities in the 70s and 80s. Mundian To Bach Ke was released at a time of huge optimism, maybe the last period of collective optimism I can remember in this country, in the late-90s when 18 years of Conservative rule had been overturned by New Labour. Suddenly, British-Asianism, with its hyphenated culture, was everywhere
Key to the idea of British-Asian as an identity, was the possibility of hybridity, that both identities could inform each other to create something that was completely of its own, and unlike anything that had come before it. What is striking in the twenty or so years since that wave of optimism is how ─ with a few exceptions ─ the visibility of British-Asians within British culture has decreased, while the increased representation among British-Asians within power has culminated in an assimilationary form of identity, epitomised by cabinet ministers in the current Conservative government whose own policies actively harm the communities that they, in theory, represent.
What has all of this got to do with the curry house? As Thuli Weerasena points out in today’s newsletter, maybe everything, maybe nothing. The curry house is in decline, but whether you believe it ever stood for the promise of hybridity over assimilation depends on whether you believe the curry houses stood for subjugation or not. In a nuanced takedown of modern British-Indian restaurant aesthetic, Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube says “they [curry house operators] literally created a whole new cuisine with white british expectation at its centre” because “can you imagine tryna sell Rui Maas to a white person in the 80s?”. This is true, but the debates over whether the curry house was more informed by whiteness than by the chefs themselves does sometimes gloss over the simple fact of whether or not the food was actually good, whether it was capable of giving many types of people pleasure. I don’t want to romanticise the curry house for what it was not, but give me a choice between a curry house jalfrezi and a £6 vada pav, I will take the jalfrezi: at the very least, it’s more honest.
The Rise and Fall of the Curry House, by Thuli Weerasena
There was a time when “going for an Indian” on Friday night was practically a national pastime in Britain. From the ‘Curry Capital’ of Bradford to Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle’, Brick Lane’s ‘Banglatown’ to Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’ and myriad provincial towns in the Scottish Highlands, it seemed as if there was no part of the country without an area dense with curry houses. Their rise in popularity was exponential, growing from 300 restaurants in 1960 to around 12,000 by 2011. By the early 2000s, curry had entrenched itself so deeply that it had almost become synonymous with what it was to be British, featuring heavily in Red Dwarf as the favourite foodstuff of Craig Charles’ character, David Lister, a self-professed curryholic with a vindaloo tattoo on his right buttock. Football fans even ate curry with their hands on the terraces (wrapped in pastry, in the form of a Balti Pie) while singing “vindaloo, vindaloo, nah, nah.”
In 2001, it was against this cultural backdrop that then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave a speech to the Social Market Foundation think tank in London. The address was one of a number made by Labour ministers to define the nature of Britishness in the run-up to that year’s general election. Cook had been made aware of a survey claiming chicken tikka masala was now the nation's favourite food. For the Labour government, the public embrace of a dish with subcontinental roots reimagined on British soil was a timely metaphor. During his speech, Cook famously declared that “chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish.”
The first four years of the New Labour government coincided with a broader mainstream boom in British South Asian culture: food, yes, but also music, films and TV. Cornershop topped the charts with ‘Brimful of Asha’ in 1997 and the following year Punjabi MC achieved a top-five single the following year with ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’. Goodness Gracious Me had a primetime spot on BBC Two. Cook’s celebration of chicken tikka masala’s hybridity as a defining feature of Britishness was in the context of this boom – and provided a contrast to the rhetoric of suspicion that had previously surrounded a South Asian diaspora that had supposedly failed to integrate into British life. He chose the tikka masala to serve as a culinary symbol of New Labour’s vision of successful multiculturalism “not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.” The message was clear: a more hopeful, more tolerant country was embracing not only the food of South Asia, but also its people and culture.
The history of Indian restaurants in Britain stretches back to the 19th century, when they mainly catered for South Asian seamen and former civil servants of the Raj. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that a new institution called the ‘curry house’ began to make its mark as a distinct phenomenon. Deindustrialisation and the Bangladeshi Liberation War meant that there were suddenly many newly unemployed Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers and refugees in cities such as Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester. They identified a growing appetite for “exotic” food among young people who wanted to reject the bland diet of their parents, and decided to try their hand at running restaurants.
Almost all of Britain’s curry houses are still owned and staffed by Bangladeshis from the region of Sylhet. The rest, including Birmingham’s Balti restaurants, are run by Pakistanis mainly hailing from Punjab or Mirpur. This tiny catchment area for curry house operators led to the creation of a distinctive curry house culture that was soon replicated all over Britain. Restaurant owners, often lacking culinary training and resources, turned to tried and tested Anglicised menus from existing restaurants. Poppadoms, onion bhajis, flock wallpaper, pink tablecloths, and waiters in bow ties were institutionalised as British curry house hallmarks from the 1970s onwards, alongside a new menu of curries that de-regionalised existing Indian dishes into an easy to understand (and easy to make) canon that ranked curries according to heat level: korma, tikka masala, jalfrezi, madras, vindaloo.
Yet twenty years on from Cook’s speech, the curry houses that popularised chicken tikka masala in Britain are a dying breed. Research carried out by Aston Business School estimates that a third of curry houses may struggle to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic. The industry was floundering even before the massive loss of business caused by lockdown measures. In 2016, curry houses closed at a rate of two a week. Rising costs, changing tastes, cheap supermarket curries, increased competition from fast-casual restaurants and even health-conscious millennials were blamed for creating a “curry crisis” on the high street. Like many others in hospitality, curry houses have also come under fire for their treatment of staff, but they also face the issue of being mainly family-run businesses with a lack of prestige compared to other restaurants.
Zaf Hussain, owner of Shababs in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle, points to the decline of the pub and the reluctance of younger generations to enter the restaurant business as crucial factors behind the rising number of closures. “Curry houses had a business link with pubs, pubs have been closing, which has had a knock-on effect on the curry industry, these two industries worked hand in hand.” Hussain himself is a rare example of the younger generation taking over the reins. Many second and third-generation family members have been “more attracted to the professional fields rather than working anti-social hours in the food industry.”
Ironically, the most significant threat to the curry house may come from within the South Asian diaspora. In recent years, a new wave of Indian restaurants focusing on street food and regional cuisine has emerged. Some of these restaurants’ owners are more than happy to call time on the curry house and consign it to the scrap heap of history. Tania Rahman, the owner of Indian street food restaurant Chit Chaat Chai in Clapham, has suggested that curry houses are “stuck in a time warp.” Curry houses have also begun to face accusations of inauthenticity, both from white British people in search of ‘authentic’ Indian food as well as South Asians. The fact that most curry house proprietors and chefs originate from Bangladesh and Pakistan has added to this feeling that their restaurants do not serve ‘real’ Indian food. Today, the curry house is a source of embarrassment for those who consider themselves discerning diners, more likely to be used by food critics as a lazy reference point in reviews of Indian fine dining restaurants than it is to be celebrated.
In the late 1970s, Mohammed Arif, the owner of a curry house in Birmingham called Adil’s, commissioned some bowls from a local metal-basher. The style was similar to the traditional cast-iron Pakistani karahi but made of thin pressed steel so that it could be heated over a high flame like a wok. Mohammed was keen to create a dish that could be made in minutes rather than slow-cooked for hours. Unlike a lot of other curry house fare, the Balti was designed to appeal to British and British Asian diners alike. The new Balti bowl and its eponymous curry quickly became a Brummie icon, thanks in part to the way it was theatrically presented, still sizzling at the table.
“The first time I had a Balti it was a revelation,” Andy Munro recalls. Munro is the author of several Birmingham Balti guides and has dedicated much of his spare time to documenting the restaurants and chefs behind the Balti’s creation and continuation and lobbying for the protection of the Balti Triangle (Birmingham’s dense area of Balti restaurants) as a vital part of Birmingham culture. Munro’s vision of Balti as uniquely Brummie subtly differs from Cook's idea of chicken tikka masala as uniquely British. Where Cook’s notion assimilates Asian culture into British, with Britain as the active agent in determining how it “absorbs and adapts external influences”, Munro has genuine affection for a Pakistani Brummie invention that has had a truly transformative impact on shaping the culture of Birmingham.
That the Balti was created by enterprising Pakistani chefs with the agency to make something new stands in stark contrast to the fervent diasporic desire to decolonise Indian food, a desire that has gained prominence in food writing circles and resulted in some commentators questioning the very legitimacy of ‘curry’, given the word’s colonial origins. To some, the curry house is and always has been a symbol of submission, a kind of neo-colonial institution where immigrants were forced to cosplay the servitude of the British Raj to an audience of drunk and often abusive white folks to earn a living. The frequently endorsed origin story of chicken tikka masala ─ whereby a chef combined a can of tomato soup with pieces of marinated chicken to satisfy a customer who complained the dish was dry ─ has enforced this image of servility, suggesting that the curry house’s food has been influenced more by bland, white British palates than by the chefs themselves. Indeed, the South Asian diaspora’s move to distance itself from curry has opened the door for white people to claim ownership over it and declare ‘tikka masala is Scottish’ or ‘curries were invented by the English.’ There is seldom reference to South Asian chefs in these types of comments, or an acceptance of hybridity in the form of British-Asian descriptors.
But dismissing the curry house’s popularity as mere subservience to white tastes ignores the circumstances in which early South Asian immigrants had to operate. The generation that oversaw the curry house boom lived through the outright racism of the 1960s and 1970s, epitomised by the National Front, where merely existing in public spaces as a South Asian could result in violence or even death, as with the tragic case of Altab Ali. In an article in the Journal of Modern History, Elizabeth Buettner reports that white neighbours of Asian households openly complained that "all the houses reek of cooking curry” and “some white residents of the Smethwick area of Birmingham considered cooking odours so offensive and detrimental to the neighbourhood that they demanded rate reductions on their houses from the city council.” Remarkably, against this backdrop of racism and revulsion for South Asian smells, curry houses managed to convert white Brits into paying customers.
To this day, a true Balti does not exist outside of Birmingham, despite the existence of Balti pies and supermarket Balti pastes. “Balti is a Birmingham heritage,” says Hussain. His restaurant is one of the last remaining places that continues to cook and serve Balti in the original bowl. The Balti restaurant has suffered a similar fate to its curry house cousin. A once-exotic food has become a comfort staple, misrepresented by mainstream knock-offs. Food media’s obsession with discovering new trends and seeking out the authentic has left little room to celebrate the Balti as a hyper-regional dish or the curry house as a British-Asian institution.
Cook’s speech in 2001 was heralded as a milestone in the history of South Asians in Britain, a celebration of a new multicultural country. In reality, Cook and New Labour’s ‘chicken tikka multiculturalism’ was proven to be conditional within a matter of months. British-Pakistani artist Kazim Rashid has commented that any chance of a true celebration of a British-South Asian hybrid identity dissipated after 9/11, and British South Asian representation in mainstream culture vanished in the years that followed. Britain’s love for chicken tikka masala has never translated into an acceptance for the South Asian immigrants who made it. Cook himself was demoted from Foreign Secretary after the 2001 general election, having not cleared his speech with Tony Blair. He subsequently resigned over Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which, along with 9/11, triggered rampant Islamophobia and suspicion of all South Asians, whether they were Muslim or not.
Many of the restaurateurs I spoke to attribute the decline of the curry house to a shortage of skilled chefs caused by stringent immigration policy, introduced by New Labour in 2008 and worsened by the coalition and Conservative governments. In 2012 the impending “curry crisis” was posed to the then-Chancellor, George Osborne. He replied that “we all enjoy a great British curry, but we want the curry chefs to be trained in Britain so that we can provide jobs for people here in this country. That is what our immigration controls provide.” Osborne’s remarks unintentionally echoed a sketch from a 1979 episode of the Not the Nine O'Clock News, in which Rowan Atkinson's parody of a Tory minister says, “I like curry, but now that we’ve got the recipe… is there really any need for them [immigrants] to stay?” Osborne’s plan to train British chefs to work in curry houses quickly fell apart after a £1.75m curry college scheme only attracted 16 people out of 70 places.
Four years later, many business owners within the curry industry voted for Brexit, as a result of the “Save Our Curry Houses” campaign set up by Vote Leave and fronted by Priti Patel. The campaign claimed that curry houses were being denied high-quality chefs because of the caps on the number of non-EU workers able to come to the UK. Some restaurant owners have since expressed regret for voting to leave the EU and are still struggling to recruit chefs. There has been an amendment to the Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List, allowing restaurants providing takeaway service to sponsor non-EEA national chefs. However, other restrictions still apply, and the promised ‘Vindaloo Visa’ is yet to appear.
Little credit is now afforded to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurateurs and chefs who popularised early curry culture in Britain. To counter this narrative, Enam Ali, the founder of the annual British Curry Awards, has recently launched British Curry Day and the #BackTheBhaji campaign, “to celebrate the lives and achievements of early curry pioneers as many of them have sadly been lost to the Covid-19 pandemic” (in the UK, Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities). He is calling for “British curry to be regarded as a cuisine in its own right.”
Salim Chowdhury, President of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association, points out that
whilst the strong demand for curry may be seen as incidental, the same cannot be said for the resolve of the immigrants who took the risk of not only arriving to live in a foreign country but started businesses in the midst of such an adjustment. To deny its authenticity would be to deny the imprint and therefore the identity of British Asian people, inherently distinct from the South Asian culture they originate from.
The proliferation and popularity of curry in Britain might be taken for granted, but curry houses should be seen as disruptive businesses that created distinctive hybrid cuisine and were foundational in building the diverse food landscape that we see today. In the end, the story of the curry house is one of the unlikely success of a group of working-class Muslim immigrants who, against all odds, managed to change the tastes of a nation – if not its prejudices.
Thuli Weerasena is a British-Sri Lankan cook and occasional writer, currently working in food and drink communications. Thuli grew up in Birmingham and now lives in London, where he runs a Sri Lankan diaspora cooking project @polboy.ldn.
The photos for this article were kindly supplied by Lora Munro, with permission of Andy Munro. All non-vintage photos are credited to Jack Spicer Adams, whose work you can find here. Vintage photo of men at bar by Syed Pasha.
Going for Balti: The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish, by Andy Munro
I Hate Dishoom, by Zarina Muhammad
Banger, by Akhil Sood
The Great British Curry Crisis, by Malcolm Moore
Going out for an English, by Goodness Gracious Me
Conservatives Thoughts on Curry (George Osborne and Not The Nine O’Clock News)
The Location of Culture, by Homi K. Bhabha