The Fate of the British Curry House

I’m currently halfway through Bee Wilson’s excellent book, First Bite, which is about how we learn to eat, mixing historical research with personal stories. I was delighted when the Guardian published her article Who Killed the Great British Curry House.

The piece covers some of the same issues raised in the Vindaloo Stories show about the decline in curry house customers and skilled staff. These problems are now so severe that two or three curry houses are closing each week. Wilson quotes the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association warning that “as many as a third of Britain’s curry houses – around 4,000 in total – will close over the next couple of years.”

Staffing has been a problem for some time, with restaurant owner’s children leaving the business and immigration restrictions preventing trained chefs from overseas working in the UK. Initiatives such as the curry colleges have failed to have any impact. These ongoing problems have been made worse by the post-referendum economy, which is causing both rents and prices to rise. Wilson describes one owner who is making a loss on many meals, but nervous of putting the price up. For many people, curry is a cheap evening out. One chef, Kobir Ahmed, explains how “there were Cambridge curry houses that had not put up their prices in 20 years because they were scared of losing customers”.

Maybe the curry house is just not needed in the today’s Britain in the same way as it used to be. As Wilson points out, there are far more options for eating out than there were. I also think the curry house is suffering from a change in British socialising. More liberal  licensing laws mean that pubs are open later, so there is less drive to the post-pub curry. More pubs are now offering decent food too – indeed, Wetherspoon’s, with its Thursday Curry Club, is the country’s biggest curry chain.

For me, one of the great things about Indian restaurants in Britain is that you can find them everywhere. I’ve been hiking around the country with friends recently and, wherever we go, we can find a curry restaurant. Some have been dire (Stanford-Le-hope, I’m looking at you) others have been amazing. I love the little ways each one stands out from the British curry-house template.

One of my favourite moments in the article was when Wilson described “the soul food of the UK, the bowl of warmth that people turn to when sniffy, sloshed or merely peckish” Curry is a vital part of modern British food, and it’s sad to see it in decline.

PS – Another excellent article from Bee Wilson is It’s time to address the dirty underbelly of “clean eating”.

The Vindaloo Stories Performance

IMG_20170111_192133 (copy)

Last week, on Wednesday 11th, I did the first performance of a show based on Vindaloo Stories. It was lots of fun to put on with a large audience turning out.

Promoting an event in January was hard work, but it was fun. I was interviewed by Melita at Radio Reverb  the night before, and Wednesday started early so that I could appear on Radio Sussex’s breakfast show.

radio

This was the first time I’ve done a show or event by myself, so I was delighted that it came out so well. Lots of people helped with it – Emily taught me about press releases; David Bramwell, Rosy Carrick and Rachel Blackman gave great feedback; Kaylee did a great job on the tech; and Robin was there on the night for reassurance. Ema at the Marlborough was also a great help throughout.

There should be recordings coming from the radio interviews. In the meantime there was a review posted by the Latest magazine. I also did an interview with Viva Brighton for this show and an upcoming talk on folklore at the Wellesbourne Society. Now to start looking at future venues for the show.

viva

latest-review

Vindaloo Stories, Brighton, January 11th

I’ve been working on a spoken-word version of Vindaloo Stories, which will be performed for the first time at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre on January 11th. Tickets are now for sale online and cost £7 + fees.

james_vindaloo_flyer_small

This is an expanded version of my Wilderness Festival Talk. I’m referring to it as a spoken-word history as I want to include more personal stories than I could in the earlier version.

The event will look at the history of the vindaloo, why curry houses have similar menus, tourism in India, spicy foods, my own travel misadventures and more. There are also local connections between Brighton and curry’s history, since Sake Dean Mahomed, inventor of the Indian Restaurant, is buried in St. Nicholas’s Church.

Speaking at Wilderness

I’m now home, recovering from a weekend at Wilderness Festival, where I performed as part of the Odditorium tent. We put on a great range of talks, including the eating habits of politicians, body-builders in bondage, Kraftwerk, BDSM relationships with the Archers and Bob Flanagan.

IMG_0562
Photo by @eldevri

I gave two talks, one on Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, and the other on the history of the Vindaloo, an extended version of one I gave at the Catalyst Club earlier this year.

IMG_20160805_190006

The best part about speaking in front of an audience is the Q&A afterwards. I had some good recommendations for a curry-house in Twickenham, as well as two in Nottingham, Adnan’s and 4550 Miles from Delhi. I’ll check those out soon. I forgot the name of the Eating out in Delhi blog. Someone asked about the rise of competitive chilli and curry eating. I reckon there is an interesting line of research here – how chilli competitions relate to the traditional eating contests.

IMG_20160806_055416

A good thing about giving talks is practising gives you chance to reflect upon the material. I realised this weekend how much of the British Curry’s development is down to people trying to eat familiar food when travelling. Something to think about further.

IMG_20160806_061850

Other than the talks, it was a weekend of good weather, relaxing and cocktails. Thanks to David, Andrew, Ernest Magazine and the team for inviting me to speak and looking after everyone. Last year I walked away with the clicker but this year I behaved myself.

IMG_20160806_225340

Some material from the talk has been published in an article in the new issue of Ernest magazine, which I will talk about as soon as I get a copy. Meantime, a recording of my talk at Wilderness last year is in episode 31 of the Odditorium Podcast: The Internet Will Destroy Us.

IMG_20160805_085650

Welcome to Vindaloo Stories!

At the end of last year, I booked a holiday in Goa. I was looking forward to sun, good food and swimming. Just before I left, Ernest magazine asked if I wanted to write something for their upcoming issue. I’d just read Lizzie Collingham‘s book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers and thought it would be interesting to write about the Goa, curry houses and the history of the vindaloo.

goa_beach

The article was finished when I returned (and will be published soon). But I kept on researching. In April I spoke about vindaloo at Brighton’s Catalyst Club, and will be speaking in August at the Wilderness Festival. But I’m still finding out interesting things so thought I should start a blog.

Vindaloo stories will be about the vindaloo. About curry in the news. About my (mis)adventures in India. I’ll talk about how the British curry house came to be as it was, and reveal the secrets of delivery drivers.

If you want updates on the latest posts then you can subscribe to my newsletter, where I’ll send out an update every couple of weeks or so; or there’s an RSS feed. You can also find me on twitter. And, if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about curry then leave a comment and let me know.

13009951_10100196004021034_1158397897_o