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”.