Since the ’70s, the curry house has been a staple not just of British food, but British culture as a whole. They were once a revelation – proponents of an exciting, colourful, and different way of eating out. They single-handedly jazzed up the British palate threefold, and inspired people to recreate these new, exotic flavours at home.
Now, two are closing each week. And the future doesn’t look any better – the Asian Catering Federation predicts 50% of traditional curry houses will close in the next 10 years. A seemingly overblown estimation, until you see what’s happening around the UK. Three years ago, there were more than 70 Indian restaurants on Wilmslow Road in Manchester, also known as Curry Mile. Now, there are eight. Meanwhile, on London’s Brick Lane, 30 of its 50 Indian joints have closed in the past five years.
So what’s happening? Chef shortages and rising costs have been in part to blame, and curry houses’ struggles to recruit new kitchen staff have been an issue for more than a decade. Brexit and stricter immigration policies are another threat, but – with the exception of a few particularly harsh legislations – these pose problems for the hospitality industry almost everywhere you look.
Hone in on the issue and it seems the curry house’s woes come down to their own failures. Particularly when the Asian Catering Federation, despite their warnings, note that the dining out sector is actually thriving. At the same time, the £30-billion-a-year takeaway industry is enjoying one of its most optimistic periods to date.
You see, back in the ’70s curry was a new thing. There was a buzz around what dish you were going to try next with your pilau rice; which one of the rugby club members could cope with the hottest dish; and a fascination with the notion that this was ‘how Indians did food.’
But, slowly, Britain began to wake up to the reality of what the curry house really was: Anglicised dishes such as vindaloo and tikka masala; gargantuan, 150-dish menus to try and please everyone; confetti coloured rice; and bland towers of poppadoms, all washed down with a pint of Kobra.
Indians who’d settled in the UK, or were travelling to visit, first noted in the ’60s how ‘Indian’ cuisine in Britain was a poor reflection of their own. Forty years later, and the same things are on the menu. The proliferation of the identikit Indian restaurant becomes blindingly obvious, wherever you travel in the UK.
What the industry has yet to realise is the tastes of the nation have moved on. In London, it’s a problem compounded by the success of a new breed of Indian restaurants. Restaurants like Kricket, which serve thick cut lamb chops marinated in fresh ginger, lime juice, and dried lichen; or Gunpowder, where the venison doughnut – delicate but crunchy and best paired with a mango-laced dipping sauce – is a star dish. These are not your usual high street Indian joints.
While some of these restaurants are not 100% authentic per se, it hardly matters – the traditional Anglo-Indian restaurants we know and once loved can’t keep up with people’s appetite for something different. This failure to modernise is reminiscent of why the number of pubs is still in decline. People are bored of the old, once-thought timeless formula. It’s come as a shock to the industry, but curry houses must now adapt or die. Which ones will step up to the plate?