Education gets spiced up as curry-making finds way on to menu


LETTER FROM BRADFORD:THE HOUSE speciality in the Prashad restaurant in Bradford is aloo dum biryani – a mixed vegetable dish – prepared as “an ode to her ancestral past” by Minal Patel, who had never cooked professionally until she came to Britain six years ago.

The Prashad, a vegetarian Indian establishment with just 40 seats on the Grange Horton Road in the West Yorkshire city, has rarely had a free seat since Minal (29) and husband, Bobby, featured on Ramsey’s Best Restaurant programme on Channel 4.

Bradford, now feted as the curry capital of England, and its surrounding towns are not short of good curry houses; the Prashad itself, or Kiplings in the city, or the Aagrah, or Shimla Spice in the surrounding towns of Shipley and Keighley.

In September, locals seized the Guinness Book of Records title for the world’s largest onion bhaji when they produced a monster weighing 102kg, using six sacks of onions, six bags of chickpeas and 250 bottles of rapeseed oil.

The engineering department of Bradford College produced a vessel – since dubbed “Big Bertha” – that was large enough to cook the bhaji, complete with the hooks necessary to raise the record-beater out afterwards.

Today, the British appetite for such food, if in smaller samples, is worth £3 billion a year. However, tougher visa rules brought in last April have created difficulties, since restaurants are now struggling to find highly qualified chefs to meet the demand.

In the past, new recruits were imported from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. However, April’s changes mean non-Europeans must be able to speak English, have accredited qualifications and be about to be paid more than £28,000 before they will get permission to enter.

“In order to achieve the government’s aim of reducing net migration, under the revised point- based system only the top 5 per cent of the most skilled chefs qualify for admission to this country,” says the department of communities and local government.

Meanwhile, British-born Asians, particularly those with a good education, are less and less likely to follow their parents into the kitchens. Together, the social changes mean that one in four chef jobs is vacant, according to the industry.

The British love-affair with curry, spurred by the operation of the East India Company, dates back nearly 400 years, with the first curry dish appearing on the menu of the Coffee House in London’s Haymarket in 1773.

The Hindostanee Coffee House was opened in George Street, off Portman Square in London, in 1809 by Dean Mahoment. He is said to have reached the city “via Cork”, catering for “the Nobility and Gentry where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection”.

In the late 1920s, Indian food became fashionable with the opening of Veeraswamy’s on Regent Street – still there today – under the ownership of Edward Palmer, who became known as the “curry king”. The restaurant became the training ground for a new generation of Indian chefs and received royal patronage from Prince Axel of Denmark, who had enjoyed Palmer’s hospitality earlier at the Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924.

Delighted by his time in Veeraswamy’s, Prince Axel presented a case of Carlsberg and gave orders that successors should be delivered on the anniversary of his visit. In time, Veeraswamy’s spread Carlsberg’s reputation as the company grew in Britain.

Ironically, the majority of Indian restaurants were not run by Indians at all, since most of them until the early 1970s were controlled by Pakistanis. Following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the dominant force were Bangladeshis from the city of Sylhet.

Now, Bradford College is seeking to fill the gap left by tighter immigration rules with a 2½-year course in its International Food Academy for up to 100 curry chefs, partly trained by those working in restaurants in the region.

In the past, Asian establishments, secure in their supply of trained labour, were reluctant to hire from outside their ethnic group, Bobby Patel said. However, the prospect of non-Asian staff preparing great dishes does not faze him.

“We’re not talking about getting a white face into the kitchen. We’re talking about getting talent into the kitchen and finding those stars, irrespective of ethnicity,” he said, adding the knowledge of elders will be crucial to protect traditional skills and recipes.

The academy was set up in May. Demand is already high for places, building on work by local restaurateur Omar Khan, who started the OK Academy to help unemployed local youths into work. The immigration curbs “basically stopped” the importation of chefs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Kahn said. He approached Bradford College to form a partnership to meet demand.

Although the visa rules will not be relaxed, the industry has a friend at court in the form of the rotund secretary of state for communities and local government, Conservative Eric Pickles. Now, the Yorkshire man – a former Conservative leader of Bradford Council in the late 1980s – is investigating ways in which the Bradford experience can be replicated elsewhere with a national “curry college”.

Forever talking about his love of curry, Pickles says “tikka masala is more British than fish and chips”.

For three years, Ladbrokes has run a novelty bet that he will drop into a curry house during the Conservative conference. Each year the bookie has lost.