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The Rise and Fall of Curry Houses in Britain

Curry houses in Britain

Britain has had a love affair with curry for centuries, predating the curry boom in the late 1970s when restaurants began appearing everywhere. For decades, going out for a curry on a Friday night, accompanied by naan bread and your choice of drink, was a popular tradition. However, in recent years, traditional British curry houses have been on the decline. And Birmingham’s famous Balti Triangle, which used to be home to many Balti restaurants, now only has four remaining.

The Reality

Aktar Islam, the founder of the Michelin-star Indian restaurant Opheem, has been vocal about the need for the curry hospitality industry to adapt and evolve. He believes that the industry never diversified or changed with the times, leading to its decline. While there was an initial over-saturation of British curry, inspired by Indian cuisine. But bearing little resemblance to its Indian counterpart, the market has now expanded to include numerous other cuisines. The curry industry failed to keep up with this diversification, contributing to its decline.

On the other hand, the rising popularity of Indian street food restaurants like Dishoom, which offer a more authentic experience. Reflects a change in diners’ preferences for diverse and authentic flavours. Islam believes that this new breed of Indian street food is closer to the real thing, with sharper and punchier flavours. And a different eating experience consisting of small, powerful bites of food.

Figures on the exact number of Indian restaurants in the UK vary, but most suggest a drop from around 12,000 in 2011 to approximately 8,000 today. Labour shortages have become a significant issue. With the children and grandchildren of restaurant owners often declining to take over the family business. Additionally, the decline in unskilled labor post-Brexit has exacerbated the problem.

Elizabeth Collingham, author of “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors,” believes that the popularity of curry in most households and its easy availability in supermarkets as jars or ready meals may have diluted its appeal in restaurants. She also notes that the nostalgic Raj-inspired atmosphere that was popular in cheap Indian restaurants of the past is no longer in demand. As people seek so-called authentic food.

Andy Munro, author of “Going for a Balti: The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish,” suggests that one of the attractions of curry for previous generations was its novelty. Compared to the food they ate at home. However, younger generations no longer see it as something different from their usual meals.

Time to Innovate

Despite the decline of curry houses, Islam acknowledges the significant cultural impact they have had on the UK. And their role in broadening the nation’s palate. He believes that the curry industry paved the way for the diverse range of cuisines enjoyed in the UK today. However, he emphasises the need for the curry model to undergo a massive revision. And reconnect with diners to remain relevant in the changing food scene. Like empires, trends and businesses rise and fall. And it is now time for the British curry model to adapt and evolve once again.

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