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21 September 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Can Shilpa Shetty become the UK’s curry queen?

Will the Bollywood star be able to make inroads into the UK's Indian food industry - dominated by So

By Sean Carey

Shilpa Shetty, Bollywood superstar and Celebrity Big Brother winner, is turning her attention to the UK Indian food market. She and fiancé Raj Kundra have taken a 33 per cent stake – worth £6 million – in the V8 Gourmet Group which owns fast-food chain Tiffinbites, home-delivery specialist Bombay Bicycle Club and the upmarket Vama restaurant in London’s King’s Road.

The company have high hopes for the power of the Shetty brand to bring glamour to the UK Indian food sector and achieve market dominance. This could mean displacing traditional local curry houses with fast-food chain Tiffinbites and delivery. A new range of low-fat supermarket ready meals will be introduced, under the brand Shilpa’s Gourmet Creations.

But will the power of the Shetty name be enough to infiltrate the huge British market for Indian food and change the way we eat curry?

The Indian food sector in the UK is worth £4.3 billion annually, employing some 70,000 people. But with around 9,500 Indian restaurant and takeaways already established in Britain, the marketplace is crowded.

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In cities such as Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow the trade is dominated by Pakistanis, Kashmiris and some Indians; and London suburbs like Wembley and Tooting both have large Gujarati Hindu populations with their own distinctive, often vegetarian, restaurants.

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A massive 95 per cent of the remaining Indian outlets are run by Bangladeshis who mostly hail from the Sylhet area in the north-east of the country (the pattern is a legacy from the time that Sylheti seamen became galley hands and cooks on British merchant ships and established cafes and tea-houses in waterfront areas when they settled in the UK).

It is a simple fact, then, that any newcomer to the Indian food scene in the UK, including Shilpa Shetty, will find the Bangladeshis and other South Asian groups very well entrenched and difficult to displace. In any case, consumers seem to be pretty content – a friend of mine in London probably speaks for many when he says “I think most people are happy with their local curry house.”

The thriving supermarket trade in Indian food will be no easier to break into. Indian-born “Curry King” Sir Gulam Noon bestrides the land like a colossus. His Southall-based company, Noon Products, which employs 1300 staff, not only provides own label products but also supplies major supermarket chains like Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Budgens. His company even produces a high-end supermarket product with the Taj Hotel group’s Kensington-based Bombay Brasserie’s logo stamped on some very nice packaging.

Furthermore, Shetty should also be aware that some experts have recently warned of a significant threat to the dominance of the Indian restaurant sector in the UK.

A report presented to the Royal Geographical Society described a significant change affecting the famous Curry Mile in Manchester, as 20 Middle Eastern restaurants now nestle alongside 45 Indian and Pakistani ones. Professor David McEvoy, involved in the study, said: “At this rate, some time in the next 20 years, we might see a majority of Middle Eastern restaurants on Curry Mile.”

This comment caused one Guardian journalist to speculate that the ultimate redoubt of the British curry trade, London’s Brick Lane, might also fall to an oncoming wave of falafel houses. Having conducted extensive research in the area over many years I think that the threat is much exaggerated.

Most Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, home to 46 cafes and restaurants (up from 10 in 1997), have survived the economic downturn and are busy gearing up for the annual curry festival which this year runs from 27 September to 10 October. They are more concerned with promoting Brick Lane during the Olympics in 2012 than with the threat of Middle Eastern restaurants.

So, in this vibrant corner of east London, the Indian and Bangladeshi food sector continues to thrive. News spreads quickly on Brick Lane, and everyone knows about Shetty’s plans for the UK’s Indian restaurant sector. They are unconvinced about her ability to make major inroads. “Shilpa Shetty is a very good dancer,” one owner told me as he scanned the street for customers from the doorway of his restaurant. “But what does she know about Indian food?”

Dr Sean Carey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University and a Fellow of the Young Foundation.