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19 December 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:57pm

The mystery of the disappearing British curry houses

Immigration policy is the clue. 

By Shehab Khan

The smell of freshly baked naan, exotic spices and caramelised onion hit your nostrils as you walk through London’s vibrant Brick Lane. It is a familiar aroma throughout the country and not only one that many of us enjoy but also one that has become synonymous with British culture. Our love affair with the curry started in the 1950s and the £3.6bn industry has grown exponentially in the last six decades, cementing itself into a defining feature of our national identity. Curry houses have become a bastion of multiculturalism and an example of globalisation at its best. They represent how fantastic immigration can be and the impact foreign cultures can have on our lives. Unfortunately however the industry is in serious jeopardy and unless steps are taken to save it, we might have to say goodbye to our beloved Indian restaurants.

Experts suggest curry houses are closing down at a rate of two a week, and employment minister Priti Patel warned this figure could easily rise to four a week in the near distant future. This decline isn’t because of a lack of demand or popularity. The problem the industry faces is that a large portion of the South Asian immigrants who set up these restaurants in the 60s and 70s are starting to retire, and there are no obvious replacements in the waiting.

Attitudes have changed among second and third generation British South Asians. When my grandfather came to Britain in the late 1950s, he worked in a restaurant and was adamant that his children and grandchildren go to university and seek more “academic” work. The current generation of British-Asians are experiencing the social mobility that their parents worked hard to provide. They don’t want to be chefs or work in the restaurants their predecessors did. The long hours and financial considerations aside, culturally, it is seen as taking a step backwards.

This means that as one generation bows out of the workforce, the next does not look to carry on the family business. With a lack of home-grown managers and skilled chefs, the obvious answer to the shortages is to turn abroad. But changes in immigration policy have made it increasingly difficult to do so.

The government is aware of the problem and has placed chefs on the “shortage occupation list”. But current requirements dictate that non-EU immigrants must earn a minimum of £29,570 to get a work visa, which is significantly higher than the average salary paid to those working in a curry house.

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Enam Ali, the founder of the British Curry Awards, has urged the government to introduce a one-year visa scheme to save the country’s curry houses. Although this may work as a short-term fix, the structural problem of simply not having skilled chefs to keep the industry going over the next decade or so is a pressing concern.

An industry declining has obvious economic costs. But it’s not only jobs at risk – we are also losing a significant part of our national identity. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook described chicken tikka masala as “a true British national dish”. The 12,000 curry houses in the UK are a much-needed symbokl of a willingness to accept other cultures into our ever changing identity.

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When I last stepped into my local curry house, the owner told me that he feels he is the “pillar of the community”. As he put it, his curry house “brings people together over poppadums and mango chutney”. In the fast-paced world we live in, the local curry house is more often than not where families actually sit down together to converse and have a meal.

The plight of the curry houses is a reminder that immigration creates new industries, shapes our culture and offers us skills when we need them most. It may be fashionable to focus on the negatives of immigration, but if we are to save our curry industry, we must reassess our policies.