Last month, as millions of Britons idly munched on a Patak’s poppadom whilst microwaving one of GK Noon’s Indian ready meals, industry insiders were donning their sharpest suits and sparkliest saris to attend ceremonies for the Asian Curry Awards and British Curry Awards, held a mere 24 hours apart. That’s barely enough time for attendees to digest the first evening’s Madhus buffet dinner. Yet, despite the scale and grandeur of these glittering awards, your average curry lover remains blissfully unaware of their existence.
For the record, these are not the type of awards to eschew the 10,000 high street curry houses for the few Michelin-garlanded establishments. Not a bit of it. In fact, both ceremonies honour precisely the type of ‘home-from-home’ venues which feed the hungry diners who descend like clockwork for a takeaway, regular evening out or Sunday buffet. They recognise the lynchpins of the £3.6 billion curry industry, whose 80,000 employees pride themselves on sticking to a formula and delivering dependable quality week in, week out.
Plus, of course, the innovation which occurs with varying levels of success in towns across the UK. At worst, it takes the form of an ill-considered, poorly executed ‘fusion’ menu. But at best, you’ll find a truly talented chef keen to bring specials- old or new, regional or revolutionary- to a perhaps somewhat pedestrian audience. No easy task, but one that’s experiencing increasing success as we develop a voracious national taste for adventure.
Yawar Khan’s Asian Curry Awards are in their infancy, set up by the Federation of Bangladeshi Caterers just last year. This year’s ceremony was a glitzy do at Grosvenor House, recognising takeaways, restaurants and enterprising chefs including Sabir Karim, who won Asian Chef of the Year, whilst his Camden restaurant Namaaste Kitchen scooped the award for Best Newcomer. The restaurateur is refreshingly keen for the curryhouse industry to become less insular and engage with the wider community.
And that lack of integration really is a pity, holding back many skilled individuals and quality curry restaurants from becoming the respected institutions their output may otherwise merit. There’s a very real divide between the high street Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi proprietors and the Vivek Singhs, Atul Kochhars and Cyrus Todiwalas of the ‘Indian fine dining’ scene, and the gulf seems to be widening still further with immigration laws leading to a skills shortage within the industry, even in areas like Bradford, the recently-dubbed ‘Curry Capital of Britain’.
Pat Chapman has unarguably been one of the industry’s biggest champions since setting up his eponymous Curry Club in 1982. Taking a break from putting the 2013 Good Curry Guide to bed in order to put in personal appearances at both sets of awards, it’s evident his influence continues. Without Pat, we’d be a much less curry-literate country, our Indian dining experience all the poorer. For the spice fans he inspired to know their shatkora from their singhara, many of this year’s award-winners will be regular haunts.
From the avid readership of the British Curry Club’s Chaat! magazine to repeated statistics on increased consumption, it’s clear the public loves Indian food. We’re keen to cook it at home, too, with books by authors like Anjum Anand flying off shelves and Madhur Jaffrey’s latest series, ‘Curry Nation’, lifting the lid on the subcontinent’s worth of delicacies all available on our tiny humble isle. David Cameron dubbed Enam Ali’s British Curry Awards the ‘Curry Oscars’- accolade indeed, perhaps- but the real Oscars benefit from far better publicity. A little pomp and circumstance to recognise these guys’ contributions to the British table wouldn’t go amiss.
Surely it’s time for all of us to properly celebrate the fact you can nosh Nepalese at Blackheath’s Everest Inn, grab authentic, banging Bangladeshi snacks in Brick Lane, or simply get a cracking curry anywhere from Dalkeith to Devon. Peter Grove’s ‘National Curry Week’ is a good starting point, but these awards should step it up quite a few notches. It’s all well and good to hold industry ceremonies to give those who work their behinds off a jolly nice night out- but they deserve to be back-slapped by the fiercely loyal customers who thoroughly appreciate what they do, too.
And the feeling’s evidently mutual, with restaurants like Nottinghamshire’s Khyber offering free meals for life to pensioners Bob and Margaret Allen for their repeat custom. It’s clear their lives would be a little less rich without their favourite curryhouse- and they speak for the bulk of Brits. The mere existence of the Asian and British Curry Awards is fantastic confirmation of the extent to which Indian food is part of the fabric of British life- but what we should really reward is the symbiotic relationship of the unsung curry restaurant and its customers. Raise the profile, and give us all the chance to raise our glasses.