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Tuesday, November 10, 1998 Published at 07:52 GMT


Mad for Masala

Tikka to Balti: The full spread of a typical UK curry house

Whether hot, mild, creamy or dry, Indian food can claim to be the UK's national food. Even the unofficial England World Cup song, Vindaloo, was named after it.

What curry means to me: Thoughts from the British public
In celebration of this success, 10 November is National Curry Day. It is the day where our passion for popadums is put to good use as Indian restaurants across the land give 10% of their proceeds to charity.

[ image: In Asia, flavours are varied and distinct]
In Asia, flavours are varied and distinct
But if you go out thinking you know where you are with Indian food, think again. Few of us in fact realise that most of the dishes we eat in the name of Asian cuisine are unknown to the continent's inhabitants.

In the UK, Asian food has become generic - under the broad term curry - and it is very difficult to establish where it has come from. On home soil it is a different story.

"Each dish is very distinct and there are many variations across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan," says Shahwar Sadeque who is Bangladeshi and runs an Asian cookery home-delivery service. And she says: "Asian cooking is not really meant to be hot."

Trading on Tikka

Britain has around 8,000 curry houses which employ 70,000 people - more than steel, coal and shipbuilding put together. Added to the trade in sandwiches and take-aways, the annual UK spend on so-called Indian food is almost 2.5m.

[ image:  ]
Top of the menu is Chicken Tikka Masala - a creamy, sometimes bland concoction known for its lurid red or orange colour. No-one in India, however, has heard of it.

Legend says it was created by an inventive chef in the 70s. Asked by a customer for some sauce with his dry chicken tikka, he threw cream into tomato puree, added spices and poured it over the chicken. Britain's favourite meal was born.

Similarly, balti - the dish much loved in Bradford and Birmingham - most probably has its roots in the West Midlands.

What is more, 95% of curry houses in the UK are run, not by Indians, but Bangladeshis.

Over the years, they have created and passed down a winning formula that today has British palates well and truly hooked.

"I travel a lot and when I get homesick, currry is always on my list of things that make me think of home, " says Marshall Kidd, a regular at the Ajanta curry house in London's Shepherd's Bush.

Backstreet to high street

The curry boom started here after the Second World War with the first Bangladeshi immigrants.

They often worked their passage in ships' gallies, then started basic curry houses here to cater for their communities.

[ image: Each year the UK eats enough popadums to circle the world]
Each year the UK eats enough popadums to circle the world
Many Britons had learned to love curry in India but in general the curry became a down-market dish.

It was hard to find but because it was cheap and different, more and more people sought it out.

The Bangladeshis adapted their homegrown skills to suit British tastes. For more than a decade demand fuelled the growth in the Indian restaurant industry.

Curry crisis

But popularity is now proving to be the curry trade's downfall.

Tainted by an association with lager louts, it is seen as a poor career choice for second-generation UK Asians. Many would-be migrant chefs never make it through Home Office migration laws.

[ image: Indian sweet skills: Highly valued but in short suppy]
Indian sweet skills: Highly valued but in short suppy
The feeling is that it is time to get back to basics in the UK curry industry. Thames Valley University is helping to advance this move by offering diplomas in Asian culinary arts.

Andrew Ward, Head of Communications at TVU, hopes to give the UK curry industry a healthy, more upmarket future.

"We might have to wait five to six years to produce first class chefs, " he says. "But by 2001, the face of the curry industry will have changed."

To find out which restaurants are taking part in National Curry Day, telephone 0171-736 6090 or check out the Curryworld website above.

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