Indian restaurants have become a prominent feature of the British landscape over the past 50 years. Most small towns boast a curry or balti house, with or without a tandoor oven, even if some of the food has been adapted for the British palate. Chicken tikka masala for example, often described as our national dish, cannot be found in India.
Anyone who craves more authentic Indian food should head to Brick Lane in London’s East End or the even more concentrated environs of Southall, Middlesex. Closer to the centre, such talented chefs as Atul Kochar, Vivek Singh, Yogesh Datta, Vineet Bhatia, Alfred Prasad and Cyrus Todiwala have settled into the kitchens of Benares, The Cinnamon Club, The Painted Heron, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, Tamarind and Café Spice Namaste.
This whole movement is now, however, under threat from two quarters. The first, specific to these shores, is the imposition of higher criteria for entry to the UK by the Home Office, an approach which is also affecting recruitment by Chinese and Japanese restaurateurs, but is having a particularly significant effect on the Bangladeshi community who have made up so many Indian kitchen brigades. The Immigration Advisory Service reckons that just this particular sector requires 27,500 more employees.
Finding them is going to be increasingly difficult because of the growing demand from India itself. Earlier this year I met Hemant Oberoi, the Executive Chef for the Taj Hotel Group, who explained that as his country’s booming economy is leading to more and more hotel openings it is also drawing many Indian chefs back home. “I am now receiving a lot of applications from chefs who went abroad to find work particularly in the Gulf but who now want to come back and cook in India.”
To discover what the implications of these changes will be for lovers of Indian food, I sat down to a bowl of staff curry, a very hot lamb vindaloo, with Cyrus Todiwala late one afternoon at a sunny table in his restaurant, Café Spice Namaste, in east London.
I had chosen to meet Todiwala for several reasons. At 51, he is slightly older than his contemporaries. He is widely respected not just by many of the capital’s other chefs but also by many of the large hospitality companies who send their chefs to his Masterclass events, which he also runs for the public, to learn about incorporating Indian dishes into their menus. And despite a very difficult few years in London during which he was frequently reminded of his origins, he has given a great deal back principally via training organisations such as Springboard UK and Investors in People for which he was awarded an MBE.
And his restaurant has a fascinating history. Built in 1760 as a magistrates court to send convicts either to the gallows at the nearby Tower Hill or to the other side of the world, it subsequently became a recruitment office for the Navy and then a maternity hospital for sailors’ wives. Finally and somewhat ironically, it was here when it was part of the Home Office that Todiwala first had to present his identity papers and work permit after he arrived with his family in 1991. In 1995 he returned as its tenant.
Todiwala laughed when I asked him how difficult it was at the moment to hire good Indian chefs. “Impossible rather than difficult, I would say. And to be honest I cannot even remember when we were able to hire a good Indian waiter. It’s a big challenge.”
But Todiwala, an optimist like so many in the restaurant business, has very strong views on how this problem can be resolved. “I am fully aware that this is a small island with limited resources but I do think the current restrictions are too oppressive and are depriving the country of a lot of talented people who would like to come and work here to the UK’s benefit. But this will only succeed if….”
I was prevented from catching the end of Todiwala’s sentence because his wife and business partner, Pervin (they met working in the kitchens of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai) came to join us and promptly told her husband off for talking too much and preventing me from eating. A bhaell poori, which Todiwala modestly described as the best in the UK and some tandoori meat, chicken, venison and lamb also materialised. Todiwala himself now told me I had to eat and then continued.
“I think there are two things which have to happen if we are to get over this critical situation. The first is that the Asian community has to be less ghettoised, we have to start being more effective contributors to the society we have become a part of and within which we want to flourish. And the second is we have to improve our whole approach to training.”
This conveniently brought me on to my fundamental question: do you have to be Indian to cook really authentic Indian cooking? Todiwala smiled, ate some of his curry and then deliberately replied, “No, I don’t think so. It’s the quality of the training that’s important and this is something we have never recognised in this country.”
“When young chefs first start in the big hotel kitchens in India they are initially trained in the basics of French cuisine of which they have had no experience at home. And slowly but surely the better ones understand what’s involved. This is what we tried to do here a few years ago when we opened the Asian & Oriental School of Catering in Hackney. While it was open we had over 900 youngsters attending, many Afro-Carribbean who were really enthusiastic, quick on their feet and with the vital hand/eye connection that you need to cook at speed. And as well as there were the usual number of dyslexic children who enjoy cooking and those for whom the schools can’t find an alternative career. But then there was a change in the way the school was funded and it was forced to close down. I was very disheartened but I still believe that if I could secure adequate funding for the right building and bring over seven or eight top Indian tutors we could train enough young people here to prevent standards falling.”
A return trip for dinner revealed the authenticity of Todiwala’s cooking which draws considerable inspiration from Goa and his own Parsee background. Beetroot and coconut somosas; batons of aubergine deep fried with turmeric; a masala spring roll stuffed with minced lamb; slow roast lamb and the desserts, particularly the kulfi and ice cream made from Hunza apricots were very good. Even the dining room, brightly coloured but functional, brought back memories of restaurants in India.
On the outlook for his own restaurant and Indian restaurants in general Todiwala is none too optimistic. “We’ve just been told that we have a new landlord which makes me fear our rent will go up. And unless we change our approach I cannot see the same number of talented Indian chefs coming over her to work,” he said as he dropped his smile for the first time.
Todiwala and so many other Indian chefs and their families have made such a distinctive contribution to British restaurants that I and many others would find this a great loss.
Café Spice Namaste, 16 Prescot Street, London E1, 020 7488 9242,