Towards the end of his speech at the inaugural British Curry Awards Dinner last week in the crowded ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel, Enam Ali, the owner of Le Raj restaurant in Epsom, Surrey as well as the editor of Spice, a trade magazine for the curry house business and the man behind these awards, stopped and allowed himself a nervous smile. "You know, many say that the future is orange," he quipped, "but we all know that the future is curry."
This comment was greeted rapturously by the 1,200 restaurateurs, their staff and families in the audience. But as this and other speeches were to reveal, however popular and successful British curry restaurants are at the moment – and it is estimated that they serve 2.5 million customers a week generating sales of £3.2 billion a year – the industry is facing an uncertain future which Ali and his colleagues hope the influx of glamour from these awards will go a long way to solve.
As we gathered at 18.30 over trays of vegetable somosas, seekh kebabs and Kingfisher beer, the mood was certainly self-confident. There were television cameras taking the event round Europe and the Indian sub-continent - to 126 countries we were precisely informed. The evening's programme boasted a message of support from the politically astute Tony Blair, no less. And dotted round the room, paling in comparison it must be said with some wonderfully colourful sarees, were the gold chains of several High Commissioners and Lord Mayors who had come to support their local restaurants. There was extra culinary glamour in the shape of three star Michelin chef Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in Bray who had been invited, along with his long-term collaborator American food writer Harold McGee, by his local curry restaurateur Malik Ahmed of Malik's in Cookham, Berkshire was eventually to be handed the award for the best curry restaurant in the south of England by Blumenthal.
By the time the award ceremony itself took place, hosted by Channel 4 newscaster Krishnan Guru Murthy, Ali and Sir Gulam Noon whose company, Noon Products has established itself since its inception in 1989 as the market leader in ready-made Indian meals producing just under 300,000 a day, had spelled out their grounds for concern as well as a few general guidelines.
The first telling pointer was their insistence on the words curry and spice rather than Indian when referring to restaurants. This is an important distinction because, although there were restaurateurs from as far afield as Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka at this event, the vast majority of the restaurants the British have so carelessly categories as 'Indian' are in fact run by Bangladeshi families who have settled in the UK since the late 1940s. This goes some way to explaining the distinctive style of the food served in British curry/spice restaurants.
The second was Noon's particular call to arms. "The British invaded India in the 19th century with gunpowder," he explained. "now we have come back and a century later landed in the UK and transformed whole swathes of British society with curry powder. Without the success of the curry restaurant I could not have built my business to what it is today. I have ridden on the back of your achievements." In a slight exaggeration, Noon urged his audience to celebrate the vibrancy of their business tonight but not to forget to open for business tomorrow evening on time otherwise, as he claimed, half the British population would be starving.
Even if there is some incompatibility between the ready-meal market and the curry restaurant, Noon's words were just what Ali had hoped to hear. He had begun his speech by explaining how several great curry restaurants had now closed because the sons of the founders had not wanted to carry on their family businesses and in a touching sequence the faces and names of several of the UK's initial curry chefs, several of whom are now deceased, were flashed on to the large screens behind. "Many of the original pioneers of our glorious past passed away without the recognition they deserved," Ali explained. "We don't want this to happen in the future."
This comment brought Ali and his audience to the serious nub of the evening. Britain's curry houses have become successful and distinctive not just because their spices and ingredients have caught the imagination of an increasingly adventurous eating public but also because they have combined the charms of home cooking, and often of being looked after by numerous members of the same family, in a commercial setting. When Mohammed Aslam, managing director of the nine-strong group of Aagrah restaurants in Yorkshire, stepped on to the podium to collect his award for the best curry restaurant in the North of England, he modestly attributed his company's success since its inception in 1977 to nothing more than "the commercial development of our home cooking".
Despite their success, numerous curry restaurateurs are finding it increasingly difficult to entice their sons to take over. Long, anti-social hours with curry restaurants predominantly busy in the evenings rather than at lunchtime; the fact that the profession is perceived as only a service industry at best; and the benefits of the higher education many of today's curry restaurateurs are putting their children through are all factors currently contributing to current concerns for the medium term. Ali and his colleagues hope that the glamour and recognition associated with an awards ceremony such as this might induce many to stay in the fold .
Yet by the time Guru Murthy brought the awards ceremony to an end right on schedule at 22.00 there was only one thought on everyone's mind. Where was the food? Atypically in a gathering of so many restaurateurs, nothing had appeared since we sat down at 19.30 despite the presence on each table of a large karai stand, designed to hold eight traditional karais or bowls, to hold the food provided by the outside catering arm of Madhu's of Southall (www.madhusonline.com), by now old hands in the Grosvenor House kitchens thanks to their reputation for cooking for many large Indian social gatherings. Finally put to work at this late hour, our waitress, who was incidentally from Poland, brought out a series of dishes many in the room have established as British culinary favourites: chicken tikka; masala fried tilapia flown in from Lake Victoria in Kenya, that other bastion of the British Empire; chicken tikka masala; rogan josh; delicious aloo ravia, small aubergines stewed with new potatoes; vegetable biriani and terrific tandoori naan bread.
But as I watched the winners of all ten categories clutch their awards and listen to them thank their staff and families for all the support and help they had provided them with I was struck by one very distinctive feature of this particular awards ceremony – not one woman had gone up on to the stage to receive an award. British kitchens in general have been slow to accept female chefs and restaurateurs but it is now inconceivable to think of a prosperous British restaurant industry without the likes of Sally Clarke, Rose Grey, Angela Hartnett, Rebecca Mascheranas or Ruth Rogers. If the sons of the UK's curry restaurateurs aren't too keen to take over their parents' thriving curry restaurants shouldn't their owners also be doing more to encourage their daughters?
The British Curry Awards 2005 Top Ten
Aziz, 228 Cowley Road, Oxford, 01865-794945
Malik's, High Street, Cookham, 01628-520085
Bombay Brasserie, 1 Courtfield Road, London SW7, 020-7370 4040,
Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, London W1, 020-7629 3561,
Curry Mahal, 372 Northout Road, Harrow, 020-8422 7976
Rajnagar International, 256 Lyndon Road, Olton, Southall, 0121-742 8140
Aagrah, 4 Saltair Road, Shipley, 01274-530880,
Vujon, 29 Queen Street, Newcastle, 0191-221 0601,
Britannia Spice, 150 Commercial Street, Edinburgh 0131-555-2255,
Juboraj Rhiwbina, 11 Heol-y-Deri, Cardiff, 02920-628894