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Naan starter: UK curry restaurants feel betrayed by Brexit

  • Published at 05:29 pm March 22nd, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:10 pm March 22nd, 2017
Naan starter: UK curry restaurants feel betrayed by Brexit

Mohammad-Faizul Haque makes it all look so easy.

To a pan full of sizzling chicken he adds a ladle of orangey base sauce and then lemon, sending flames shooting up. He reaches to a line of vessels for pinches of cumin, coriander, salt, chili and garlic, the feel of the ingredients between his fingers as his only measure. After the demonstration, he sends a plate of Balti kuchi chili chicken upstairs to the dining room at the Taste of India in London.

Haque's deft touch isn't easy to replicate, and that's a problem for Britain's curry houses, which are shutting down at a rate of two a week, in part because there aren't enough chefs and kitchen staff.

Curry restaurant owners, who as an industry backed the campaign to leave the EU after assurances it would lead to more visas for South Asian cooks, feel betrayed. They're angry that they helped deliver the vote to leave only to have the government fail to deliver on promises to help save their industry. Rather than easing the shortage, Brexit is likely to make the situation worse by cutting off the flow of East European workers who have increasingly filled the gaps in recent years.

"What's happening since Brexit is even more restaurants are closing; we can't get people from anywhere," said Oli Khan, the senior vice president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK and a celebrity chef. "Curry houses are in danger."

[caption id="attachment_53925" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Oli Khan, senior Vice-President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK, poses for photographs outside the Taste of India curry restaurant where he was interviewed by The Associated Press in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017. Curry shop owners in Britain fear that the onset of Brexit will add to their woes and force many of their shops to close. Many owners had backed the campaign to leave the European Union after assurances it would lead to more visas for South Asian cooks. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) Oli Khan, senior Vice-President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK, poses for photographs outside the Taste of India curry restaurant where he was interviewed by The Associated Press in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017 AP[/caption]

Brexit is just the latest problem to hit the South Asian restaurant industry in a country where chicken tikka masala is as much the national dish as fish and chips. In addition to a chef shortage, Britain's 12,000 curry restaurants are struggling with competition from prepared supermarket meals, high delivery costs, and rising food prices from a lower pound.

Though casually called Indian food, most curry houses are run by Bangladeshi immigrants and their offspring who fused South Asian flavours with British tastes to create a new cuisine worth an estimated $5.6 billion to the economy annually.

For example, the humble papadum isn't traditionally served as a starter, said Enam Ali, owner of Le Raj in Epsom. It became an appetiser when restaurants tried to accommodate Britons accustomed to being served bread when they sat down. The onion bhaji was adapted from onion rings.

What is at stake, Ali says, is not the heritage of Bangladesh, but the heritage of Britain.

"I've given my life in the curry industry and I can see with my own eyes that it is disappearing," Ali said. "I really feel the government should intervene before it is too late."

[caption id="attachment_53926" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Polish engaged couple Pawel Bednarek, a builder, and Aga Pozniak, who teaches training courses for adults, pose for photographs outside where they work part-time to supplement their incomes, at the Taste of India curry restaurant in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017. Curry shop owners in Britain fear that the onset of Brexit will add to their woes and force many of their shops to close. Many owners had backed the campaign to leave the European Union after assurances it would lead to more visas for South Asian cooks. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) Polish engaged couple Pawel Bednarek, a builder, and Aga Pozniak, who teaches training courses for adults, pose for photographs outside where they work part-time to supplement their incomes, at the Taste of India curry restaurant in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017 AP[/caption]

The unease of the curry houses is replicated in ways large and small across Britain, as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to start the legal process of leaving the EU next week. High-tech companies in search of engineers, farmers in need of fruit pickers and builders looking for construction workers have all raised concerns about possible staff shortages.

The hospitality industry is particularly worried. An analysis from the Oxford Migration Observatory shows some 89,000 people from many of the EU's new entrant countries in the east are working in food and beverage services.

May has taken a tough stance on immigration after anger about high arrival numbers fuelled last year's vote to leave the EU. While exiting the bloc will allow Britain to eventually limit European immigration, the government has so far refused to relax the rules for migrants from non-EU countries.

[caption id="attachment_53927" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Sayem Ahmed, aged 19, poses for photographs inside the Taste of India curry restaurant in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017. Curry shop owners in Britain fear that the onset of Brexit will add to their woes and force many of their shops to close. Many owners had backed the campaign to leave the European Union after assurances it would lead to more visas for South Asian cooks. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) Sayem Ahmed, aged 19, poses for photographs inside the Taste of India curry restaurant in London, Thursday, March 9, 2017 AP[/caption]

The rules now require migrants from outside the EU to have a job paying some $43,600 a year, more than many nurses make in Britain. Curry houses, which mostly sell food at reasonable prices, can't meet that standard.

The curry owners have in recent years filled the gap by hiring Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles and Romanians. Between 5,000 and 6,000 curry house workers are East Europeans out of a total 150,000.

These workers sometimes have had trouble communicating with chefs, who found themselves learning the Romanian words for green pepper and onion. And many of the workers had never even seen a curry, unlike earlier migrants from South Asia who often aspired to open curry houses of their own.