Anyone familiar with Brick Lane – the infamous home of London curry – knows visiting entails running a gauntlet of hustlers, trying to tempt you inside for a quick bhuna.
It’s a ritual I cherish as a life-long curry addict. But it’s endangered, thanks to coronavirus.
The sector was already in trouble. Tastes are changing: Indian is no longer the exotic, ‘cultured’ option it would have appeared to Brits in the 1960s-70s, and the millennial craze for healthy living hasn’t done it any favours. Add to that the impact of social mobility – descendents of the original resturantiers are less inclined to follow in their footsteps – and you already had a perfect storm. By 2016, two curry houses were closing every week.
Then came Brexit. The collapse in the pound increased rents, rates and food prices, while the supply of EU labour decreased – people who had increasingly filled the gap in chefs. To make matters worse, the Government’s immigration policies made it harder for those on ‘low incomes’ to settle. Worryingly, this approach is being turbo-charged in the new Immigration Bill.
And now we have the coronavirus. Even though the government’s furlough scheme has been a lifeline, it’s soon to be wound down. Crucially, no one knows if enough Brits will feel safe to venture out for a meal any time soon, and how ongoing social distancing will impact covers per night.
At Brick Lane, the jewel in London’s curried crown, this will be felt more acutely because of gentrification. Independent restaurants congregated there originally due to low rents, but in many cases they’ve quadrupled in a few short years. Several curry houses have already served their last korma, possibly to be transformed into a hipster boutique.
The decline of British curry isn’t just a disaster for our taste buds. It’s now nineteen years since Foreign Secretary Robin Cook famously anointed Chicken Tikka Masala the true British national dish, and despite the challenges it’s as true as ever. I’ve lived in Australia, New Zealand and Amsterdam and the thing I missed most was quality Indian cuisine. When foreign friends visit, my local Indian is where I take them.
Of course, we should be mindful this culinary heritage is a product of our dark colonial past. Yet, it also represents our inclusive, multicultural present. Take Brick Lane; Before it became a hub for South Asian businesses, it was the centre for London’s Jewish community and, in the 17th century, the home for Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France.
Sitting back and letting Brick Lane – and our curry industry – die would be the end of something special and uniquely British. Whatever these businesses need, politicians should seriously consider.
Andrew Hyams is a communications and digital consultant from London with a background in politics and campaigning, having worked for the UK, Australian and New Zealand Labour parties. He studied History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and UCL.