Curry

Take – homes for takeaways

Takeaways are big business, having grown across the UK in the last year. Curry Life catches up with two Indian takeaways to find out where the challenges lie and their tips for success

Whichever survey you look at, It’s clear the takeaway restaurant industry boomed in 2021. Figures from Barclaycard released last December showed that spending on takeaways and fast food increased by 62% in 2021, largely fuelled by the pandemic.

A study conducted among 2,000 adults, commissioned by Vodafone together with Just Eat,  shows that the Brits are a nation of takeaway lovers. The findings, released in April, say a quarter of those surveyed, (25%) admitted  to ordering takeaway meals three or four times a month. Findings showed that while people share a nationwide love of ordering meals at home, what they order differs across the country. Those in the North East for example, opt for traditional fish and chips as their favourite takeaway dish, while Londoners prefer pizza and are the biggest spenders, with an average of £73.70 spent on takeaways each month.

Curry also holds its own, with the Vodafone survey showing Indian food is also a top takeaway choice in the south-east of the country. A separate Just East survey, carried out across December and January 2022, put Indian as the third top-rated cuisine in England, and the favourite food in the West Midlands, particularly in Telford and The Wrekin. Despite Indian cuisine receiving a lower score in Worcester, the Korma dish has one of the highest ratings here than in any other district.

Obesity concerns

Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that across the UK, the 43,235 takeaways and mobile food stands recorded last year represented a 5.6 per cent rise from 2020 – the largest increase since 2015. Many places with the highest density of takeaways were in urban areas that would naturally attract the trade – Westminster in the centre of London topped the list of London boroughs, with 116.7 takeaways per 100,000 people.

There are concerns, however, that the rise in takeaways is contributing to increased obesity levels. A report in the The Times highlights a World Health Organisation report released last month, quoting Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, the WHO lead for non-communicable diseases in Europe. He said the UK ‘was ahead of other European countries in adopting a lifestyle with “more and more digital screen time”, with online food deliveries and exposure to junk food advertising. He said obesity rates are increasing ‘because the measures being taken are not yet adequate”. The WHO report cites UK research which shows that someone eating a takeaway meal consumes on average 200 more calories per day than when eating food prepared at home.

Such meals are typically higher in calories, fat, sugar and salt, while portion sizes are often larger, “which encourages overeating, particularly if there is little price differential between portion sizes”, the report adds.

A challenging environment

Takeaways are also not immune from the challenges that have hit the hospitality industry nationwide, such as increased prices for ingredients and hikes in energy costs. There are also calls for takeaways to become more sustainable. In a survey of 7,000 global consumers commissioned by online order management provider Deliverect, respondents revealed eco-friendly takeaway and delivery options are important to their ordering decisions. While 65% of  survey respondents said they find healthy, sustainable eating to be more expensive, almost half (43%) are willing to pay more for takeaways where there are visible sustainability practices. Another 47% would even consider changing what they order from the menu to be more sustainable.

So what do takeaways think of the current business landscape? Curry Life spoke to Gyash Uddin, the owner of Fusion Foods in Markyate, St Alban’s and Abdul Malik, chef at Bolton’s Little India takeaway.

Fuson Foods

For Uddin, who opened Fusion Foods in 2019, having previously had a restaurant close by, business boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic. He has noticed however that the takeaway is not as busy now as it has been, with rising energy costs making people more cautious about where they spend their money.

Fusion Foods Team

“We are seeing a pattern now with our regulars who used to come in two or three times a week – now they are just coming once a week,” he says. “It’s certainly quietened down.”

Uddin has seen a huge increase in the price of food – a 10 kilogram box of chicken for example that used to cost £34 is now £51. He says that dealing with the rising cost of living is not as simple as increasing the prices of food; instead he uses social media such as Facebook and Instagram to offer promotions to his loyal customers, one example being if they have 10 takeaways, they can get a certain amount off the next one. He has also reduced his menu, taking out several fish dishes, such as those featuring monkfish, trout and seabass.

“It’s about being clever with the advertising and keeping standards high,” says Uddin. “The quality has to be consistent and the food has to be tasty. We’re in a small village of around 4,000 people and everyone knows everyone else, I know all the takeaway’s customers. We’ve been in business for three years now. When you first start, everything is new and it’s all too easy for standards to slip but you need to keep the same level of consistency.”

Uddin is also keen to involve customers as much as possible, particularly when designing new menus, and he often invites up to 10 customers to taste new dishes and give their opinion.

“We give tasters to customers when they come in and I cook new dishes and ask them what they feel is right or wrong with it,” he says. “We have something similar to a korma and when we introduced it, we invited the korma lovers to come in because they will know whether the taste will work and it’s similar with the spicy dishes. There’s a lot of competition, even in a small village so we need to make sure the quality is always high.

With its location within a small village, Fusion Foods does not use third party delivery options, employing its own drivers instead. For Uddin, it’s vital to have reliable staff on board, particularly with a takeaway business, where people expect to have hot food, delivered on time. He is now looking to open another takeaway close by, in Harpenden.

Little India

Little India’s Abdul Malik enjoys the fast-paced environment of a takeaway business, and the fact that he can serve multiple customers all at the same time, He thrives on the pressures of takeaway – ensuring that the time from order to delivery is acceptable, that food is delivered on time and that dishes remain hot.

Like Fusion Foods, Little India does not use third party partners for orders and deliveries, preferring to handle the logistics in-house.

Chef Abdul Malik

“We are an independent business, we advertise for ourselves and we don’t use a third party as we think we deserve the credit,” says Malik. Third parties provide a website – the hard work comes from the inside.”

Over lockdown, Malik says the Bolton takeaway was very busy, with the business switching to contactless delivery and ensuring it could keep its customers happy while managing health and safety levels within Covid guidelines. But he acknowledges the situation is quite different now, with increasing pressure on the business owing to the high price of ingredients.

“We use quality ingredients but due to inflation, the higher cost of living and the situation in Ukraine, prices have shot up,” he says. “We want to ensure our customers get the same quality so we are faced with a real challenge. We’ve been in our location for such a long time and customers have recognised our hard work, they are like family and they have seen us provide the same consistency time and time again.”

Malik says it is important that customers realize that any price changes are not about making more money but about keeping the business going and providing the same standard his customers are used to.

Little India also endorses social media, saying it is a great way to keep in touch with customers and promote the restaurant to a wider base.

“We are on Facebook and Google; it’s important to be on these channels because the majority of marketing is done digitally – before it was all about leaflets,” says Malik. “We’ve seen an increase in our business through social channels and it’s easier to talk to our customers via messenger services. There is so much competition in the takeaway industry that we need to keep in touch with our customers and keep them happy so they come back for more.”

Malik also recognises the trend for more healthy food options and says it’s important for perceptions around takeaway food to change. “We are reducing the amount of calories in our dishes and trying not to use too much fat or oil, all of which will benefit our customers,” he says. “There are lots of ways to do this, it’s about being proactive and wanting to change, then you can experiment with different approaches.”

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HOW TO GET AHEAD

Taking part in the Curry Life Food Festival is a great way for chefs to improve their knowledge and skills

The Curry Life Food Festival, which showcases some of the UK’s favourite curry dishes alongside the best of British regional cuisine, is taking place in October in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It gives participants the chance to learn new skills, share recipes and gather tips from a range of experts. It’s an inspiring educational, culinary and cultural experience and this year’s UK delegation will be led by Dominic Chapman, chef/patron at The Beehive in White Waltham, and former head chef for Heston Blumenthal.

Learning curve

Curry Life spoke to former participants to find out what they learnt when they took part, and why it’s a must-attend event. Kayum Ali is the owner and executive chef at Spice Fusion in Halesowen and attended the festival in 2017, when it was held at the Hyatt Regency Chandigarh in India. He said being part of the event is a great way to promote yourself and your restaurant, and it has helped to boost Spice Fusion’s reputation among its customer base, as well as attracting new customers. 

“I went to one festival in India and I have also attended a few other Curry Life seminars and workshops,” he says. “It has given me a real confidence boost as well as teaching me some new skills. It does involve being away for a few days but it’s definitely been worth it for me.”

For Abul Monsur, chef at Taj Cuisine in Walderslade, attending the festival was also a  memorable experience. He was part of the 2016 event, which took place at the ITC Maurya in New Delhi in India.

Chef Dominic Chapman

“You can share some of your own ideas with the chefs in the country you are visiting as well as gain some new ones that you can use in your restaurant when you return,” he says. “You are learning every day in a fast-paced environment and it’s really exciting to find out about new trends and to see first-hand what others in the industry are doing.”

Monsur adds that sharing knowledge and recipes can be a great way to improve as a chef, not just on a professional level, but a personal one too and being immersed in live cooking demonstrations is a fun way to learn.

Chef Jamal Uddin from Shozna restaurant in Rochester, Kent has previously attended two festivals, one also in India and the other in Dhaka. He says that those chefs that take part get to experience ‘the bigger picture’ of the industry and learn new techniques, particularly as they are surrounded by highly knowledgeable chefs with years of training between them.

Message from British Prime Minister

“It’s definitely worth taking the time to go; when I returned from both festivals, I used everything I learnt to improve my knowledge and to become a better chef,” he says. “They were both fantastic experiences and they have given me more confidence to do things in a bigger and bolder way.”

Widen your knowledge

Those participating can also benefit from advice on health and safety. Shamsul Islam, a regulatory service manager for the London Borough of Brent, has been involved in several festivals and will be attending the forthcoming one in Dhaka. His day job involves working with restaurants, shops and hotels to ensure the health and safety of those who work in the borough. At the festival, he will be on hand to ensure chefs understand about food safety and hygiene, such as washing hands regularly, wearing gloves when preparing and mixing food, wearing a hairnet and ensuring food is cooked thoroughly and that cooked rice is not left out or that rice is not prepared three days in advance, for example. 

“While they are preparing the dishes and the menu, my role is to help raise the hygiene standards of the food and to focus on health, by highlighting how we can make a high-calorie dish such as chicken tikka masala more healthy,” he says. “We can prepare a vegetarian version instead or use olive oil rather than ghee as an example, which is a possible substitute for many dishes or reduce portion sizes. We want to encourage chefs to rethink and redesign the way they work with food and I am advising on the health benefits.”

Islam says chefs can also learn about making their cuisine more energy efficient. “Instead of preparing a dish five times, can you do it in one go in a tandoor oven for example?” he says. “Restaurants are normally open from 5pm until 11pm and with the high prices of energy and climate change, it’s important to learn about energy efficiency as it can help reduce costs and be more beneficial for the environment.”

He adds that those who participate don’t just have the chance to work alongside Michelin-star chefs and executive chefs from five-star hotels, they also get to learn and interact with front-of- house managers who run complex, large events.

“It’s not just about cooking and improving your restaurant – it’s about understanding a whole range of other processes involved in cuisine and food preparation, for example, looking at the latest technology available,” he says. “You can look at all the equipment on offer in the hotels and see how these work and how they can improve processes and help you to better manage your time.”

Participants can also learn about many other aspects that can help refine their attention to details, such as the best types of knives to use for preparation and how to enhance flavours for different palates.

“Chefs get to exchange knowledge and experience the dishes from other chefs, as well as learning new and different ways to present food,” says Islam. “They can also test new equipment and even find out how to redesign a restaurant menu.”

Keith Vaz MP opened festival at Dhaka Sheraton Hotel in 2006

The Festival is taking place from 21-27 October and aims to promote British Bangladeshi chefs’ artistic and culinary skills, highlighting the leading role they play in ensuring curry’s enduring popularity in the UK and beyond. It also aims to strengthen ties between the UK and Bangladesh.

There are limited places available for those who wish to join this exciting culinary journey, or if you are interested in finding out more about sponsorship opportunities, contact Syed Belal Ahmed on 07956 439458 for further details. 

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Tips from the top

Chef Mark Poynton and Atul Kochhar with participating chefs

Curry Life’s latest event, the 2022 Culinary Workshop, featured a host of experts sharing best practice and industry insight

The Curry Life Culinary Workshop 2022 took place on 12 June, with 150 industry professionals gathering together to share best practice, network and pick up more than a few tips. The event, which took place at the Crowne Plaza London Docklands, featured a drinks reception with networking, a series of interactive sessions and certificate presentations for a number of chefs.  Guests also enjoyed a three-course dinner, prepared by Bangladeshi catering company Pride of Asia.

Addressing attendees, Syed Belal Ahmed, editor of Curry Life magazine, said: “This is an event about learning, raising standards within the industry and networking and it is nice to get back to some sort of normality.”

Savouring street food

Fergal Mullan, food safety manager UK at Just Eat, a long-time partner of Curry Life,  also took to the stage, alongside food safety experts from NSF Ash Pancholi Dhillon, which visits restaurants to support them in achieving better hygiene ratings as well as offering training. Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin-star, led a live cooking street food demonstration, preparing a delicious, mouth-watering Kerala fish curry recipe. It featured spices and condiments such as chopped ginger, garlic, chilli, turmeric, red chili and coriander powder, together with tamarind paste and coconut milk.

“Spices start popping and releasing flavour into the cooking oil,” Kochhar told attendees. “And that cooking oil carries the flavour over into your curry or the sauce you are making. If you add spices too early they will not release the flavour, if you add spices when the oil is too hot, it will get burnt before it has a chance to release the flavour.”

Kochhar also spoke on how restaurants can counter the high prices of food, which have been rising steadily against a backdrop of the war between Russia and the Ukraine, supply chain issues and high labour costs.

“There will be some costs you will have to absorb – if the price of oil increases five times over, you cannot do the same to the price of your onion bhaji,” he said. “But there will be some things you can increase the price of. Let’s go back to the strength of our cuisine, we have been very strong on vegan and vegetarian food and we need to adapt, bring those dishes on the menu, which will help give you better margins.”

Michelin-star chef Mark Poynton spoke about the benefits of sustainability focusing on embedding sustainability within your business and how it impacts many other aspects beyond food and waste. This includes how you treat your staff and how to ensure your business can maintain its presence over the next decade. 

“Sustainability is not just about where we buy produce from and what we do with zero waste,” he said. “It’s about how we run our business and much more besides – there is a bigger ecosystem than just the food.”

Ludovica De Pieri, a nutritionist and management consultant to the food industry and founder of Reveal My Food, also delivered a presentation, with the aim of highlighting current food-themed legislation, specifically new rules around calorie labelling. She also spoke on how restaurants can optimise their operations, how they can get the most out of ingredients and how to reach out to more diners.

“We’re also sharing some details on our website, including information on how to optimise allergens,” said De Pieri. “The whole point is to try to reduce the pressures facing restaurants.”

Syed Nahas Pasha, Curry Life magazine editor-in-chief said the event aimed not just to bring people together to share insight but was also aimed at inspiring the younger generation.

“The industry is going through a very tough time at the moment because of huge increases in the cost of living,” he said. “Everything has gone up in price and restaurants are suffering so we wanted to tackle these issues and offer some advice and guidance. Safety and hygiene is also very important.”

Delegates were keen to network and share knowledge, with Ruhel Hoque, managing director of The Indian Ocean restaurant in Cambridge saying it presented a great opportunity to network and learn about issues affecting the industry, such as forthcoming or new legislation. Other attendees said there was a fantastic vibe during the event, and that it was ‘great to see so many familiar faces as well as new ones.’

The event also featured stands from Curry Life partners, including Lakeland Dairies, which has recently launched a long-life single cream product and Bangla Beer.

Chefs who received their certificates on the night included Ruhel Hoque from The Indian Ocean, Brian Mohan Miah from Cafe Spice, Syed Zohorul Islam from The Capital, Mohammed Al Amin Ali from Milennium Balti, Mohammed Shaek Ahmed from Junoon, Tipu Miah from Zyka, Jamal Uddin Ahemd from Shozna, Joe Choudhury from River Spice and Khayer Ahmed Chowdhury from Kaz’s India & Bangladesh Restaurant.

The event was held together with support from headline sponsor Just Eat, with additional event partners including Unisoft Solutions, City Bank, Bangla Beer and Travel Link Worldwide. Curry Life’s next event will be the Curry Life Awards, which reward and recognise the individuals who represent the very best of the British curry Industry. It takes place on 9 October at The Great Room, The Grosvenor House, London. Find out more about the event by visiting www.currylifeawards.com.

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Paying the price

Hardly a day seems to go by without another worrying statistic about price hikes. In the last month alone, petrol costs have soared and retail price inflation hit 2.8%, the highest figure since July 2011, driven by an increase in fresh food prices, according to the British Retail Consortium. Businesses have also struggled with rising energy costs over the last few months and there are warnings of worse to come.

Curry houses are increasingly worried about their future prospects, having been hit hard by the price of oil, in particular that of sunflower oil. With the majority produced in Ukraine, prices have soared due to the ongoing conflict with Russia. Spice prices have increased too.

Rahims, the UK’s largest Bangladeshi-owned cash-and-carry, which supplies over 5000 retailers and trade customers across the UK and beyond, and Ana Miah, the owner of Juboraj restaurant, in Wales, offer their views on the pricing issue.

Sharif Hussain, Director, Rahims

The outlook has been quite challenging for a few years, starting with Brexit, followed by Covid and now inflation – all of this is causing prices to go through the roof. Brexit uncertainty meant the general public spent less and there was uncertainty surrounding the trade rules with the EU, compounded by worry about the imports and exports and the amount of red tape. This resulted in lots of stockpiling.

During Covid we had panic buying which led to well-documented supply chain issues and there were increasing costs in manufacturing from a number of factors, for example, staff shortages in India, Bangladesh and many other countries. During the global pandemic, everyone faced really challenging situations and factories were closed and it was difficult for the manufacturers themselves. Then there are problems with freight, with not enough empty containers heading back to source to bring in the goods from abroad. This means freight costs have just soared, and it all has a knock-on effect. There is also a backlog at UK ports: a shortage of staff means longer times to process imports and this also has an impact on the supply chain.

Smart purchasing

We initially tried to swallow the costs as much as we could but it gets to a point where it is unsustainable, particularly when you look at the current climate, with energy bills increasing,  and minimum wages stagnating. It all has a knock-on effect and we have to pass these costs on; people are understanding luckily but we have been advising our customers as much as we can about smart purchasing, This means buying now to prevent further issues or finding cheaper alternatives to basmati rice. We’ve seen a shift in our customers’ buying habits, changing from traditional basmati grain to extra long grain; there is one and a half percent yield in comparison, so we are advising people to spend smarter. But prices are continually going up, with spices it is a daily thing. It’s also challenging with the war in Ukraine and the oil situation, while a lot of chicken comes in from Europe; the price of chicken has soared and we have no idea when this will end.

With smarter purchasing, we are advising people where they can save money without compromising on quality. Traditional balti houses that ‘cook out of a can’, such as those using premade marinades, are likely to suffer but those that are smart, that are looking at fusion cooking or using fresh ingredients, will come through this crisis strongly. Premade marinades make it easier for the restaurant to have fewer skilled employees, saving on staffing costs but then it does not make you unique. It will be these sorts of businesses that will suffer while those that are spending a bit more on quality, will do well.

We are also advising our customers about the benefits of going digital in terms of having to adjust their prices in the current climate, as they won’t have to spend so much on reprinting costs, for example. It’s important to go digital as soon as you can, with your menu and advertising.

Next steps

We need a level of cohesion within local businesses: we are all in the same boat, let’s not shoot each other in the foot. We need to address our issues altogether and come up with a plan that suits us all – one rotten apple can bring everyone down.

Is it reasonable for restaurants to increase the price of dishes? It’s difficult to say whether it is good or bad, and what else can they do? They can either change the ingredients, and compromise on quality or in order to maintain quality, they have to increase prices. If the quality goes down, customers may not come back again. You have to be smart and look at alternatives.

Thankfully we all need to eat and we have all managed to save some money during Covid. People do have disposable income to spend and once inflation settles down, who knows?

At Rahims we are actively working with manufacturers on a regular basis to try and maintain price levels for the caterers. We are trying to take advantage ahead of any further price hikes and as we have live information on price movements, we are looking at how best to advise our customers on their purchases.

Ana Miah, Owner, Juboraj

The cost of goods, ingredients and energy has had a huge impact on our expenditure – week in and week out, our outgoings have substantially increased and we are finding it very difficult to sustain levels of business. Increasing the prices on our menu is easier said than done, we don’t particularly want to pass on our price increases to our customers. If we were a seasonal business, we could change prices according to what we pay our suppliers but unfortunately, this is not the case. 

Challenging times

We are finding it very difficult to pass on extra increases to our customers so we are having to bear it for the moment but how long this can go on for is anyone’s guess. We can’t sustain this for months to come – we have put up prices in the takeaway sector but at present, for those dining in we‘ve maintained the same prices. It’s easier to justify price increases with the takeaway than with the dining-in menu as we offer quite generous portions. 

We haven’t explored digital menus just yet; as a lot of our menus are printed, it’s complicated to make these sudden changes. We do have our own website for online ordering and also use a third party, Uber Eats. We try to attract customers to come onto our website by giving out leaflets, for example, offering them a discount if they order directly from us rather than using a third party. It’s something I have started relatively recently and we are seeing a good number of people moving to our own web ordering system rather than going through a third party. We may see a time when enough of our customers have moved to our website so that we can reduce our reliance on third parties, although we introduced this during the pandemic to help boost the takeaway side. You have to do a bit of mixing and matching and see what works and be prepared to change if necessary or do a number of trial runs.

Healthy approach

We are making a conscious effort to provide more healthy food using ingredients that are better for the consumers. We are aware of the high level of calories that some of our dishes can contain, so we are cutting down on our use of oil. Indian cuisine has a reputation for being unhealthy so it’s important – even in the context of price hikes, to keep improving on these areas in order to keep our customers coming back. We have certainly become very price conscious and we are looking to seek deals wherever we can find them and buying non-perishable goods in bulk. We are in a more fortunate position as we have extra storage space so we can store many goods. It’s about finding the right solutions that suit your business the best, testing these and seeing what difference they make. 

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Leading Light

Shamsuddin Khan’s influence extends far beyond having opened one of the first Indian restaurants in London, as Curry Life finds out

Shamsuddin Khan, now in his 80s, has experienced first-hand the many changes in Bangladesh’s political, historical and cultural landscape. But it’s not from being in the country itself, as one might imagine, where he’s seen these changes, but rather from a corner of south west London – Clapham to be precise. 

It’s here you’ll find Maharani restaurant. Khan has been the owner for the last 65 years, ever since it opened in 1958, and deservedly has a reputation as one of the UK’s founding curry restaurateurs. But Maharani – and Khan aren’t just known for putting London on the map for Indian food – the restaurant was also a gathering place for the Bangladeshi community in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly for supporters of the Awami League political party. Khan was the founder of the UK arm (while not involved today, he is still very much respected by existing members of the League) and his ties with the party led to a close friendship with Sheik Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh.

Her father and other members of her family were assassinated in 1975 while she was away in Germany; as the exiled opposition leader following her father’s death, she visited London, found her way to Maharini and often stayed with Khan and his wife in their home, just a few minutes’ drive away from the restaurant.

Shamsuddin Khan

Opportunity knocks

It’s in that very same house, in a modest living room, where Khan is speaking to Curry Life, sharing some of the more colourful moments from his fascinating life story. He first came to London when he was 17, finding work in an Italian restaurant in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Over two years, he honed his restaurant skills, moving from the kitchen to front of house, perfecting the art of making tea, and eventually moved on to work at Jaipur, an Indian restaurant in Shepherds Bush. At the age of 20, together with business partners, he then bought the leasehold to an existing Italian restaurant in Clapham, which eventually became Maharani. 

Shamsuddin Khan at Maharani Restaurant

At the time the area, much like other parts of London, was run down and curry was something of a novelty. Khan even recalls having to procure spices from unusual places, such as the local chemist and having to grind them himself. Word soon spread, however, about the cuisine and as Khan says, many people were attracted as they had colonial ties to India, having previously visited or worked in the country. Business picked up a few years later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many parts of London were regenerated under then UK prime minister Harold Wilson’s Urban Programme.

Mrs Sofrunnessa Khanom, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina and Shamsuddin Khan in London

“People became more interested in trying Indian curry – we had our menu on a blackboard, with prices and items, just a few dishes including chicken curry,” recalls Khan, who managed the front of house. “The restaurant was busy every Friday and Saturday, and was packed after the pubs and clubs shut.”

Most of the Indian restaurants at the time were based in London’s West End (Veeraswamy in Regent Street is often credited as the being the oldest in London, having opened in 1926), so Maharani was able to establish itself as a restaurant that people were keen to travel to. Khan says that at the time, people were happy to help others out. He was even called the ‘Young Governor’, with many people coming to visit, impressed by the young entrepreneur and what he had already achieved.

Well-connected

It seemed a natural progression for the restaurant to become a hub, a place where many Bangladeshis gathered to exchange ideas, particularly with Khan’s ties to the Awami League, and by 1973, Khan had purchased the freehold and bought out his previous business partners.

Sheik Rehana, Mrs Khan and Sheik Hasina in Clapham, London

“There were still not many restaurants at that time so Maharani became a community space for supporters of the League – that’s how I became connected to Sheik Hasina,” explains Khan.

The restaurant also grew a very loyal customer base, many of whom still visit today, some travelling long distances. Khan remembers one particular customer who was seven years old when he first visited; he has since moved away from London but visits with his own children from time to time when he is back in London.

From left to right, Abdul Karim Nazim, Mrs Sofrunnessa Khanom, Shamsuddin Khan, Syed Belal Ahmed and Syed Nahas Pasha

Today, Maharani is as popular as it was all those years ago, and the menu features a mix of dishes such as Madras, Korma and Bhuna curries alongside house specials such as Shorisha Murg, (described as hot, spicy with mustard paste), Murgh e Zoyton (chicken tikka flavoured with olive & fresh spices, slightly hot), Gost Kata Masala (Diced lamb pieces cooked in a special sauce made from yogurt & fresh herbs) and Chicken Rajeshwari (cooked with fresh herbs, tomatoes, chutneys, coriander, ginger, garlic and green chillies).

The restaurant has also attracted its fair share of celebrity diners, including the actor Pierce Brosnan and television presenter Sarah Kennedy. It’s also won numerous awards and expanded over the years. In 2002, due to ongoing demand, Khan bought the site adjoining the restaurant and the restaurant now offers 150 covers. Other restaurants followed too – a total of 11, within London or close to the capital, including takeaways but Khan now only operates two – the existing Maharani and another one based in Camden, which is managed by his nephew, Abdul Karim Nazim. Alongside the catering industry, Khan is also involved in a cash and carry business in London’s east end, owns properties and several tea plantations in Bangladesh and has also contributed to a number of charitable endeavours.

Facing the future

While Khan has carved out an impressive business empire, Maharani is where it all started and it’s clear to see that he is finding it hard to let his business go; he visits the restaurant most evenings and says he feels uneasy when he is not there. Talking about his succession plans is difficult too as none of his three children (two sons and a daughter) are interested in the restaurant industry or have any intention of taking over the business, having carved out successful careers in completely different sectors – within the foreign office, education and aviation.

It’s a common problem faced by many within the industry. Bangladeshi restaurant operators are finding out their children who have been brought up and schooled in the UK have little interest in learning a trade they perceive as involving long hours and perhaps not as well paid as other careers. They also have less ties with their mother country and therefore perhaps less of an emotional connection with their parents’ businesses. The curry sector is also facing other issues such as a continued squeeze on margins and Khan believes there is no easy solution to help improve the sector’s outlook, but suggests that the use of buffets and the way food is presented need to be addressed. And what of Maharani’s future, given that Khan has been at the helm for more than six decades now? With two nephews currently working with him, Khan is hopeful that the Maharani name will continue to make an impact for years to come.

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Lifting the lid on the Bangladeshi shrimp industry

Prawn and shrimp production in southwest Bangladesh ‘is crucial to public health and prosperity, whilst being climate-resilient’, according to a new study into the industry.

Carried out by The University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture and partners over four years, the study is based on findings from quantitative and qualitative data collected from 240 households and 160 shrimp-prawn farms in four different communities.

It says: “Contrary to criticism in recent years of the impact of export-driven prawn and shrimp farming on communities and the environment in Bangladesh, the study found that a relatively small amount was exported, providing important income for communities, and other fish production had a low impact on the environment, whilst providing crucial nutrition.”

Researchers found that only 20-40 per cent of all the fish produced – the shrimp and prawn – was destined for export, with a high diversity of other fish being produced, sold and consumed locally in mainly small-scale enterprises.

PhD researcher Abdullah-Al Mamun, lead author of a paper presenting the findings, said: “There has been very little research into the detail of what’s happening on the ground in Bangladesh, to counterbalance global discourse about food security and trade liberalisation. There has been criticism of the effect of prawn and shrimp export on communities and the environment.

“This study is important, because it shows that the family-driven, polyculture system currently in operation in southwest Bangladesh actually safeguards household nutrition and income, whilst requiring far fewer inputs than the intensive systems in operation in other places, making it better for the environment.”

Four areas of gher dikes (where rice, fish and vegetables are grown together) were studied: high saline (coastal), medium saline, low saline and freshwater (inland). Forty households farming fish from each area were chosen at random, and underwater biodiversity was measured.

Dr Mamun said: “As well as prawn and shrimp, we found 52 other fish species growing in the water across the four areas, which is surprisingly diverse, as well as a range of vegetables. The prawn and shrimp for export brought in the highest price for households. The other 52 fish species and the vegetables were consumed and sold locally.”

The study also found that very few inputs were needed to grow the fish, making the impact on the environment low. It was overseen by Professor Dave Little at the Institute of Aquaculture.

He said: “The data-set in this study was of an extremely high quality. The results send a clear message that consumers can safely eat Bangladeshi shrimp, knowing they are also supporting local people being able to eat more nutritionally valuable seafood.”

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Curry

Making a Difference

Arju Miah MBE, owner of The Taj Mahal in Chippenham, tells Curry Life how his achievements have had an impact above and beyond the hospitality industry

Arju Miah MBE has been involved with several restaurants since his arrival in the UK in 1980. The one remaining is his longest-standing venture, the 48-seater Taj Mahal in Chippenham in Wiltshire, which opened in 1989.

“My intention when I came to the UK was to one day have a successful business so I could stand on my own two feet,” he says. “Owning a business meant I could have a bit more freedom and hopefully provide security for my family.”

When he first came to England from Sylhet in Bangladesh, Miah started as a kitchen assistant, before working his way up to being a chef, with all his training done on the job. He opened his first business in Reading in 1984, before moving onto other restaurants in Sussex and Suffolk over the following years. He suffered some serious burns on his arm following an accident at work while cooking, but undeterred, he took a couple of months off, got married and eventually settled on Chippenham as the location for the Taj Mahal.

“I live in Swindon and Chippenham is an easy commute, I also believe it is one of the nicest towns in South West England,” he says. “There have been big changes in recent years – many people are moving here from London for example, as they can get more for their money and the travel links to London and Wales are good. When I started in Chippenham I invited local dignitaries, members of parliament and the chairman of the district council and I gave them an overview. Word of mouth spread and my restaurant’s reputation grew with publicity.”

An entrepreneurial outlook

The restaurant has built a loyal following over the years, with Miah referring to customers as ‘extended family members’. It has been shortlisted for and won several awards over the years in recognition of its food and service and most recently was named Best Curry Restaurant 2021 at the Curry Life Awards. Some of its house special dishes include Taran Special, featuring meat cooked with potatoes, egg and whole green chillies, infused with madras heat and Joy Pur, meat with onions, capsicum, garlic and ginger sauce with garlic mushrooms on top.

Arju Miah recieving MBE from the Queen

“I started off as a chef but I also love working front of house – one of the advantages is that I can meet many business people and the local community,” he says. “I’m an all-rounder in business, looking at
 all aspects. I worked for two years as the chef, then trained my colleagues and moved to front of house. We change the menu every one to three years and refresh some of the dishes, alongside ensuring we have the staple ones that our loyal diners enjoy. But it’s not just about the curry – you need to have food and service combined at a high level.”

Testament to his loyal customer base is the support he received over the various lockdowns, while the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak. The Taj Mahal continued to trade, catering for large numbers of takeaways, which meant Miah was able to keep all his staff (one employee went to Bangladesh but returned to the restaurant one year later).

“We received some government grants during lockdown to help support the business and I retained all eight of my staff,” says Miah. “Covid taught us all a number of lessons: about discipline, respect and how to keep our distance! It made us all more patient.”

Arju Miah with his family in earlier days

Miah’s other restaurant ventures include the one in Reading in 1984, another Taj Mahal that opened in Swindon in 2010, which he sold three years later and Miah Indian Cuisine, a 250-seater restaurant, also in Swindon, which opened in 2010 and which he sold in 2014 and which also won awards.

“I have tried restaurants that are both big and small and am proud of my achievements,” says Miah. “My plan is to train my sons to take over the existing business but I like to keep busy and there is plenty keeping me involved. I am still very interested in cooking and am often helping my chefs.”

Miah says current staff shortages are very detrimental for Indian restaurants, and could result in many disappearing altogether, unless the government proposes a more flexible work permit policy.

“We need better training facilities for the next generation of chefs – I am lucky as I have my children who are able to help,” he says. “But the restaurant industry is a challenging one to be involved in and perhaps not so appealing to the younger generation. We could train people on the job as a training college would be too expensive but the visas and red tape are also prohibitive,” he says.

Community champion

Miah is proud of his achievements as a restaurateur and his community achievements have created an equally lasting impression, leading to Her Majesty The Queen awarding him with a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2003, for his charity work. He has been actively involved in many charities and helped raise funds for a range of causes over the years.

When Bangladesh was devastated by a cyclone in 1991, Miah helped to raise funds and collect items of clothing for those in need, alerting newspapers and the local Member for Parliament to the situation.

“We are all human beings at the end of the day – some of us are fortunate in terms of what we have but others are on the streets,” he says. “I am committed to giving those less fortunate the chance to have the same opportunities I have had. However small my actions, I am helping to make a difference.”

Miah was also involved in raising funds for the Bangladesh Female Academy, a free school for girls from deprived areas of Bangladesh, and he visited Bangladesh for the opening of the school in 2006. This was the first such institute in Bangladesh where those who couldn’t afford an education could receive one for free.  Other achievements include fundraising for Cancer Research for Wessex Children’s Hospice.

Miah has also held several prestigious positions with the local community and the wider field. He was president of Chippenham and District Chambers of Commerce and Industry from 2000 to 2002, the first Asian president in the body’s 100-year history. He was also the founder vice-chairman treasurer of the Bangladesh Association Swindon Area. In 2020, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chippenham Business Awards.

“I want to be the best I can in my business and in my community life,” says Miah. At 63 years of age, his philosophy remains much the same as it was when he started out many years ago and shows little sign of slowing down.

Taj Mahal

51 The Causeway,

Chippenham SN15 3DD

Tel: 01249 444350

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Curry

A Club Above the Rest

A Club Above the Rest

Paprika Club is wowing diners with its refined dishes, its contemporary design and its consistent approach

Located in Royal Leamington Spa, Paprika Club has been welcoming customers since 1994. The 90-seater restaurant, opened by Mohammed Azad on the former site of another Indian restaurant, recently unveiled an extensive refurbishment, carried out during the various lockdown periods in England. The result is a restaurant with a more sleek and modern look, featuring bold blue and yellow colours and subtle lighting.

“We put together a new colour scheme, changed the furniture, the crockery and the lighting – the only thing that has stayed the same is the floor,” says Azad, who manages the business alongside his nephews and sons. “We decided that when we reopened post-Covid, we wanted to do so with a wow factor, so we could give customers a memorable welcome back after so many months of closure. I get bored of things staying the same and make changes every few years. During lockdown, we were open for takeaways but dining is our main business, and with the time on our hands, it made perfect sense to renovate.”

Azad adds that the new-look restaurant has had a marked influence on the atmosphere and the types of customers visiting, with many people dining at Paprika Club for the first time, alongside the restaurant’s loyal customer base. Having won ‘Best Curry Restaurant’ at the 2021 Curry Life Awards has also attracted many new customers.

“Diners who have visited since we reopened thought we were a new restaurant, they hadn’t noticed us before,” explains Azad. “Many others walking by stop and have a look and tell us it’s inviting. There is a lot of competition in town and further afield but if you want to rise above the others, you don’t just have to do something – you have to do it well, regardless of the competition.”

Changing times

Azad believes that constantly delivering what customers – new and old want, providing good service and food and – crucially – maintaining these standards, is the reason for Paprika Club’s long-term success.

“The concept of eating at an Indian restaurant has very much changed over the years,” he says. “Restaurants were busy between 6pm and 9pm and then again once the pubs closed at 11pm. When licensing laws changed, so too did customers’ attitudes – now it’s about dining out and having an experience rather than just eating curry. What has really changed is the presentation of the food – people want more refined dishes.  And with the competition, we have to ensure we are consistent at every customer touchpoint, whether we are serving at 6pm or 9pm.”

Popular dishes on the menu include the classic chicken tikka masala curries and jalfrezi dishes but Paprika Club also has a number of more unusual dishes. These include signature dishes such as a goan fish curry, with Bangladeshi freshwater fish, prepared with garlic, mustard seed, curry leaf, peppers, onions and tomatoes and ‘sea bass supreme’, marinated with fish spices, turmeric and garnished with baby aubergine. There is also ‘A Sylheti Special’, featuring diced chicken with selected spices and scotch bonnet and ‘Hot & Spicy with Potato Straws’ – meat prepared in a hot and spicy sauce, garnished with potato straws.

“Winning our Curry LIfe award – Paprika Club’s first-ever award, has definitely boosted our business – and it is so pleasing and satisfying to know that our customers voted for us,” says Azad. “We are proud to have that endorsement, particularly with the local competition and it’s encouraging people from around Warwickshire and further afield to come and visit us. We need to maintain this level of service and give customers what they want.”

A family affair

Having travelled from Bangladesh to Birmingham (where he still lives today) as a young child in the 1970s, to join his father who was already in the UK, Azad was drawn to the hospitality industry by his brother, who was working as a chef in his own Indian restaurant at the time.

“My father worked in a factory but as a family we have been involved in the restaurant industry since 1982, when my brother opened one in Stirchley in Birmingham and then also in Knowle in Solihull,” explains Azad. “I learnt everything on the job. We are using the same recipes from my brother, who was a very experienced chef. He is retired now but we still use some of his methods and he advises us now and again.”

Staffing is a constant worry for Azad but he counts himself lucky in that he has loyal members of staff, some who have been with him for 15 years or more (his chef has been there for 18 years) and also an extended family whom he can rely on. Two of his nephews run the business alongside him and several of Azad’s brothers help out at short notice while his children also fit in regular shifts around their university degrees.

“Everyone who works here has their own role, whether that is managing social media or front of house or the kitchen – you can’t do everything yourself,” acknowledges Azad. “You can try but you might not be that efficient.”

Still, he believes more needs to be done to attract staff – with Paprika Club open seven days a week from 5.30pm until 11pm, Azad has only been able to take one day off from work in the last three months and admits that when the restaurant has busy periods, he can often be found cooking dishes in the kitchen.

“I am fortunate because my family can help out if necessary, but the government could do more to ease conditions for work permits so that we can employ staff from abroad,” he says. “I cook when I have to – I have many talents and if I need to step in then I will. Customers do not want to know your problems – you have to be able to deliver.”

Azad anticipates that many restaurants will close down in the next five years, due to staff shortages and the challenges and expenses involved recruiting from abroad. 

“It’s not a quick fix and the shortages are impacting all sectors, not just hospitality,” he says. “I’ve done more grafting in recent months than I have in the years since we opened.”

As Azad explains, he has got to where he is through hard work and he has to continue to meet the demands of customers and of the business.

“If you are complacent, things will rapidly unfold – getting to the top is easy but keeping things at that level is the hard part,” he says. “The restaurant has got to where it is now because I am passionate – if you don’t have this passion, you can’t get motivated. I’ve put in more hours and carried out extra shifts to meet the demands of the service. This has put more pressure on me but ultimately, it’s rewarding. When the going gets tough, i have to keep going: 27 years on, I still enjoy talking to customers and providing good service”

Keeping customers coming back for more

Paprika Club is keen to promote the business on social media – as Azad puts it, ‘it’s amazing how quickly things can get around’, with one of Azad’s sons responsible for social media updates, including posts and images on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. The restaurant also launched a loyalty scheme when it reopened after lockdown, offering returning customers a 10% discount on their bill.

Any thought of retirement is very much in the future, with Azad’s focus very much fixed on the present time and ensuring the restaurant continues to maintain its high standards. Opening other Paprika Clubs in nearby areas would be a tempting prospect, but overcoming staffing issues would be too challenging, for the moment at least.

“I have got ideas about branching out and creating some more Paprika Clubs but I would need the right staff,” says Azad. “The reality is that if you can’t do something well, just don’t do it. Here, I am maintaining our high levels of standards and service; if I was to open another restaurant now, in view of the current situation, it would be difficult and not to the level I want to achieve.”

Paprika Club

22 Regent St, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire CV32 5E

paprikaclub.co.uk, Phone: 01926 428272

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