- - Monday, April 23, 2012

LONDON — When it comes to curry, some like it hot, with India’s signature dish as popular in London as it is in New Delhi.

But now the heat is on the British government for creating a curry crisis because of a shortage of Asian chefs, thanks to an immigration clampdown last year.

The government capped the number of foreigners migrating to Britain and set new minimum-wage rules for non-European residents that forced the closures of some Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Thai restaurants.

“We’re facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Enam Ali, founder of the British Curry Awards.

Newspapers have published editorials of outrage, as Britons worry about the future of their favorite takeout.

Eric Pickles, a Conservative parliamentarian, said Britain has some of the finest Asian food in the world, which is “part of the very fabric of our national life.”

Facing the heat, the government is trying to tackle the problem it created by setting up five “centers of excellence in Asian and Oriental cookery.” It hopes these cooking schools, scheduled to open in June, also will tackle rising youth unemployment by teaching jobless young Britons the art of making curry.

The government hopes to train young people as cooks to make up for the shortage in restaurant kitchens caused by new rules that require skilled chefs from outside the European Economic Area to be paid at least $44,000 a year. The normal curry house salary is between $28,500 and $34,000.

Recruits to the “curry colleges” will be trained in food safety and customer service before they are offered restaurant apprenticeships. Still, some think it won’t solve the problem in the short term.

“Everyone loves Indian food, but we won’t have enough highly skilled people to cope with demand,” said Rajesh Suri, chief executive of two high-end Indian restaurants in central London.

“I think lots of restaurants will close down, and creativity and the quality of food will suffer.”

Britain has about 12,000 Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants and thousands of Chinese and Thai eateries, according to the Hospitality Guild. The $5.7 billion industry employs about 100,000 people.

The cuisine from the Asian subcontinent is hugely popular, with 2.5 million people eating in restaurants serving food from that region every week.

Scottish curry?

The most popular dish is chicken tikka masala, an Anglo-Indian recipe of chicken chunks in a mildly spiced creamy tomato sauce. It has achieved near folkloric status, with arguments over its provenance pitting town against town.

In 2009, Glasgow politician Mohammed Sarwar called for official European Union recognition of the Scottish city as chicken tikka masala’s rightful home.

His bid was based on the popular legend that the dish was first cooked when the chef of a local curry house prepared a sauce by adding spices to a can of condensed tomato soup after a customer complained that his meal was too dry.

Newcastle in the northeast and Birmingham in the Midlands lay rival claims to being the birthplace of what has become Britain’s best-loved dish, ahead of fish and chips and the traditional Sunday roast.

The University of West London, which will be home to one to the new centers of excellence, already has students of Asian cookery as part of a three-year catering qualification.

They say the curry crisis has improved their job prospects.

“I wasn’t very academic at school,” said Chris Harrison, 18, of London, who started the course when he left school at 16 and works part time in a restaurant.

“I could have gone to university, but I enjoyed food technology and decided to do this instead. I don’t know what I would have fallen into otherwise.”

Jennica Hedges, also 18, said catering runs in her family.

“My dad’s really pleased I’m doing this because he trained as a chef,” she said. “If I hadn’t done this course, I would have gone into art or music, but there are definitely more jobs in catering.”

Caterers suffer, too

The Asian catering industry accounts for 19 percent of all officially registered restaurants in Britain.

All could be affected by the new immigration rules, but the impact will be felt most acutely by the larger businesses because they are more likely to recruit from overseas, said Martin Christian Kent, from People 1st, a catering industry think tank.

“Most smaller businesses employ their own family, and they have British citizenship,” he said. “It’s organizations looking to expand that can’t because of a shortage of staff.”

Mr. Suri said Britain’s restaurant industry has been hurt by the immigration cap.

“Business has been touch-and-go for a few years, and with the immigration cap, some of the most recognized names have now closed down,” he said.

“The cookery schools are a great idea, but there will still be problems. It takes three years to get to the level of a curry chef or tandoor chef.”

He is also concerned that the program in its first year will have only 50 recruits, not nearly enough to supply the country’s restaurants.

The good news is that Britons can cook a lamb biriani or chana masala as well as Bangladeshis.

“It takes time, but my apprentices have proved that Brits can do it, too,” Mr. Suri said.

So far, quality and innovation at his restaurants have not been affected.

He claims responsibility for a recent invention, the “naanwich” - naan bread filled with spicy chicken, lamb or vegetables.

It has become one of the most popular dishes at his central London restaurant, and others have started copying it.

Chicken tikka masala now has a rival.