London: British aficionados of Indian food can be a touchy lot. They point out that chicken tikka masala—the UK’s national dish, according to the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook—is about as authentic as a ham-and-pineapple pizza.
Chicken vindaloo, a hot curry with potatoes, to be consumed after much beer on a Friday night, is another invention, this time based on a spicy pork dish from Goa. Even the word curry isn’t generally used in India as a generic term for the cuisine.
That’s before you get to the fact that 85% of the 9,800 Indian restaurants in the UK are actually Bangladeshi, according to the Guild of Bangladeshi restaurateurs. Many of the eateries are called balti houses, also a British term.
Against such a backdrop of cultural confusion, planning a chain of British-Indian restaurants in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore might not sound a great business idea.
Yet, Jamal Hirani, chief executive officer of the Tiffinbites food company, seeks to do that and reckons Indians are ready for chicken tikka masala.
The dish consists of pieces of tandoori meat in a sauce with tomato and butter. The nearest Indian equivalent is a dish called butter chicken, or chicken makhani.
“It’s about taking the British curry to its home and it will be the most popular dish on the menu,” Hirani said in an interview at his flagship restaurant in London’s financial distict. “Indians want something different. They’ll want to try it. There’s a huge middle class there and the world’s a small place,” he added.
Hirani, 39, was born in Kampala and moved to London at the age of five when Asians were expelled from Uganda.
His family started a catering business and Hirani studied management at Aston University in England before joining Marks & Spencer Plc, where he worked for five years as a store manager and a lingerie buyer.
“I can tell you the bra has 26 different components,” he said (Which probably is 24 more than most men had noticed).
He then went on to work for PriceRunner.com and left in 2002 to create branded Indian restaurants, aiming to do for the food what a chain such as PizzaExpress Ltd. had done for Italian (Incidentally, Italians tend not to put pineapple on their pizzas, though such fruity additions are popular in the UK and the US).
Hirani founded Tiffinbites in January 2003, with a trial store in London’s Soho, selling pre-cooked curries to eat there or take out.
The dishes are prepared in kitchens on London’s North Circular Road. They are then shipped to one of four outlets or served in corporate dining rooms across London, including banks such as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., he said. Tiffinbites also supplies hospitals and universities.
“About half our customers are Indian, and we also host Bollywood premieres for people like the actress Shilpa Shetty,” he said.
“All our food is halal, and particularly since 9/11, there has been huge demand from Muslim customers.”
Restaurant sales are running at £6 million (Rs48.70 crore) ($12.2 million) and wholesale catering at £5 million, he said. He estimates earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization at £500,000 for this year, up from £152,000 last year. Hirani declined to give figures for net income.
He also declined to identify the business partners he will work with in India or in Dubai, where he also hopes to start trading within 12 months. He intends to expand later to the US. Tiffinbites won’t be alone in seeking to give Indians a taste of British curry or a different take on the street food they know. The London chef Manju Malhi is presenting a TV series in India, Cooking Isn’t Rocket Science, about British-Indian dishes.
Opinion is divided among London-based Indian chefs on how Tiffinbites will do. Cyrus Todiwala of Cafe Spice Namaste said it was a gamble but one he thought might pay off.
Vineet Bhatia of Rasoi, who holds a Michelin star, wasn’t so sure. “People may be amused initially but then they will mock it,” he said.
“Indians are very much like the French when it comes to their cuisine. They are proud of it. Taking British-Indian food back into India is tricky. I wouldn’t do it. But they (Tiffinbites) have a fantastic setup here and good luck to them.”