Naeem Mohaiemen on Tue, 6 May 2008 14:33:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Mario Learns To Cook Bangla

All's changing in UK's historic Bangladeshi restaurants. In addition
to UK's new immigration laws, here's a significant demographic

"Today's young British Bangladeshis are not interested in the
antisocial hours and relatively low wages of curry house work."

Curry houses test Europe's eastern promise
EU workers try to leap cultural gap as restaurant bosses struggle to find staff
Rachel Williams
The Guardian, Monday May 5 2008

Mario was used to plain Romanian dishes but now is learning to adjust
his taste buds to the spiciness of curry. Photograph: Corbis

A framed review telling of "modern magic in the city suburb" hangs
alongside the abstract artwork on the walls of the Monsoon Indian
restaurant. Beneath it is a photograph of owner Mahmud Miah with a
beaming David Cameron. The lighting at the eatery in Hollywood, a few
miles south of Birmingham and its balti triangle, is minimalist; there
is not a scrap of flock wallpaper to be seen.

In the kitchen there is another sign of the changing face of the
British curry industry. Faced with a desperate shortage of staff after
new immigration rules stopped restaurateurs bringing in workers from
the subcontinent, Miah has heeded government advice and looked to
eastern Europe to fill the gaps.

His new kitchen porter, Valentin-Marius Corcoveanu - Mario to his
colleagues - is a 21-year-old Romanian. He owes his opportunity to the
closing of a short-term visa scheme under which restaurants employed
Bangladeshi chefs, and the introduction of a points-based migration
system for workers from outside the EU. Kitchen staff from Bangladesh
would now have to speak English and have qualifications.

The strategy, announced in 2005, was devised on the basis that the
need for low-skilled labour could in future be met by migrants from
the new EU countries. Warning of a lack of staff that threatens the
£3.5bn industry, the curry trade's leaders say eastern Europeans,
with no background in the intricate art of balancing Asian spices
and no grasp of Bengali, are not the answer. The Bangladesh Caterers
Association (BCA) is lobbying for curry work to be officially deemed
an occupation suffering from a special skills shortage, allowing new
workers to come from Asia again.

Today's young British Bangladeshis are not interested in the
antisocial hours and relatively low wages of curry house work,
campaigners say, and chefs can take 10 years to train.

The BCA believes there are 30,000 vacancies across the 12,000
restaurants and takeaways it represents. Last month, Gordon Brown said
people already in Britain would be trained up to fill staff shortages.
In Hollywood, Miah has decided to try it for himself. On a hectic
Thursday night, Mario is dashing back and forth to the storeroom,
frying chicken pakoras, chopping vegetables and mixing a vat of
yoghurt, lemon juice, mint sauce, coriander, green chilli and sugar.
He decides it needs more sugar, as a colleague nods approvingly.

The cultural hurdles are evident, however. Mario has very basic
English, but also struggles to understand the Bengali used by his
fellow employees.

"Mario, jeera anno," head chef Mozomil Ali calls outs. Met with a
blank look, he adds encouragingly: "Brown bag". Mario heads out to
collect the cumin. "We try to teach him the names of the spices but
there are so many he forgets," Ali explains. "So we tell him the
colour of the bag they come in."

Speaking through an interpreter, Mario confirms the language barrier
is his biggest problem. What Bengali has he picked up? There's a pause
before he answers "dasila". A roar goes up among his colleagues.
Dasila, they explain, is a jokey term meaning "get a move on".

He has also been learning to adjust his taste buds. Used to plainer
Romanian dishes, his first brush with curry was not comfortable.
"It was too hot. They eat too many chillies here." Being cooked a
different curry every night by his colleagues helped. "I tried it
again and again. Now I like it."

But Bajloor Rashid, the president of the BCA, says eastern European
workers are not the solution. "They don't seem to fit in. Most of them
are not really keen on working here. They don't last long." He told
the immigration minister Liam Byrne this at a recent meeting.

In the meantime the staff shortages will cost restaurants an average
of £19,000 turnover every year, Rashid claims. "A lot of restaurants
could close in the next 12 months."

Mario is an experiment, says Miah. If he sticks around long enough he
could become a cook. "If I can teach one of them they will get the
others in. If they stay it will be fantastic." Mario, however, has
other ideas. He plans to leave the UK after two or three years.

The second chef, Shaheb Uddin, is confident of Mario's ability to
become a cook. "He will, because he wants to learn, but it will
take time. The next Bangladeshi generation don't want to know about
restaurants. Our next generation is them lot."

Cook's glossary

Mario asho -  Come here, Mario
Haldi Turmeric
Jeera Cumin
Dhaniya Coriander
Annarish Pineapple
Chana Chick peas
Dasila Get a move on
Morgi anno Fetch the chicken
Sabji anno Fetch the vegetables
Jaldi jaldi Hurry up
Salad cotto Cut the salad

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