Heat is on as winners of Irish Curry Awards to be revealed in Co Meath
Ahead of winners of the Irish Curry Awards being revealed in Co Meath tomorrow evening, Belfast organiser Ali Askir tells Gail Bell how they are changing perceptions of Asian cuisine and bringing culture, spice and colour to the table in Northern Ireland
CURRY, for those in the know, is never just curry, and the fourth Irish Curry Awards are here again to celebrate the most sophisticated cuisine, most talented chefs and the best Asian restaurants in Ireland.
Organised by entrepreneur, restaurateur and founder of Safa Indian restaurant in Belfast, Ali Askir, the award ceremony (hosted by Pamela Ballantine), will take place in the Pillo Hotel, Ashbourne, Co Meath, tomorrow evening.
From a tentative idea drummed up by the Belfast businessman five years ago – "everyone thought I was mad" – the Irish Curry Awards have grown in influence and popularity and are now regarded as a type of culinary badge of honour throughout the flourishing ethnic hospitality sector in Ireland.
"I just wanted to promote the best Asian food because this sector was not being included in other industry awards," Askir says. "It was not being counted – we, the people serving up the best Indian, Chinese, Indonesian food, were not being counted.
"That perception is changing, but progress is slow – the idea is that these awards will elevate Asian cuisine to the status it deserves in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland and also attract more sponsors for the awards. When I first opened restaurants in Northern Ireland, I faced an uphill battle to enter competitions as most failed to include an Asian category.
"This is despite figures which show that 64 per cent of people on a Friday night eat Asian food in Northern Ireland. And a Saturday night takeaway is mostly Asian food – Chinese or Indian. It tends not to be fish and chips."
Born and brought up in Manchester, Askir has lived in Northern Ireland for 32 years but says, in many respects, he still feels an outsider.
"To a lot of people, we're still 'foreigners' and there's nothing in Ireland that recognises Asian hospitality," he says flatly. "On the flip side, we get a lot of positive feedback from people eating in our restaurants which number over 100 in Northern Ireland and over 900 in the Republic. This is because we are not dirty old curry houses any more; we are highly respected restaurants covering Bangladeshi, Keralan and Nepalese, Pakistani cuisine, all with their own distinct flavours and specialities."
The common ingredients to all those variations, he says, are natural, health-boosting herbs and spices which infuse most dishes, as well as authentic cooking methods which are now being served up to Irish foodies with a "modern twist".
"Everyone is trying to do their own thing," Askir explains. "The old concept of curry and rice has been put to the side and a lot of restaurants in Ireland are using the old, traditional cooking methods, but serving dishes in a modern way. People think of vindaloo and chicken tikka masala [the latter invented here to suit the Western palate] – which is a colourful dish and suits nearly everyone unless you are allergic to coconuts or almonds – but diners are now moving more towards true, Indian flavours and uncompromised Asian dishes."
Food and cooking are in the Askir DNA: his family owned restaurants in England and his cousin taught him to cook. But, as well as utilising his skills as a chef in Northern Ireland, the businessman has worked behind the scenes, helping others set up restaurants while continuing to invest in and and promote the ethnic hospitality sector across the island.
Much of his work these days lies in the consulting field and, most recently, he has branched into manufacturing high quality donor kebabs – with the aim of trying to persuade devotees that a healthy version can be just as tasty. It is a venture seemingly proving another uphill battle for hearts and minds.
"People think kebabs can't be healthy, but if you give them the option, you can change their mindset," he argues, in what might be a subconscious reference to changing views generally on what Asian restaurateurs have to offer, culturally and economically, in Northern Ireland.
"Curry comes from all over Asia and because we're focusing on racial equality, diversity and the contribution made by ethnic minority throughout Ireland to the local community, the curry awards include Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian...
"The thing we want to highlight is that we're not just serving great food and contributing to the economy; we make a lot of difference here. We bring culture, we bring flair, we bring spice, we bring diversity, we bring colour. We bring things to the table and that needs to be known, appreciated, respected. It needs to count."
:: The Irish Curry Awards are sponsored by Cobra Beer and support the Children's Heartbeat Trust. Winners will be revealed tomorrow evening. irishcurryawards.com