Ask the ... Editor of Curry Life Magazine

more than a year ago
The newest edition to Ljubljana's growing curry scene comes with something of a difference. With the backing of Curry Life magazine, one of the most respected voices on curry in the world, quality and authenticity is guaranteed. Moving into the old Figovec gostilna, it has also paid respect to the Figovec legacy by keeping a number of the traditional Slovene dishes. We had the pleasure of a chat with Mr Syed Ahmed, editor of the magazine, about all things curry.

Good afternoon Mr Ahmed. We might as well start with the obvious question; why Ljubljana?
We’ve been coming here for curry festivals for the last three years, and everyone says ‘why Ljubljana?’ By chance I met one of the directors of the Park Hotel when in London. I had heard his name because he had been going back and forward to Bangladesh, he had business links there. We met in London at a business show and exchanged cards. I edit the magazine Curry Life, and he mentioned that he loved curry. We were chatting, he was very enthusiastic about our magazine, he mentioned the festival and asked ‘why not do one in Ljubljana?’. My first response was ‘What is Ljubljana?’ He said that if we were interested he had a small hotel that could host it. I said that first of all I’d need to go there and see, so he invited us over; we liked it and said ‘why not?’

Can you tell us a little more about the festival?
The curry festival has also been in other parts of Europe, starting in 2002 in Western Europe. We’ve been doing curry festival in India would you believe! The next one is in Chennai. We’ve been very successful, you would not believe how popular a British curry festival in India can be. We’ve been running the festival in India since 2006, introducing new cities each year.

What were your expectations for the festival here?
When we first started here, everyone was nervous and we weren’t sure how people would react to the spicy food etc. We were amazed with the response! It was a very bad winter, temperatures around -9°c, but people were queuing up outside to have curry.

They probably thought it would warm them up!
We were surprised how spicy the people demanded! We took a risk, but picked up mild dishes as an introduction. People wanted spicier! People loved it. The hotel was shocked at the response as well. The British ambassador at the time was involved, and he mentioned doing again the next year, on a bigger scale, attracting some bigger companies, to make it an expo of sorts. I said ‘why not?’ The next year we were at Cankarjev dom for 2 days. The plan was to be open for two days there and then move the festival to Hotel Park. Every day was packed and we were overwhelmed with the response. A lot of big companies in the curry world came, big boys in the ethnic food markets. They were overwhelmed. Their products were rarely seen at the time, now markets are stocking these products. Other embassies in the region were invited (Czech Republic, Austria etc.), and they were impressed too. The impact was very big. The following year they demanded that we must be at the Park Hotel, so we returned here.

So how did this lead to the opening of a restaurant here?
The owner of the hotel was amazed at the popularity of the festival, so he mentioned opening up a restaurant. We have one fundamental problem in the UK with setting up a restaurant; we are an independent magazine, set up to promote other people’s businesses. I don’t want to be seen as competing with them. However, in Europe it would not clash.

Did you have any experience of working in restaurants beforehand?
I have a background in restaurants; my brother (Curry Life editor-in-chief) also has experience. We’ve both worked in the business, but stopped doing so to focus on the magazine.

Why Figovec?
When we started to think about opening a restaurant here, we came across Figovec. It’s an interesting building, a food destination for more than two centuries. It was in poor condition, extremely run down and about to close. It was a dilapidated building. The location is fantastic, and everyone knows it. We had discussions with the owner and then we made a proposal, which he welcomed. We wanted to keep the legacy of Figovec by keeping the name, as well as keeping the historically popular dishes, with curry at the same level as opposed to discarding Figovec’s history. We truly wanted to retain the heritage and legacy of Figovec. It’s worked out really nicely for us as a venue, it is right in the heart of the city. However, it’s taken a lot of investment because of the state of the building. We had some negative coverage in the papers, but of course all publicity is good publicity.

What was the negative publicity?
People said Figovec has been a Slovenian food destination for so long, but now its closing and curry is taking over. It isn’t exactly true. As mentioned we’re retaining the heritage and name. We didn’t have to. We could have gone for a standalone curry thing, but we’re keeping the traditional dishes, we’re making jobs, no criticism has any real value. Generally people are saying good things. Curry Life as a magazine has good standing, a reputation for promoting good curries and working with the top curry chefs in the world. We work with a lot of Michelin star chefs as well. We are seen as trying to raise the standards of traditional curry houses. We have that reputation. We have a chefs club with hundreds of paid members who joined for training. When we do things, we want to do things properly. Our head chef, who worked in North Wales (Deeside), was formerly the chef of the Indian prime minister. He decided he had enough of India, went to work in the UK, settled in Wales. He’s dedicated to running this new endeavour and is a very well known, reputable chef. We also have chefs flying over from India for speciality dishes, such as a chef from Hyderabad, the city famous for Biryani. The important thing for us is that a lot of British tourists are coming every year. We’ve been talking with the embassies and they’ve been telling us that it is a growing market. The numbers are not huge, but a lot of people pass by on the way to other places. We’re doing a lot of marketing in the UK as well. Tourists are more likely to try these exotic cuisines, ethnic options.

Do you have plans to expand?
If this takes off, which we believe it will, we have a plan to expand into other cities in the region, which is somewhat untouched territory for curry. There may be one or two around already, but many cities are relatively untouched. In UK there are no shortage of curry restaurants, (12,000 and growing). Interestingly, if you go to other parts of the world, you will find a lot of curry restaurants are open but they aren’t following the Indian model, but the UK instead. They see UK as the benchmark for curry.

It is our national cuisine after all!
I was in Malaysia about a year ago, and I went to an Indian restaurant ran by a couple. They have the menu exactly as in the UK. I found it strange. Why this menu? Why not authentic Indian? He said he followed the UK. When it comes to curry, people look up the UK as a good quality curry provider. The quality of ingredients in the UK is fantastic. Even in India, the chefs there want us to bring in the ingredients from the UK. Even though they are available in India, the UK has premium quality.

How as the curry industry in Britain changed?
There are a growing number of Michelin star Indian chefs in the UK (at least 6 or 7). Curry as a fine dining option has grown, as people become affluent and begun to demand quality. The trends in the 70s and 80s were many curry houses named after generic Indian names, like Taj Mahal, Mumbai Palace etc. Now, a lot don’t have traditional Indian names. Now they are moving away from it. Names are changing, trends are changing, and a lot of big name chefs are coming up with interesting ideas. A lot of talented chefs have come out of the curry industry, and a lot of big names are experimenting with curry. You can’t ignore the fact that many love the food. Curry millionaires have been created. The founder of Cobra beer is an example. Cobra beer was invented in the UK in the 90s; it was invented specifically for curry. If you go to the big supermarkets, you will find the ethnic food sections have dramatically gotten bigger.

I agree, there are now sections within sections. Will it continue to grow?
Curry is a huge business, employing over 100m people. UK curry is big, and we are encouraging people as an industry leader to expand into the European market. It would be silly not to. In Prague there are 50 curry restaurants, and its still not enough. They are crazy about curry. We are getting a lot of invites to open restaurants. There is a demand for this type of food, and I hope people enjoy it here.

We’ve had a lot of support from the British embassy too. They’ve seen how we operate, we’ve worked with them before and they know what we have to offer. We are very excited. There is a long way to go, but we think there is huge potential. The festival has shown that people have a love for this kind of food. The festival will run again next year, featuring all of the popular British dishes. A lot of dishes were invented in the UK, and when I took them to India people went crazy. A chef from Yorkshire took roast beef and Yorkshire puddings but spiced it up, people went crazy for it! Obviously it wasn’t beef, it was lamb, but he spiced up the gravy and people went crazy for it.

I can’t imagine a spicy English roast!
It is now a dominant food, without a doubt. I hope the influence it’s had in the UK will continue into Europe. Once people try it, they always like it. It certainly shouldn’t push other foods aside; in this globalised word people want to try things, to be inventive. We also need to respect traditions, which is what we’re doing here with Figovec. If I were bringing McDonalds or KFC, I would have had difficulties. Curry is different.

It is something of a phenomenon. Whenever we have dinner parties at home, it seems that curry is the dish being cooked.
A lot of people cook curries at home now. One of our former chefs, Dominic, worked with Heston Blumenthal. Dominic is a Michelin star chef, one of the nicest people you can meet. He went to India twice, and he’s heading there again in March for the curry festival. He isn’t a curry chef, more traditional English food and he used to work for Michael Parkinson. He went to India, fell in love with the food and has started experimenting with curry. He said he couldn’t get out of curry! There are people who want to experiment with it. This year he’s doing the Great British Menu.

Food is definitely changing. It feels like it’s never been more beloved and respected, especially in the UK.
UK food now has changed dramatically; a lot of people are more foodie-orientated now. It’s a good thing. London has become a gastronomic capital. There are more Indian restaurants in London than Delhi and Mumbai combined. Food connects people. Food and culture are so closely intertwined.

History is told through the stomachs of people who create it! Thanks for your time Mr. Ahmed, and best of luck with Curry Life-Figovec.


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