Ethnic restaurants are experiencing unprecedented recruitment problems these days because the UK government has made it more or less impossible for them to employ the skilled people they need to cook the food. Home Office rules require that skilled migrant chefs from non-
European Union countries must earn more than £28,260 a year - far more than most restaurants can pay - and have a minimum of five years' experience and graduate-level qualifications. Effectively, the rules allow only the top 5% of non-EU chefs into the country.
Warned of the looming crisis for Indian restaurants, David Cameron's government backed short "curry college" courses to train up homegrown chefs but, to date, these have struggled to attract students, and potential employers have been dismayed by the low calibre of the trainees.
While motivated home cooks can make very respectable Indian food if they are armed with authentic ingredients and follow to the letter a recipe from Camellia Panjabi or Rick Stein, graduates of six-week courses in catering college who learn old curry house stalwarts, such as chicken tikka masala, are unlikely to hit any high spots. Ethnic restaurants need cooks with a significant background in their native cuisine.
In Scotland, the Indian chef recruitment crisis is even more acute: most of the top Indian chefs with a right to work in the UK are in London. The most severe shortage is of chefs who are skilled in southern Indian vegetarian cooking. The majority of "Indian" restaurants in the UK are Bangladeshi, a very different culinary tradition from that of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
So you have to give credit to Dhakin, in Glasgow, for bothering to serve a southern Indian menu at all. And when you walk into the place and see people tucking into crisp and golden dosas that are several feet long, it's evident that the skill shortage doesn't extend to the breads department at least.
The menu is almost a book at Dhakin, and unless you choose fixed deals, very expensive (£13.95 is a lot to ask for a masala uttapam - a lentil and rice flour pancake - even if it is topped with coconut, chopped onions, tomatoes and green chillies). If you eat pre theatre, you get 50% off the a la carte menu - now we're talking sensible prices - but otherwise, Dhakin's pricing is up there with very serious restaurants. Perhaps now that it has a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin guide it has broader ambitions.
We started with rasam, India's pepper soup, the inspiration for mulligatawny. It was certainly peppery, but it lacked the bracing tamarind sharpness of those I have tasted in India, and it was tainted by the inclusion of garlic that tasted stale. Next came idli (steamed rice cakes) and wada (doughnut shaped ground lentil fritters), both leaden, in a sambhar gravy, which, like the soup, was thicker than is customary, and spiced in a heavy-handed way. The menu said that these dishes were served with coconut chutney, which would have freshened them up and provided a foil for the powerful, stewy sambhar, but the promised chutney didn't keep its rendevous.
Priced at £19.95, the meen pulli kozhambu (monkfish simmered in a spicy coconut and tamarind sauce) tried the patience further. Its grey membrane hadn't been removed, so it had contracted in chewy curls. I have often argued with people who say that fish doesn't work in curries because the spices overwhelm the seafood flavour, but in this instance, the gravy totally and utterly overwhelmed even this plucky species. Pumpkin curry was like no pumpkin I have tasted. Possibly some exotic type of gourd, it was grey-green, bland and greasy.
Two desserts, and both were truly inferior versions of what you might reasonably expect. A snowy white malai kulfi had the mouthfeel and taste you'd get if you mixed the most basic dairy ice cream with a load of cardamom and rose flavouring, and it lacked nuts. The vermicelli dessert, payasam, which can be wonderful, was reduced to very sweet evaporated milk with the odd cashew and sultana floating in, and was bereft of fragrance.
If you ask me, we can't relax the immigration rules for chefs soon enough.