Sir Gulam Noon: The curry king

Sir Gulam Noon came to Britain with big ambitions and a fistful of recipes. Now he's a friend of Tony Blair - and his chicken tikka masala is a national institution
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Gulam Noon MBE leans back on a sofa next to a window crammed with photographs. There's Noon with Prince Charles; Noon with the Queen; with Gordon Brown; with Tony Blair; with Michael Heseltine. Even, and I'd have thought this was one he might have left in the cupboard, with Margaret Beckett. "This country," he says, "gave me everything. It has given me health, wealth, honours. The British people have made me what I am."

Sir Gulam Noon MBE leans back on a sofa next to a window crammed with photographs. There's Noon with Prince Charles; Noon with the Queen; with Gordon Brown; with Tony Blair; with Michael Heseltine. Even, and I'd have thought this was one he might have left in the cupboard, with Margaret Beckett. "This country," he says, "gave me everything. It has given me health, wealth, honours. The British people have made me what I am."

It hasn't been a bad bargain. In return, Noon, who moved here from Bombay in 1969, helps feed the nation. Thousands of individual Indian meals are produced in his Southall factory by the hour; 100,000 a day go to Sainsbury's alone. If you have ever settled down to a "pierce'n'ping" curry, chances are that you have sampled fare fit for a knight - for Noon will not approve a recipe until it satisfies his own palate. It should be, he says, "authentic" - the kind of curry "that when you go to your Indian friends' house, that's what their mamma cooks". People have asked him for "a 99p cheap and cheerful meal. But I am not for that".

Adherence to Noon's rule has brought him riches to the tune of £50m, the livery of the establishment - in the form of his MBE and knighthood - and membership of the great and good. Voted "Asian of the Year" in 1994, Noon has his own foundation, which he endowed with £4m of his own money, and is on the advisory board of the Prince's Trust. A framed letter from Prince Charles, thanking Noon for the gift of a Kashmiri carpet, sits on the wall opposite the lifts. He also gave £200,000 to the Labour Party, a donation that sparked a minor controversy as his knighthood was awarded in between the two tranches of his donation. He remains an out-and-out admirer of Tony Blair. "He'll get through," he says to the caller when his phone rings during our meeting. The conversation is evidently about the Labour Party, and while most of it is conducted in Urdu, the English words "first class" pop up several times. The reference, I assume, is to the PM.

Noon's is almost the textbook immigrant success story. At the age of 17, he took over Royal Sweets, the family's food business in India, but after 10 years was looking abroad to expand. "I'd built my business on the platform created by my grandfather and my father," he says, "but I wanted to build a platform by myself. My friends said, 'You've worked so bloody hard in this country; you've got your car, your house. You're known here. Why do you want to go to England and start all over again'? But I wanted the challenge. I had that fire in my belly."

By 1972, Noon was managing director of Bombay Halwa, a firm manufacturing Indian confectionery and vegetarian meals for flights out of Heathrow. "When I came here, I was living in a room half the size of this one," he says (strict exchange controls had prevented him from bringing much money with him), "sharing a toilet and with a bathroom outside. But first we opened the one shop, in Southall, and then we opened more till we had nearly 40, and were selling to supermarkets as well." Already Noon had been responsible for enlarging the range of English comestibles. "We were the largest producers of Bombay Mix, which is a name I came up with, incidentally," he says. He should have trademarked it, I say. "Unfortunately, I couldn't," he replies, "because of Bombay being a city."

But he acknowledges that Indian sweets have never tempted the Anglo-Saxon tastebuds in the same way that curry has, and he wasn't impressed by what passed for Indian meals in supermarkets; both of which led him on to a new project. "When I arrived in England, I loved everything except the bloody food," he says. "English food cooked by a housewife is great. But the food in the supermarket was not that exciting, particularly ethnic food. The curries were insipid, unattractive and badly packaged."

Noon moved to New York for four years and attempted to start a chilled food business. "I failed, and I lost a lot of money," he admits, "but the experience was not wasted. I learned the technology there. I came back, put up a small plant and the rest is history. We had 11 people and now we have 1,100." Noon Products started in 1989 with a contract with Birds Eye, and began its association with Sainsbury's and Waitrose later the same year. "I was called in by David Sainsbury," Noon says. "He asked me what I thought about the curries that he was selling. I said, 'It's not authentic enough, Mr Sainsbury; you shouldn't be selling these'. I wouldn't advise any entrepreneur to take that line, but I got away with it. They said, 'Why don't you develop some curries for us', and today it's our largest client."

Fifteen years on, Noon has lost none of his excitement about the business. "I am passionate about food," he says. "My friends always ask me, 'When are you going to hang the boots'? [His English is excellent, but one or two phrases haven't quite been mastered in their entirety]. I'm 67 years old, but I love my curry business so much that I don't want to hang the boots. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I think about is my desk in the office. And 10 elephants will not be able to pull me back come 8.30."

So far, the very epitome of the optimistic, hard-working Indian immigrant. But what about the downside? Not all of Britain greets new arrivals, especially non-white ones, with unalloyed joy. "I'm not saying there's no racism in this country," he says. "That would be wrong. But I've been a lucky man. And you must not get bogged down by racism; you mustn't let it divert you from what you want to do. I want to succeed and if an immigrant comes here, he has no choice but to succeed. Failure is not an option."

Noon is all for multiculturalism, but is adamant that it is the immigrant's responsibility to respect and adapt to the customs of the host country. It's an attitude that many would commend. But he seems almost too accommodating of the casual racism that persists in Britain today. "The government can't do everything," he says. "When I used to come here in the 1960s, I used to see Asians only working in toilets or Hoovering at the airport. Today, I see them at the immigration counter, in the Cabinet Office, in the Foreign Office - so many Asians everywhere. So I don't want anyone telling me, 'I can't get a job because of my colour'. That's wrong. If one door shuts, knock on another."

What about Norman Tebbit's infamous cricket test? "Listen," he replies. "We Indians are mad about cricket. I have about 40 cricket bats. And I still play cricket sometimes, although at my age I shouldn't." As a boy, Noon says, he and his brother used to tell their mother that school started three hours earlier than it did, so that they could go off to a cricket ground and practise uninterrupted. "So, if India are playing against any country, Indians are bound to support their country of origin. That doesn't mean they love Britain less. Norman Tebbit mentioned Asians. But what about South Africans living in this country? When that country plays England, who do they support? South Africa. I think it was a childish remark. I have great respect for Norman Tebbit, he's a very learned man, and I think it was taken slightly out of context."

Surprised at this compliment to the man Michael Foot once labelled "a semi-house-trained polecat", I tell Noon that I think he's being far too forgiving of Tebbit. "No," he insists. "Sometimes when people talk they don't think, and the press pick up on it and turn it around." Ah, the press. Although he doesn't really complain about it, Noon certainly feels that the speculation which appeared in newspapers a couple of years ago about New Labour donors receiving honours was ill-conceived. "I'm very proud to say that I got my knighthood for my contribution to the food industry and for my charitable work," he says. "When the criticism came, Downing Street defended me, Ken Livingstone defended me, Douglas Hurd defended me. For God's sake - accuse me if I've done something wrong. But the media is such today that even if Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed came and walked on the River Thames, the press would say, 'These two fellows can't swim'."

The support of businessmen like Noon has been very useful to the Government. But in the past his business practices were not exactly in tune with traditional Labour values. He refused to recognise the union at his factory, for instance, until the publication of the White Paper which announced that employers would have to do so if more than 50 per cent of the workforce voted for recognition.

At one point, he says: "I came here with practically nothing. I created job opportunities for 1,400 people. I have paid millions in taxes. I've not been prosecuted any time except for the points on my driving licence. So I think I'm a very honest citizen." Mrs Thatcher would have loved him, I say. I can't imagine him having been a Labour supporter before Tony Blair became the party leader. "You're absolutely right," he says. "I would never, ever support Old Labour. But the Labour Party now is almost a Conservative party. And New Labour has emphasised the multicultural, multiracial society, which was negative in the Conservative time. So I like the party. And when you like a party, you're glad to donate."

Noon is also one of the most vocal British Muslims in calling for outright condemnation of terrorism committed by Muslims. Indeed, he goes so far as to say: "There is war between the radical Muslim and the rational Muslim. So let us fight." A few radical imams, he believes, are "misleading the community". "They do not want the community to educate itself properly," he says, "because education means knowledge, and knowledge is power. What is the point of life when someone tells you what you've got to do? It is slavery. If I'm a good Muslim, I won't eat pork, I won't drink. But I don't want someone else to thrust it down my throat. The knowledgeable kid will question."

Blair's emphasis on education is another reason for Noon's approval. "Fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet said that if you have to travel to China in the quest of knowledge, you must do that. Think how [long it would have taken you] then - there were no 747s. He also said that the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr, and that one scholar is better able to stand against Satan than a thousand ignorant worshippers. These are powerful statements. In my opinion, the Muslim community is not taking enough advantage of this country's educational system."

I think Noon's strength of feeling about this is an entirely admirable and aspirational one. He wants all Muslim immigrants to be able to seize the chances this country offers as vigorously as he has.

In 2006, Noon is to be a High Sheriff in the Queen's Bench Division in the High Court of Justice. What does that entail, I ask? "I have no idea," he says. "I didn't know I was going to be nominated. But I'll do it." Of course he will. When Noon's adopted country calls, he will not be found wanting.