This week, the Gazette spoke to Siraj Ali, owner of the award-winning Maharaja restaurant in Benfleet and the man credited with bringing Indian food to Thurrock.

Over the years, Mr Ali has cooked for MPs at the Houses of Parliament, sent his TV chef daughter, Shahena Ali, off to the Congo to cook for UN soldiers and received many awards.

He spoke to us about how food can ease multicultural tension and why Essex loves a good curry.

Q: So, how did Thurrock react to Indian food in the 1970s?

A: There were no Indian restaurants in Grays in 1979 and therewasn’t a big awareness of Indian cuisine.

People hadn’t bought into it. After we bought the New Curry Centre, in Stanford-le-Hope, people started saying OK, there’s Indian food here.

At the time the tandoori and balti were not popular, but slowly, slowly word of mouth spread the message and so many people started coming.

It suddenly took off!

Q: Why does Essex love a curry?

A: I think the British link to India means that spices are more popular in the UK than any other place in the world.

Also, one of the things that reflects the Essex character is “working class made good”, which is synonymous with the people of Essex. I think that’s why people like people who start small and do well.

Q: Did you experience any prejudice in the early days?

A: We were the first Bengali family in Thurrock, but I never experienced problems. For me, running a restaurant, it’s not just the food, you are also breaking down barriers, listening to one another.

I found that if you respect someone they give you regard. A friendly atmosphere makes a lot of difference.

Q: Celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott described your signature dish as “succulent, sizzling, stupendous” on beating 10,000 restaurants to win the Tiffin Cup 2007 at the South East Asian Restaurant Awards. Any other celebrity fans?

A: We do have some politicians and footballers coming to the restaurant, but I keep it private as I want my restaurant to feel open and comfortable for everyone. Of course, my daughter, Shahena Ali, is now also a celebrity TV chef on the Food Channel, so I guess cooking does run in the family!

Q: You say you have raised £3million for charities. That’s a huge amount, how did you make that happen?

A: When I opened the Maharaja in Benfleet, I said, why not do better things for the area and community?

We did charity events for schools, prisons, for the Army, Castle Point fire station and St Luke’s Hospice.

Having done about 200 events per year for 20 years, raising about £600 to £1,500 an event, we now estimate that’s about £3million for charity in total.

Q: What is your proudest achievement?

A: My proudest achievement was being chosen by MPs to cook for them at the Houses of Parliament.

When you go there, you feel like you are doing something, making a difference, changing attitudes.

I was also proud of winning the Currylife Lifetime Achievement Award.

LIST OF AWARDS: The Maharaja has made the Best in South East top ten list at the British Curry Awards three times. In 2009, Siraj won the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association Caterer of the Year Award, one of the most respected accolades in the Bangladeshi restaurant sector, and this year was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Currylife magazine.