Obituary: Shanta Gaury Pathak, "Curry Queen" of Patak's foods

Shanta Gaury Pathak, "Curry Queen" of Patak's foods. Born: 2 February 1927, in Gujarat, India. Died: 23 November, 2010, in Bolton, Lancashire, aged 83.

EXILED from their native India in the late 1940s, Shanta Pathak and her husband arrived in London from Kenya in 1956 with six young children, 5 between them and not a word of English. By the time she died last month, their family firm, Patak's, had made her a multi-millionaire and the giant Associated British Foods had paid her a reported 105 million for the brand name. She became known in the media as "the Curry Queen".

She and her husband, LG Pathak, who died in 1997, were a major force in popularising Indian cuisine in the UK, but also moved it beyond its "closing time biryani and a pint of lager" image to become part of the national fabric at all levels of society.

Patak's (the family dropped the "h" from the brand name to make it easier for Brits to pronounce) now provides curry pastes, sauces, chutneys, pickles and pappadams to at least 75 per cent of the UK's 10,000 or so Indian restaurants. Its products, with their distinctive diamond logo, are available on all major supermarket shelves and the company employs more than 500 people, with a turnover of about 55m a year. Patak's also exports to some 40 countries, including India.

If you have a curry in a restaurant or takeaway in Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK and even far beyond, the chances are you'll be having a taste of Patak's. The company has ready-made, frozen food factories or bakeries in Dundee, Brechin and Cumbernauld. One of its plants, in the Righead industrial estate in Bellshill outside Glasgow, was forced out of business in 2007 - according to its 80 redundant workers because it was priced out of the curry products' market by Asda.

Because of the necessary moisture levels, Patak's pappadams are mostly brought in from their factories in India, quality-inspected in Brechin and repackaged for the European market. frozen.

Shanta Gaury Pandit was born in a village in the Indian state of Gujarat on 2 February, 1927. In the upheaval that came with the last throes of British colonial rule in the 1940s, she and her husband Laxmishanker Pathak - a fellow Gujarati who would become best-known as LG Pathak - fled to join the growing Indian community in what was then British East Africa, now Kenya. There they ran a small shop selling homemade Indian sweets and samosas to that community. But they were forced to flee again after the Mau Mau uprising against the colonial power and sailed, via Marseille, to England in 1956.

Unable to get authentic Indian food locally, and needing to pay their bills, LG, who had declined a drain-cleaning job with the local council, and Shanta started cooking in giant pots at their cramped rented flat in Kentish Town, London.

Their ten-year-old son Kirit, now in charge of the multi- million company, delivered their food to members of the local Indian community. "I couldn't speak English so my Dad gave me two pieces of paper to show the bus driver - one with the address to go to, the other with our own address for the bus back," he said. When he got home, his job was to roll pendas, a kind of Indian fudge. As their reputation spread, the couple opened an Indian store on Drummond Street, north-west London, and later, in 1958, expanded to another near Euston station and then one in Bayswater.

At the time there were few Indian restaurants in the UK, the spicy food not yet an acquired taste among Brits. The Pathaks' big breakthrough came in 1972 when Ugandan leader Idi Amin expelled Indians and other Asians, many of whom fled to the UK.

Emotionally recalling his own days of exile and flight, LG Pathak persuaded the authorities in British refugee camps to let him cater for the Asians, rather than feed them food they were not accustomed to.

He and Shanta found themselves acting as something like social workers to help the newcomers integrate. It was sincere but it also became good for future business, and the family expanded to larger premises in Lancashire, now their headquarters. As Brits began getting a taste for curry, the Pathaks developed recipes for pastes, powders, spices and pickles that could be kept in the fridge for weeks without loss of flavour; a major advantage for restaurant kitchens but also for the growing number of Brits who began experimenting with making their own curries at home.

Unfortunately, Shanta Pathak went to her grave without seeing resolution of a bitter family feud that reached the national headlines in 2004 with headlines such as "The Spice Wars" and "Real-Life Bollywood Blockbuster" and had implications for women's rights. Before the founder and patriarch LG Pathak died in 1997, he had left the shares in the company to his family, but the details were not clear. His two daughters claimed they had been cheated out of their shares by their mother Shanta and brother Kirit, apparently because the latter insisted that, under Hindu culture, female siblings should not have access to their father's legacy.

There was a daily media circus outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand as claim met counter-claim and insult was met with insult. Shanta, already 77 and siding with her son as a defendant, collapsed in the witness box after saying: "I am being dragged through the courts by my own daughters who are chasing property they have no right to. This case is a wicked attempt by my two girls, who have only greed, jealousy and malice in their hearts. They will send me to my grave broken-hearted."

In the end, Kirit Pathak agreed to a settlement under which the sisters, Chitralekha and Anila, shared 12m. As far as is known, their mother never spoke to her daughters again.

Kirit Pathak remains chairman of the company. His wife Meena has written several Indian cookery books and has demonstrated her recipes on television. Their daughter Anjali - Shanta's granddaughter - has become the new face of the company and travels the world as a brand ambassador of Patak's, which has retained its name despite the takeover by Associated British Foods.

The Pathak family also set up a charitable foundation which has donated millions of pounds to health and education programmes in India and the UK.

Shanta Pathak is survived by her four sons and two daughters.

PHIL DAVISON