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Ready in a tikka

Cookery, they say, is the new rock and roll. Celebrity chefs parade their skills on televison like pop stars and fashionable new restaurants open with all the razzmatazz of a Hollywood movie premiere. But for most people, convenience counts for more than haute cuisine.

While only a few years ago the kitchen was a place of bustling activity at the centre of the family household, now it is more likely to be simply the place where dinner is taken out of its packet and popped into the microwave oven.

And instead of sitting around the dining table to mull over the day's activities, people are more likely now to munch in silence in front of the television. We are all far too busy, it seems, to spend time slicing vegetables and mixing sauces.

According to industry figures, people now spend pound;631 million a year on ready-prepared meals, up a third in the last three years. This reflects a steady move by the British public away from buying fresh ingredients in favour of processed food, says the Meat and Livestock Commission. The amount of processed meat sold to British householders has risen from about a million tons in 1990 to more than 1.2 million tons now, while the total amount of meat sold has risen very slowly in the past 25 years and now stands at about 4.2 million tons.

The reasons, say analysts, can be found in Britain's changing economy and social climate. People work longer hours today than they did 15 or 20 years ago, and that means they have less time to spend cooking. Women, in particular, are more likely to have full-time jobs, and expectations about their role have changed. The obliging housewife is no longer expected to spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals for the family.

Developments in taste have played a part. The food revolution in the past few decades, fuelled by growing affluence and a big increase in foreign travel, has seen a widening of horizons in the average consumer. Where once plain food was the order of the day, you can now savour European and Oriental cuisines at restaurants, takeaways or as ready-prepared meals from the supermarket. Chicken tikka masala is said to be more popular now than roast beef as the main Sunday meal in British homes.

Today's consumers, says David Bowsher, director of marketing planning at the Meat and Livestock Commission, are "cash rich and time poor". They have more money to spend but less time in which to enjoy what they pay for.

"Women are less tied to the home and they are not going to come home at night to spend hours in the kitchen cooking and washing up," he says.

"There will always be a market for people buying their own ingredients and making a meal themselves, but there is more choice now than there used to be. There is a lot more variety in the market. Takeaways and ready-prepared meals are manifestations of modern life."

The Tesco supermarket chain alone sells more than 23 million ready-prepared dishes a year: Italian meals sell the most, followed by Chinese and Indian cuisine. The aim, says Tesco's spokeswoman, Jo Offord, is to make the meals authentic so that people can enjoy foreign flavours without having to learn all the skills needed to prepare them from scratch.

"It's food made in the traditional way," she says. "You get everything except the hassle and stress and you can have the real thing in 25 minutes. To prepare tikka masala yourself would take hours."

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