Banglatown | The History of Brick Lane’s Curry Restaurants

Banglatown

It’s 4 p.m. on a dreary December Friday afternoon. As the little cluster of curry eateries on the street’s south end prepares for an evening of activity, Brick Lane gently switches gears. An old guy with a flat hat sits alone drinking tea in the rear corner of the street’s last surviving Pakistani-owned catering enterprise, a fried chicken and curry store. He sits calmly while a stream of hungry clients makes orders for the lamb biryani special on Friday evening.

The guy is 84-year-old Mohammad Sadiq, who lives right behind Brick Lane and goes to the chicken store every day for a cup of tea at the same hour. Mr. Sadiq is one of the last of a group of pioneering curry cooks whose talent and hard work elevated East London’s history of Brick Lane’s restaurants to the status of “curry capital.”

Mr. Sadiq tells me during our unplanned conversation in the chicken store that afternoon that he started working at the age of eight as a kitchen hand in the Punjab regiment of the British Army in what is now Pakistan. He then joined the Royal Air Force as a chef, serving first in British Singapore and then in the Maldives, the latter of which was then a British colony in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Sadiq came to Britain in 1968 and, a year later, landed a job as head chef at The Famous Clifton, History of Brick Lane’s oldest and most well-known curry restaurant, a position he held for the following 40 years. Mr. Sadiq informs me: “It was a lot of labor. You are aware that there is no timekeeper. I start at 8:00 a.m. and end at 11:00 p.m.”

banglatown

The Famous Clifton restaurant was noted for its traditional biryanis and “big-pot” cooking method, which was decked with colorful murals of Bollywood heroes. It was the first of the history of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants to draw clients from beyond the region, including high-profile figures such as Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, two future Pakistani prime ministers, and the Kray Twins, renowned East End criminals.

Mr. Sadiq tells me about the restaurant when it was in its prime: “Yes, he is well-known. Very well-known. Everyone is out – the West End, the East End, and Southall. Everyone gathers there.”

Many of the young Bengali men who worked in the kitchen at The Famous Clifton under the direction of Mr. Sadiq and his co-head chefs (all of Keralan descent), including the owner of The Monsoon and co-owner of Moon Light, went on to open their own curry restaurants on Brick Lane during Banglatown’s boom years. Mr. Sadiq remembers just three curry eateries on Brick Lane when he first came in 1969.

However, as the Bengali population in the region grew and deindustrialization pushed Bengali workers to seek livelihoods outside of the rag trade, the number of curry restaurants on the street slowly but steadily increased. The number of curry restaurants at and around the southern end of Brick Lane peaked at around 60 in the mid-2000s, during the height of Banglatown’s prosperity.

Mr. Sadiq’s professional life on Brick Lane, on the other hand, has all but evaporated. Brick Lane’s curry restaurants, previously the UK’s highest concentration of curry restaurants, are now mixed with Swedish delicatessens, French patisseries, pizza parlors, and vegan cafés as a result of recent urban development and “regeneration.” Only 23 curry establishments remained on Brick Lane in February 2020, a 62 percent decline in 15 years.

Eighty percent of the restaurants that have lately closed have been replaced with different sorts of food retail outlets; for example, the former location of The Famous Clifton is now home to Dark Sugars, a boutique chocolatier.

The effects of these drastic changes on the local Bangladeshi population, for whom Brick Lane has been a safe haven and cultural center, are unknown. That’s why, with the help of a group of colleagues, I’ve created a fresh new educational website called ‘Beyond Banglatown,’ which documents Brick Lane’s history and shifting fortunes through the lens of Banglatown’s curry restaurants.

The site is the result of a two-year AHRC-funded multidisciplinary research initiative conducted by Professor Claire Alexander of the University of Manchester. To discover the intricacy of Brick Lane and Banglatown during a time of transition and uncertainty, the project employed visual mapping tools, surveys with store owners and staff, and in-depth interviews with Bangladeshi restaurant owners, past restaurant owners, and important players.

Despite the fact that our study is scholarly, the website makes our results accessible to instructors and students. The site explores the histories of Brick Lane’s curry restaurateurs, the struggles and successes of the local Bengali community, and the larger national and transnational contexts that shaped the course of Brick Lane’s curry trade, with interactive maps, short videos, interview extracts, and a series of historical images. The website also contains a part devoted to history instructors, which includes inquiry questions, lesson plans, and thorough instructions on how to utilize the website in history classes at various Key Stages.

The ‘Beyond Banglatown’ website builds on the project team’s previous work on Bangla Stories and Our Migration Story, and it continues Runnymede’s decades-long effort to assist schools to incorporate the teaching of larger British histories of race, empire, and migration into their classrooms. This work has advocated for schools to teach scholarship-driven histories of Britain; histories that bridge the artificial divide between “Britain” and “World”; histories that engage with the decades of struggle against racism and inequality in Britain; and histories that acknowledge Britain’s black and Asian subjects and citizens whose labor, both at home and abroad, has fuelled British industry and who have also called Britain home for at least the last 400 years.

These histories must not be ignored in the current context, as the Covid-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate the challenges facing the Bengali community and the curry sector on Brick Lane, and as young protestors across the country demand that Britain finally reckon with its multi-racial, imperial, and post-imperial past.

Mr. Sadiq, who can still be spotted stumbling down Brick Lane’s south end for his afternoon cup of tea, has witnessed the street’s incredible transformation over the previous five decades. His journey from British India to Singapore, the Maldives, and eventually Brick Lane; his establishing a life and livelihood in the street’s curry trade; and the growth and fall of the commercial notion of Banglatown are not merely stories about an obscure East London lane. These include histories of empire and migration, settlement, urban transformation, place-making, and the right to belong, as the new ‘Beyond Banglatown’ website investigates. Brick Lane tales, London stories, and British stories abound.

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