It’s 4pm on a dark Friday afternoon in December. Brick Lane slowly shifts gears, as the small cluster of curry restaurants in the south end of the street begin preparations for an evening of trade. In the back corner of the street’s only remaining Pakistani-owned catering establishment, a fried chicken and curry shop, an elderly man in a flat cap sits alone sipping tea. He quietly watches as a trickle of hungry customers place orders for Friday evening’s lamb biryani special. The man is 84-year-old Mohammad Sadiq, who lives just behind Brick Lane and visits the chicken shop at the same time, every day, for a cup of tea. Mr Sadiq is among the last of a disappearing generation of pioneering curry chefs, whose skill and labour propelled East London’s Brick Lane to ‘curry capital’ fame.
During our impromptu chat in the chicken shop that afternoon, Mr Sadiq tells me that he began his working life at the age of eight, as a kitchen hand in the Punjab regiment of the British Army in what is modern day Pakistan. He went on to serve as a cook in the Royal Air Force, stationed first in British Singapore and then the Maldives, the latter then a British protectorate in the Indian Ocean. Mr Sadiq arrived in Britain in 1968 and, a year later, found work as head chef in Brick Lane’s oldest, most well-known curry restaurant, The Famous Clifton – a role he occupied for the next 40 years of his life. Mr Sadiq tells me: "It's was hard work. No timekeeper, you know. I start 8 o'clock [am] and 11 o'clock [pm] finish."
The Famous Clifton restaurant, decorated with colourful murals of Bollywood heroines, was well known for its traditional biryanis and "big-pot" cooking style. It was the first of Brick Lane’s curry restaurants to attract diners from outside the local area, including some high-profile ones like Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, two future prime ministers of Pakistan, and notorious East End gangsters the Kray Twins. Reflecting on the restaurant in its heyday, Mr Sadiq tells me: "Yes, very famous. Very, very famous. Everybody come out – West End, East End, Southall. Everybody comes 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 (the latter all of Keralan decent), went on to open their own curry restaurants on Brick Lane during Banglatown’s boom years – among them the owner of The Monsoon and co-owner of Moon Light. When Mr Sadiq arrived in Brick Lane in 1969, he recalls only three curry restaurants in the street. But in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Bengali community in the area began to grow and as deindustrialisation forced Bengali workers to seek livelihoods outside of the rag trade, the street witnessed a slow but steady increase in the number of curry restaurants. By the mid-2000s, at the height of Banglatown’s success, the number of curry eateries in and around the southern end of Brick Lane peaked at over 60.
The Brick Lane of Mr Sadiq’s working life has, however, all but vanished. Recent processes of urban change and "regeneration" mean that Brick Lane’s curry outlets, once the largest concentration of curry restaurants in Britain, are now interspersed with Swedish delicatessens, French patisseries, pizza parlours and vegan cafés. By February 2020, there were only 23 curry restaurants left on Brick Lane – a decrease of 62% in 15 years. Of the restaurants that recently closed, 80% have been replaced with other types of food retail establishments; the site of The Famous Clifton, for example, is now home to Dark Sugars, a boutique chocolatier.
The implications of these dramatic changes on the local Bangladeshi community, for whom Brick Lane has become a safe haven and a cultural heartland, remains unclear. That's why myself and a team of fellow researchers have developed a brand new educational website, 'Beyond Banglatown', to capture the history and changing fortunes of Brick Lane through the lens of Banglatown’s curry restaurants. The site emerges from a two-year interdisciplinary research project, funded by the AHRC and led by Professor Claire Alexander from the University of Manchester. The project used visual mapping techniques, surveys with shop proprietors and employees, and in-depth interviews with the street’s Bangladeshi restaurant owners, former restaurant owners and key stakeholders, to uncover the complexity of Brick Lane and Banglatown at a moment of transformation and uncertainty.
Although our research is academic, the website translates our findings for an audience of teachers and young people. Featuring interactive maps, short videos, interview extracts and a series of historical images, 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. The site also has a dedicated section for history teachers – complete with enquiry questions, lesson plans, and detailed guidance about how to use the website in history lessons at different Key Stages.
Building on the project team’s earlier work on Bangla Stories and Our Migration Story, the ‘Beyond Banglatown’ website supports Runnymede’s decades-long work to help schools integrate the teaching of broader British histories of race, empire and migration in Britain’s classrooms. This work has advocated for schools to teach scholarship-driven histories of Britain; histories that bridge the artificial gap between "Britain" and "World"; histories that engage with the decades of struggle against racism and inequality in Britain; histories that recognise Britain’s black and Asian subjects and citizens whose labour, both at home and abroad, has fuelled British industry and who, for at least the last 400 years, have also called Britain home. In the contemporary moment, as the Covid-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate the existing challenges facing the Bengali community and the curry sector on Brick Lane, and as young protestors across the country call for Britain to finally reckon with its multi-racial, imperial and post-imperial past, these histories must not be marginalised.
Mr Sadiq, who can still be found shuffling along the south end of Brick Lane each afternoon for his cup of tea, has borne witness to the extraordinary changes the street has seen over the last five decades. His journey from British India, to Singapore, the Maldives and, finally, to Brick Lane; his forging of a life and livelihood in the street’s curry trade; and the story of the rise and decline of the commercial concept of Banglatown, are not just tales of an obscure East London street. These are, as the new ‘Beyond Banglatown’ website explores, histories of empire and migration, of settlement, of urban change, of place-making and of the struggle to belong. They are Brick Lane stories, London stories, and stories of Britain.
Picture credit: Raju Vaidyanathan
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