By Cosmo Brockway
DEEP IN THE KENT COUNTRYSIDE, surrounded by oast houses and hop fields, lies the pretty village of Tenterden. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Weald’ the tranquil market town has a huge amount to offer a visitor, from quaint antique shops to scenic rides on the Kent & East Sussex Railway. Tenterden High Street is one of its most charming features, a tree-lined, wide boulevard of clapboard and Georgian shops and houses, it is as British as apple pie and custard and is a fine place to wander down on a summer day.
At the very end of the picturesque High Street is one of Tenterden’s gems, the locally-renowned Badsha. Having been established 26 years ago by restaurateur and businessman, Abul Kalam Azad Suton, the Indian restaurant has gone from strength to strength and has a devoted following, both locally and nationwide. The pause of lockdown has given Suton the time and space needed to refurbish his dining room and it has recently reopened with ‘a new spring in its step’. Suton has been reinvigorated by this unforeseen opportunity to step back and reassess his business direction, and like many other small businesses, he has taken the chance to move into the next season with a renewed sense of purpose and vitality, despite the many obstacles faced in the last fifteen months.
A hearty welcome
We walk into Badsha’s newly unveiled dining room on a chilly evening (despite it being late May) and are immediately swept up in the warmth of our welcome. Suton treats each and every restaurant guest as though they are walking into his own hearth and there is an intimacy and charm that is the hallmark of an experienced and genuine host. “I am known across this region as one of the first curry houses in this part of the world,” he says as we sit down at one of the socially distanced tables in the beautifully decorated dining room.
“Family generations have grown up with me and I have known many of my adult diners from when they were little children teasing me”, he says.
Such longevity would be appreciated in this very traditional part of the British countryside and Suton is proud of his respected place in the local community.
The figure sitting across from me is a far cry from the young man who arrived from a village in Sylhet, in the northern part of Bangladesh, in 1983 with little to his name. However, Suton’s work ethic and determination ensured that by the end of the following year he had his first business up and running, Shapla Tandoori in East Grinstead before moving on two years later, purchasing the 500-year-old building that is now Badsha. All this in addition to achieving his BA (Honours) from Anglia Ruskin University.
In 1995, he returned to his first perch in the UK to establish Azad Bangladeshi Cuisine. Suton’s son is now running Shapla in East Grinstead. Aside from these highlights, Suton’s proudest moment has been ‘setting up Britannia Spice in an old whisky bond in the foodie area of Leith in Edinburgh. It was a dream to create something like this and I have great partners involved.’
The innovative Britannia Spice has, since its founding in 1999, gone on to win critical acclaim and awards aplenty. Its regular diners are a who’s who of Edinburgh movers and shakers and Suton has continued his Midas touch with its enormous success.
Dinner across the generations
Back to Tenterden and dinner is being served, accompanied by Suton’s engaging commentary on the dishes and their inspirations. He is extremely pleased with his head chef and believes that Badsha will go from ‘strength to strength over the next year; people are hungrier than ever for new experiences and want to make the most of joyful gatherings that restaurants like ours offer’.
Our first course is a mixed platter of succulent, fiery red duck tikka, an unusual combination that wins on every level alongside glorious Mughal Lamb Chops, with a rosemary and mint marinade, and juicy chilli King Prawns sitting atop meltingly delicious chicken kebabs. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing at the first bite that you are in the hands of a chef with raw talent in his fingertips – and Badsha offered exactly that.
The main course was a fragrant trio of curries personally chosen by Suton to showcase what makes his restaurant such a destination for those in the know. A richly-masaled garlic-infused Roshni Chicken set the scene for a milder but velvety Chicken Reshmi Makhani, soaked in buttery cream and deeply comforting on a chilly evening. The third dish, Braised Lamb with Yoghurt, had all the smoky, refined quality of ancestral food handed down through the generations.
A journey through the nuanced flavours of the Subcontinent, with a perfectly pitched Bengali chord running it, this was the perfect dinner to welcome the joys of dining in a restaurant back to our lives. It was a fitting first meal after the long, desolate, takeaway-spiced restrictions of the year so far. Alas, we did not have any space for dessert but I am quite sure they would have lived up to the rest of our sparkling meal. I only hope the gentle residents of Tenterden know quite how privileged they are to have both Badsha and Suton in their midst – but I have a strong hunch they do.
A man of many talents
Suton is a man of many facets, while hospitality and the cuisines of his native Bangladesh are a passion, he also has many other accomplishments. Not least a book, titled Enlightened Noble Personality, detailing his life and achievements, with moving testimonies penned by the many figures whose lives he has touched. Having started as a freelance writer for various Bengali language newspapers on his arrival in the UK, Suton went on to co-found the weekly Sylheter Dak alongside some associates (including the editors of Curry Life) and write a very successful weekly column, SabinoyAroj. This was followed by the founding of British Bangladeshi News Agency and a large number of other writing projects, including several published books. A man of letters as well as business, Suton is very obviously passionate about engaging with his community in Britain and highlighting their culture, both within Bengali circles and to the outside world.
Suton was highly instrumental in the building of Gatwick Mosque (living with his family in nearby Crawley) and was the founder and secretary-general of Bangladeshi Islamic Community Association since 2000. Behind the scenes, he has also been involved in many local community initiatives. The epitome of marrying success with giving back to the community, his charitable achievements are numerous, and I enjoyed hearing about them over dinner. I am also surprised and impressed by the scale of his charitable concerns in his native Bangladesh. In addition to being a noted fundraiser for national disasters, Suton has established several foundations across Sylhet for those who are less fortunate. A son of Nabiganj Village and the descendant of landowners, Suton takes his responsibility to his old country very seriously. Each year, students in need of financial help benefit from his Educational Trust, Badsha Mia, created in remembrance of his father and the font of regular scholarships. He is also a noted donor of Dighalbak High School and cares deeply about the next generation of his region.
Suton is a renaissance man and everything he touches seems to turn to gold, but it is humility and gentle charisma that make Badsha the unique place that it is – and so much more than a provincial curry house. It is a hub of taste (both cultural and physical), community spirit, teamwork and, above all, joy. We leave with a sense of privilege at having been given a glimpse into the inner workings of a special dining destination – with a very special man at its helm. Long may it last.
BADSHA INDIAN CUISINE
10 West Cross, Tenterden Kent, TN30 6JL. Tel: 01580 765143