Renowned Indian restaurateur Zorawar Kalra has gained a hard-won reputation for innovation and trendsetting in his homeland, with a penchant for offering unusual takes on traditional dishes.
So when he announced the launch of his first London eatery, Farzi Cafe, promising local ‘twists’ on globally famous food, there was understandable fanfare around the opening.
Anticipation was further stoked by advanced publicity saying Kalra was especially pleased to be coming to London, because the city’s access to fresh and varied ingredients gave his chefs a ‘wonderful canvas’ on which to paint their menus.
So how did the reality live up to the hype when Curry Life visited the Haymarket restaurant in the heart of London’s West End?
First signs were promising as we scanned the menu, which was full of Asian takes on British classics.
There was a Masala Wagyu Beef Cottage Pie with purple mash potato and some Wagyu Beef scotch eggs, not to mention Amritsari halibut fish and chips – not with your standard mushy peas but a ‘chukki pea mash’.
There was also a generous helping of standard Indian dishes, such as various biryanis and tikkas, but again with a bit of a twist in each case. Hence there was a bok choy and asparagus biryani and a shitake and cottage cheese tikka.
We went for main courses, which tested the ‘traditional with a twist’ philosophy, so tried out the Jhol chicken biryani and a venison dish.
Both lived up to the something-slightly-different tag – the biryani nestling beneath a light pastry, a sort of upper crust biryani chicken pie, while the venison was an Irrachi pepper version.
Whether it was the fresh authentic ingredients, or the skilful way they were put together and presented, both mains were scrumptious.
Not always easy meat to cook well, the venison was extremely tender, while the biryani was moist and well spiced.
The two mains were sandwiched between a selection of starters and desserts suggested by the attentive staffs that were serving us.
So the hors’douevres included grilled asparagus accompanied by toasted sesame seeds and chicken wings with a masala rub, as well as some tasty dal chawal arancini with nice achaar-papad chutney.
To finish off, we were plied with a Laddoo Shell which, when tapped, exploded with an outpouring of coconut mousse and berries – together with a Mango Semifreddo, which came with a coconut lime kheer, passion fruit foam and lychee – both absolutely delicious.
We resisted the temptation of accompanying the desserts with the ten-year old tawny port or sparkling wine, which is offered at a small extra cost, tempting though it was.
For diners who do enjoy a snorter or two with their meals, there is the type of extensive drinks menu you would expect at a high end West End bistro.
Prices were also generally what you would expect to pay for a smart restaurant in the heart of London – with our choice from the a la carte menu costing in the region of £40 a head including drinks– though there are also cheaper set menus.
There’s a two-course lunch and pre-theatre menu, which comes in at £20 a head, while the thee-course version costs £25.
Summing up, there’s probably something at Farzi Cafe to suit most tastes and pockets, living up to the ambitious goals set by its owner.
Suppose you could say – So Farzi, So good!
Farzi Cafe is at 8 Haymarket, London Sw1Y 4BP
Tel: 020 3981 0090 – www.farzilondon.comRead more
What inspired you to become a chef?
I spent my childhood in Nepal, moving to India when I was 14 or 15 years old. I started working as a kitchen porter and studied for a culinary diploma, gaining experience. I decided I wanted more international exposure, so I went abroad to Montenegro to work in a five-star hotel. I didn’t enjoy this however – it was not what I was expecting, but I stayed for one year to build up the work experience and enhance my CV, before moving back to India. I put everything to the test to keep learning and improving – whatever I learnt in one year in Montenegro, I experimented with when I returned to India. I then worked at a food festival which was featured in a newspaper, which led to a job in London.
How did your career develop?
When I first came to London, around 2010, I worked in a curry house, which wasn’t a great experience. I then worked at Dishoom, before moving to Michelin-starred Benares restaurant, which had a great work culture in the kitchen. Everyone was motivated, competitive and looking for new recipes, and I took all of this in. While at Benares, a colleague entered the Masterchef competition which sparked my interest, but they only lasted one round. This scared me so I prepared for the show for the next five years. I was at Benares for three years but I knew that I needed to refine my techniques and knowledge of French cuisine, which took me to Brasserie Blanc [Raymond Blanc’s restaurants], which was a great experience. I was then at Cinnamon Kitchen. Most recently, I was at the LaLit London hotel, but there were many management changes which didn’t create the best environment, so I returned to Cinnamon Kitchen.
What motivates you?
When I came to the UK, I really appreciated what it is to be a chef – in India at that time, there was no chef culture. I pushed myself, met different people and got support from mentors, particularly at Benares. I like to be inventive too – I was brave enough to cook and combine octopus with spices at The Cinnamon Club. I define myself as an innovative chef.
How have you been keeping busy during the various lockdowns?
I’ve had so much time to research food and look at new recipes. I’ve also been busy on social media and developing these channels. Lockdown has taught me how to make the most of my free time, and I’ve also been developing a cookbook.
What’s been the best advice you’ve received?
I have worked with Vivek Singh, executive chef of The Cinnamon Collection, the group of five restaurants which includes Cinnamon Kitchen, for a number of years. He told me to just be myself and you will find success in your life. There is no need to copy anyone – act like who you are, be how you are, be yourself and do what you love and what makes you happy.
What’s your biggest regret?
Not having been more passionate about world cuisine earlier on in my career. I tend to always focus on Nepalese/Indian cuisine – it wasn’t until I came to London that I focused on world cuisine. I should have done some research and practice when I was in India, but I am very proud of what I have achieved thus far.
Any tips for aspiring Masterchef contestants?
Just be yourself – it’s a lot tougher than what you see on television. The chefs I competed against were so strong but it was an amazing experience. Practice as much as you can!
What’s your favourite dish and how do you like to unwind?
I like to cook fish and lamb with smoky and chargrilled barbecue flavours. I’m a real fan of comfort food and prefer to have home cooked dishes, Nepalese-style. I like to watch movies in my spare time – particularly documentaries about chef and cooking shows.
What’s in the pipeline?
My ambition is to open a high-end Nepalese restaurant. We are talking to a range of investors but the plans are delayed slightly due to the Covid situation. We hope to be able to announce something by the end of this year or the middle of next year.Read more
Worthing, on the south coast, has often been seen as a poor relation to its bigger and brasher cousin, Brighton, a few miles to the east with its universities, nightlife and ‘party town’ reputation. Its smaller, more sedate neighbour, conversely, used to be known primarily for the elderliness of its population – the prevailing image of Worthing in many locals’ minds was a caricature of aged retirees hobbling gently along the town’s Victorian seafront esplanade. Over recent years, however, there has been a significant lowering of its citizens’ average age and Worthing now actually boasts a younger demographic than many of its West Sussex neighbours. This, along with Worthing’s perennial appeal as a British seaside holiday destination, has led to an improvement in the diversity and standard of its dining scene as the town’s increasingly youthful residents demand more modern and cosmopolitan cuisine.
Shaan, an 80-cover restaurant situated between two of Worthing’s main railway stations, has built up a loyal clientele from right across the age spectrum. Young millennial diners these days demand healthy cooking, sustainable ingredients and fast service whilst their older, more conservative customers want to eat their familiar favourite dishes in a comfortable environment served by staff who take the time to make them feel at home. Is it possible to keep both sides happy? Owner Shamim Ahmed and his wife Lima have proved that it is. This husband-and-wife team, who both hail originally from Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh, have combined their uniquely different skill sets to create, over the last ten years, a highly successful business that has defied, and even thrived under, the challenges presented by the global pandemic.
Being lockdown, the restaurant part of Shaan was closed to the public when I visited on a cold, wet, weekday evening in late January but I could see that deliveries were flying out of the door at an impressive rate. A socially distanced part of the main dining area, which is decorated in contemporary neutral tones featuring soft mood lighting and lots of natural materials, had been set aside for me in order to meet the strict Covid-19 regulations. From this vantage point, I could observe customers coming in to collect their takeaways, so I had the opportunity, as I waited for my own food, to ask some of them what made them keep coming back to Shaan. The same two answers were repeated by nearly everyone I asked: “flavour” and “service”.
The flavour element of Shaan’s appeal I discovered for myself immediately as a selection of starters were brought to my table: A Chicken Pakora with a subtly tangy honey and mustard dressing, a generously portioned King Prawn Butterfly and a Mixed Grill which included the most succulent and attractively hued Lamb and Chicken Tikka I’d had the pleasure of tasting in a long time. These were followed by an equally satisfying main course which comprised just about every single item on the menu. Everything looked and tasted perfect but particularly noteworthy were the plates that Shamim had told me are their regular customers’ favourites, including a tantalisingly good Bangladeshi deboned fish curry served with a hot and spicy sauce made from garlic, chillies, tomatoes and coriander, plus a medium-hot dish of wonderfully plump and juicy Chatga king prawns marinated in spices and cooked in a clay oven.
Lockdown had prevented supplies of their draught lager, Cobra, from being replenished by the supplier but there were ice-cold bottles of Bangla on hand as well as a small but well-stocked corner bar with wines and spirits to keep the dine-in customers lubricated when they are finally allowed back in. Once that happens and things return to normal, Shaan will return to employing four staff front-of-house plus five in the kitchen as well as three delivery drivers who have recently been supplemented by the Just Eat service which, Lima told me, currently represents around 25% of their takeaway business.
So how has Worthing’s changing demographic affected their business, I ask the couple. Shamim replies that “It’s now important to provide healthy, and not just tasty, food – especially to the younger generations. They spend more time at the gym than in the pub and take care about what goes into their bodies, so we offer plenty of vegetarian options and a gluten-free version of everything on the menu”. He adds that “They are also more concerned with the speed of service and can be less patient than our older diners.” Shamim concedes that this can cause misunderstandings sometimes when customers do not appreciate the time it takes to cook something really well but explains that he tries to avoid delays by ensuring staff have clearly defined stations which they take total responsibility for in order to prevent overlap and repetition of duties.
He also points out, interestingly, that “The difference between the ages is also very noticeable when it comes to drinking: ten years ago (when Shamim worked at another local Indian restaurant) we would occasionally have problems at the weekends with groups of young people consuming large amounts of alcohol before, during and after their dinner, getting loud and sometimes rowdy. Nowadays, they drink moderately with their meal because they’re so much more health conscious; they just pay the bill and leave quietly without any problems”.
As I enjoyed my post-dinner coffee, I had the opportunity to note Shamim and Lima’s relationship with their customers as they called in to collect their orders. It became apparent that many of them knew the owners by name and that Lima, in return, had made efforts to remember personal details about her customers and their families. One of these, a local nurse named Siobhan who had just finished working a twelve-hour shift, was stopping off on her way home to pick up an order of that ever-popular British favourite, Chicken Tikka Korma. She told me that Shaan is “without a doubt, THE place to go in Worthing” and, as I found when I checked a few reviews on Trip Advisor, this is a sentiment echoed by many of their customers. Siobhan went on to reveal that she would never touch curries before a friend took her to Shaan where she tried a Korma for the very first time. “I never used to like spicy food”, she laughs, “but since discovering Shaan, I’ve become so much more adventurous in my tastes…I even had a Jalfrezi the other day!”.
Siobhan is not the only nurse who has been enjoying the restaurant’s cooking. Shamim received a letter of thanks from his MP, Tim Loughton, for having generously provided Worthing Hospital with hundreds of free meals. He had contacted the hospital wanting to find a way of supporting NHS staff in their battle against Covid-19. Together, they came up with the idea of delivering up to 125 three-course meals in hygienic boxes each Thursday for a month during one of the worst periods of the pandemic last year. Needless to say, the deliveries went down a treat with the hardworking and hungry hospital staff. The local MP’s letter is proudly displayed in the restaurant along with his ’Covid Curry Hero’ award from Curry Life magazine in recognition of his good deeds. Not wanting to forget his roots, at the same time Shamim also paid and arranged for enough rice and meat to feed 500 people to be distributed to the poor of his native Sylhet back in Bangladesh. His altruistic giving seems to have brought him instant karma (or should that be korma!) too in the way of a doubling of his takeaway business: over the last year, Shaan’s average weekend trade has increased from around 25 to over 50 meals per night.
This success naturally makes Shamim and Lima Ahmed happy to be able to ensure continuity of employment for their staff and their families, many of whom are from the BAME community which has suffered disproportionately in the pandemic. Of course, it also makes the lucky residents of Worthing happy to have such an excellent source of fresh, flavoursome food right on their doorstep. After all, a good curry is something they can all appreciate, whatever their age.
Shaan Indian Cuisine
205 Tarring Road, Worthing
West Sussex BN11 4HN
T: 01903 209955 www.shaanindian.co.ukRead more
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has outlined a series of initiatives to help the hospitality and leisure industry recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The main measures were announced as part of this year’s Budget on 3 March, with further help unveiled on 10 March.
The VAT cut of 5% for hospitality, tourism and leisure, down from the usual 20% rate and first introduced last July, has been extended for a further six months, until 30 September 2021. This will be followed by an interim rate of 12.5% until 31 March 2022, when it will then revert to the standard rate of 20%.
The Chancellor also announced an extension to the business rates holiday, until June 2021. After this, those companies that have been closed for business will be able to claim a two- thirds cut in rates, up to £2 million, with a lower threshold for those businesses that have been able to remain open.
Hospitality and leisure businesses can also apply for a ‘restart’ grant of up to £18,000, and the Government has also introduced a ‘Recovery Loan Scheme’, whereby businesses of any size can apply for loans from £25,000 up to £10 million through to the end of this year. The Government will guarantee these up to 80 per cent.
The furlough scheme has also been extended until September. Employees will continue to receive 80% of their hours that are not worked; businesses must contribute 10% of the cost towards this in July, rising to 20% in August and September.
On 10 March, the Government also announced an extension to the ban on commercial evictions for a further three months, until 30 June, providing some relief for those businesses that face mounting rent debt following lockdown. A ‘call for evidence’ has also been launched by the Government, to monitor discussions between landlords and tenants and to assess what steps should be taken beyond 30 June.
In response to the Budget, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “The Chancellor has announced support to help our sector get back up and running, now it is vital that the Government sticks to its date of June 21st for a full reopening of the sector. Delay would see more businesses fail, more jobs lost and undo much of the good work the Chancellor has done to date.”Read more
The pandemic and what it means for you
Last month, I discussed the new points based system which is likely to open up the labour market and will be of significant interest once the lockdown is over and life returns to the new normal. Of particular interest to the hospitality industry will be the return of Restaurant Managers and Hotel Managers. These positions and others will be examined in a future article. For now the main area of concern is the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of this on migrant labour issues. The Home Office have issued guidance in a number of areas which change regularly. The changes described below were updated on 06/01/2021.
Employers who have sponsor licences
• do not need to report student or employee absences related to coronavirus.
• do not need to report employees who are working from home due to coronavirus.
• Sponsored employees can be furloughed as their payments will not be considered as a “recourse to public funds”.
• If a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) has already been issued and the applicant has not applied for a visa because of the pandemic, it is still possible for them to apply for a visa even though the date on the CoS has passed. An explanation for the delay must be provided and supported with evidence where possible.
• If an employer is sponsoring a new employee and their visa application is pending they can start work before their visa application is decided if the sponsor assigned their CoS before 1 January 2021 or it is a Health and Care Visa. For CoS assigned after 1 January 2021, (with the exception of Health and Care visas) applicants must wait for the decision before starting work.
Right to work checks
The following temporary changes have been made to the right to work checks which, it should be noted, apply to all employers even if they do not have a sponsor licence. Sponsors will be aware that there are hefty penalties where checks are not properly carried out.
• checks can now be carried out over video calls where documents must be examined and notes retained
• job applicants and existing workers can send scanned documents or a photo of documents for checks using email or a mobile app, rather than sending originals
• Employers must use the Employer Checking Service if a prospective or existing employee cannot provide any of the accepted documents. Where there is a positive notification this protects the employer for 6 months.
Employers will be required to carry out a retrospective check within 8 weeks of the Covid-19 measures ending.
The Covid Visa Concession Scheme (CVCS) applies for those who are overseas and had a current visa when they left and are unable to return due to the pandemic. It covers those whose leave has expired or is about to expire before they can return to the UK. The other routes eligible for this concession are those where, if the person was in the UK with their previous leave, they would be able to apply for leave to remain.
It will allow a person to travel without a visa and on arrival will be granted 3 months leave outside the Immigration Rules (LOTR) on the same conditions as their previous grant of leave. This concession can only be used once. After returning to the UK, the person must submit their application in the normal way before the expiry of the 3 month period.
Break in continuous residence
The Immigration rules have a “continuous residence” requirement and a break in residence can adversely affect a person’s status. For example it could affect a person who has indefinite leave and cannot travel within the required 2 year period. Normally leave lapses under the regulations. The Home Office have clearly stated that “Absence from the UK as a result of a pandemic, such as Covid-19, will not count as a break in continuous residence.” It is important to retain any evidence of reasons for being unable to travel.
The Home Office have a coronavirus helpline [firstname.lastname@example.org] which must be the first point of contact. The Home Office have emphasised throughout that the permission granted as a result of the pandemic is not leave to remain as such but a temporary solution. It is currently described as a grant of “exceptional assurance”. The legal position of this is unclear. For now, the concessions provide a way forward for employers and migrant employees.
Fernandes Vaz Solicitors
87 Wembley Hill Road
Email: email@example.com www.fernandesvaz.comRead more
Muquim Ahmed has spent the past 40 years building a burgeoning business empire – which has seen the millionaire businessman dubbed as the King of Brick Lane. Here he tells Curry Life how he has risen through the ranks – putting his success down to tenacity and being in the ‘right place at the right time’.
“I am a restless person, I need to be doing something all of the time,” Muquim Ahmed tells me, not five minutes into our meeting. We’re gathered (socially-distanced style) at Ahmed’s offices at Canary Wharf in east London on a dreary, rainy day.
Pre-Covid, the area would be buzzing but the offices are eerily silent and empty. Reassuringly though, the biggest presence is from the cleaning crew. Such an atmosphere, however, does little to dampen Ahmed’s enthusiasm; he is clearly a person who is constantly on the go, no matter the situation.
In the last 40 years, he has built a business empire spanning a myriad of industries – from electronics, to hospitality, from travel to finance, from wholesale distribution to catering, among others. He is currently chairman of Quantum Securities, a substantial property portfolio business, worth millions, established decades ago consisting of both residential and commercial properties.
Ahmed attributes his success to tenacity and endurance and the belief that when setting up your goal in life, you need to aim high. His current position at Quantum Securities is also in recognition of his vision of the long-term. As he puts it, ‘the service industry, trading and jobs have a limited shelf life, but assets, property and shares will always have a greater continued growth value for generations.
Ahmed is also an avid gardener, which presumably helps him to unwind from his business interests. He is a proud owner of a stately garden. Yet he is perhaps best known for being dubbed ‘the first Bangladeshi millionaire’ and the ‘unofficial king of Brick Lane’, credited with helping to transform the area in London’s East End into a vibrant hub in the 1990s. Various press reports documenting his rise have referenced his ‘fierce determination to succeed’, his ‘boy wonder’ personality and his hunger for business. He has appeared in the Estates Gazette and Asian Rich list which highlighted his achievements as a self-made millionaire and how he has raised the profile of the Bangladeshi community.
He appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List, the definitive list of the richest people in the country. Presently, research shows in the Companies House that his fixed assets supersede by millions within his peer group.
Even with 40-plus years of business under his belt, Ahmed is still as passionate about business now as he was then, with the firm mantra that you have to believe in yourself if you want to achieve something. Like many before him, Ahmed arrived in the UK from Bangladesh in 1974 to finish his engineering studies. As he explains, there was – and still is – a belief in his home country that if you don’t go abroad and study, it can become difficult to get a good job back home.
“The high earning, doctors, the lawyers [in Bangladesh], they were all educated abroad; my parents wanted me to be someone important in the community so they sent me to England to complete my studies,” says Ahmed.
His studies, however, were soon abandoned in favour of several business opportunities, such as exporting electrical goods from the UK to his native Bangladesh, and acquiring the lease first and later the freehold of Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. Ahmed admits being in the right place at the right time. He imported movies from Bangladesh and showed them on the big screen at the cinema, gaining a loyal following among the Brick Lane locals.
Ahmed was also quick to spot how to make a thriving business better, reflecting his determination to go further. Noting that there was a huge demand for electrical goods, he looked at how to improve margins, recognising the Far East’s potential. This led to his move into wholesaling, sourcing products mostly from Hong Kong factories. These included watches, radios, clocks and cassette players, all under the brand name of Harper (chosen because Harper sounded more English and branding was for UK customers) and other electrical accessories. His Sylto Cash and Carry attracted customers from far and wide and established itself as a national distributor for popular Japanese brands such as TDK, JVC, Panasonic and Casio. In the late 1980s he was also instrumental in raising the profile of the community by helping out Notun Din and later – the weekly Asian Post English newspaper.
Survival instinct and being a role model
Ahmed is also a survivor – in more than one sense of the word. In October 1994, his warehouse at Chicksand Street, just off Brick Lane, burnt down to the ground, with his Christmas trade – one of the most lucrative times of the year, literally going up in flames. The accidental fire destroyed the entire Sylto business, as well as the offices housing his media and other companies, incurring losses of over £4m.
Undeterred, Ahmed turned to what he had left – the cinema, where the concept for the Cafe Naz chain of restaurants took hold, having opened the first such restaurant in the former cinema’s foyer. He opened another nine restaurants, with same theme and name, all around the country within five years of opening the first. Once again, Ahmed was looking to capitalise on a growing demand in the UK – this time for Indian food and the popularity of dishes such as chicken tikka masala.
Cafe Naz quickly built a following among diners and restaurant critics for its take on contemporary Indian cuisine, providing authentic-tasting dishes highlighting the flavours of regional Indian cuisine. Ahmed brought in top chefs from five-star hotels in India and Bangladesh, with the restaurant not only showcasing authentic cuisine but Indian culture too. Chefs shared recipes with customers while the restaurant provided Indian-themed entertainment, as well as organise a number of food festivals.
In April 1999, Ahmed narrowly escaped death during the ‘Brick Lane bombing’, an attack targeted at London’s Bangladeshi community. There had been two similar nail bomb attacks in the run up to the one on Brick Lane, targeting Brixton’s black population and the LGBT community in Soho. Just moments before the bomb exploded, in the trunk of a car parked outside Cafe Naz. Ahmed had been at the restaurant. It was destroyed by the bomb, with Ahmed putting his narrow escape down to sheer luck – he was seating by the window which took the brunt of the force of the blast as the front and back house was preparing for the lunch trade when his wife Rashmi called and he crossed the road to meet her and their five year old daughter Monique just as the blast went off.
So how did Ahmed bounce back from such life-changing events such as his warehouse being destroyed and the bombing? Following the devastating warehouse fire, he was lucky enough to be able to borrow money from his family and his brother-in-law to get himself back into business, but crucially, his success has been about spotting an opportunity and running with it, as well as knowing when it’s the right time to move on. Muquim’s former wife Rashmi Ahmed also played an important role to support him to meet new challenges in business. After fire he did not try to rebuild Sylto for example, moving on to Cafe Naz. By 2000, a year after the bombing, there were 10 such restaurants under the ‘Naz’ brand, across various locations such as London, Cambridge, Horsham, Cardiff and Chelmsford. After 20 years of successfully running the chain of Café Naz, he decided to exit from Restaurant trade recognising he had taken that opportunity as far as he could. He is still involved in a handful of restaurants through Quantum Securities, but this time as their landlord.
“There were several reasons to get out of the restaurant industry,” he says. “There was personal stress, gross profit margins became lower, we suffered from staff shortages and the European HACCP & laws. It became harder to ensure the chefs are properly trained and you can’t be everywhere – sometimes too much can be just that.”
Ahmed had also established a bakery and a food manufacturing business alongside running Cafe Naz. With several of his restaurants preparing thousands of meals every week, moving into the industrial production of ready meals seemed like a natural progression – and one which again filled demand at the time for ready-cooked meals. The warehouse Ahmed purchased for his ready meal production facility turned out to be a lucrative move – he sold it for more than three times the purchase price, which led him to where he is today – property investment under Quantum Securities.
So what would Ahmed say to the younger generation? His advice is simple: identify what you are good at and what you enjoy doing, Believe in yourself and do your best and give it your best shot. If you have ‘it’, don’t give up and if you are not successful, keep on trying.
“It’s essential to aim high, but not too high that you cannot reach,” he says. “To retain success is an art in itself. Be focused, diligent and plan your enterprises in a structured way. Ambition and motivation and a desire to succeed should propel you to your destination.”
And if the warehouse fire taught him anything, Ahmed says it’s that no matter how hard you try, accidents can happen. “Consolation and encouragement does go a long way, and you can feel incapacitated and debilitated. You’ve got to pick yourself up again; it’s difficult, but life must go on.”
A firm remainer during the Brexit process, Ahmed feared that if the UK left the European Union, the country would suffer from a number of issues, labour shortages for example being his main concern. He has since changed his mind however, and says that leaving the EU is a better position for the UK to be in.
Only time will tell whether or not this is the case, but one thing is certain: as a businessman, Ahmed is proud to give his support to a Conservative government and has campaigned for the party over the years in a number of general and local elections. He was the co-founder of Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, an organisation that aims to develop relationships between the Conservative party and the British Banglasdeshi community. Currently he is serving as the Patron of CFOB.
“When you are faced with a situation like Brexit, everyone looks after their own interests,” he says. “I am convinced now that we will be more successful on our own. I believe in meritocracy – in a socialist-type state, there is no incentive for the individual to thrive.”
Unsurprisingly, we touch on immigration – a subject very close to Ahmed’s heart, who says the current situation is ‘far,’far better now than some 40 years ago’ when he first arrived. Without immigrants, he says, he would not have been able to run his businesses. “Immigrants come here with nothing – just their hopes and aspirations, they make a life for themselves here by working hard,” he says. “If you have the ability and determination you can achieve anything;
you can be anywhere if you have this belief in yourself.”
Working with and for the local community is another of Ahmed’s passions. He is adamant about having worked hard to make a difference to the lives of those in London’s East End, and helping the Bengali community integrate into mainstream British society.
Ahmed was previously the chairman of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce (serving three terms), and played a prominent role, overseeing a number of seminars and trade exhibitions, including The Expo Bangladesh 2005, held at London’s Barbican Centre, the first ever one-country trade show held internationally by Bangladesh. This helped to raise the profile of the Bangladeshi on an international front.
His take is very much that leadership is about actively lifting people up to your level, not just showing people how you got there. “Our community is a new community, we have been here not even 60 years and we have achieved glowing heights. In the field of politics, we have four member of Parliament, we are in the House of Lords, Queen’s Councillors, Judge, Doctors, Scientist and City High flyers, High Commissioner/Ambassadors in the British foreign service. We are a young and vibrant community and are certain to achieve many more distinctive heights in the years to come.Read more
The last few months have been undeniably challenging for the restaurant industry, with lockdowns and tier changes creating a rollercoaster of openings and closings across the country. Every day brings more stories of the ruin of businesses that have been years in the making and apprehension about the future. Deep in South London, however, is a heart-warming success story thanks, in part, to the huge affection and respect it holds in its local community. I-Naga, in West Wickham, a short drive from bustling Bromley town centre, is the lovechild of British-Bangladeshi chef Abdul Hay and is known for both its award-winning menu and charismatic owner who is somewhat of a celebrity in local circles.
The 43-year old entrepreneur opened the contemporary curry house 10 years ago after ‘the existing restaurant had fallen into a bad way.’ According to Abdul. ‘I saw the potential and wanted to rescue it. I was able to buy the place for a song which made it possible and have not looked back’. Having been born in Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh, Abdul arrived with his parents aged three and cut his teeth in the curry trade working at his older brother’s takeaway in East London. Now married to housewife Nargis and the father of 4 sons, aged between 6 and 18, Abdul commutes tirelessly each day from his home in Bethnal Green, ‘seven days a week and nearly every day of the year’.
Bangladeshi cuisine has long been associated with the thriving ‘bhuna and beer’ cultures of Brick Lane and Birmingham, so beloved by British office parties and stag dos. However, Abdul has, in this traditional corner of the London suburbs, been quietly elevating his ancestral food to a whole other level. ‘I grew up, and still live in Tower Hamlets, the heart of the Bengali curry industry in the capital,’ reflects Abdul. ‘I saw how the local restaurants diluted their heritage to suit British tastes and, while I understand it in my head, my heart wanted to create a curry house that would not compromise but would win over my diners by sheer quality and taste.’
This approach, infused with authenticity and passion, has clearly paid off. A short time after opening, the restaurant was the very first in Bromley to hold a five-star hygiene rating. Within a year, it had won its first Curry Life award and I-Naga’s Head Chef, Abab Miah, has been the winner of Curry Life’s Curry Chef Of The Year award for four consecutive years. I-Naga was described to me by the editor of this magazine as ‘probably my favourite curry house in the country. I even missed it when I was working in Delhi’. High praise indeed, so I started the journey from my West London home with high expectations.
Arriving on a rainy evening, I was immediately enveloped in Abdul’s warmth as a host. It felt as though I had walked into his own family home and was being treated as a long-lost friend. ‘When I open my doors at 5pm’, agrees Abdul, ‘I am opening my doors to my guests and cannot help but treat them as though they are sitting at my own table’. Meaningful engagement, however fleeting, is so valued in our current times. Diners, starved of much of their usual social interactions, will be more appreciative than ever of a warm welcome and a personal touch. Abdul has this in spades and, in a relatively recent timespan, has built a devoted following. This was evident in the stream of takeaway collections as I sat down to my table, the only diner in the closed restaurant. The staff seemed to know most people by name and orders were interspersed by cheerful enquiries into relatives’ health and Christmas plans. After months of social distancing and isolation being pressed on us in the fight against Covid, this atmosphere of authentic community is sure to be in demand. Who wants sterile formality and insincere service after what we have all been through?
Abdul is proud of his standing in the community, forged through both I-Naga’s popularity and his tireless giving back to the area. ‘I take great pleasure in sponsoring most of the local sports teams’, says Abdul, ‘I contribute a significant amount of money each year to them because I know such activities are crucial to keeping a community alive and thriving.’ I also hear about the restaurant’s feeding of NHS staff in the A & E department of the nearby Princess Royal University Hospital and providing lunches for local schools, including a regular buffet meal for school children.
They say what goes around comes around and the restaurant owner certainly had a taste of this after a burglary last year. ‘The local response was overwhelming. It still blows my mind’, reflects Abdul, ‘I refused a kind offer of a GoFundMe page being set up and so the locals began to flood the restaurant, I mean queues out the door. One man ordered food from me for 14 days straight, admittedly by the 12th day, he laughed about a curry overload!’. ‘I will always be grateful to our neighbourhood for that time which showed me the power of human kindness like nothing else. I am just a regular guy with a dream but God is definitely watching over me’.
Abdul cites inspirations such as Gordon Ramsay as examples of a fearless drive achieving anything. But there is no doubt he also puts the graft in: ‘Nearly every dish that leaves my kitchen is seen by me. I know this to be a secret to success. I also refuse to use anything but the highest quality ingredients. My chicken is from a Smithfield Market butcher, the freshest anywhere, the lamb is from New Zealand and basmati rice is only Tilda. Yes, it may cost more, but you know in the first bite what you are being given.’
The recently refurbished dining room of I-Naga is pleasingly spare, a refined canvas for the colourful dishes on the menu. The long dining room, with divided tables that feel suitably safe, is decorated in a neutral palette complemented by glamorous lighting and crisp, heavy white table linen. The bar is well stocked against lit-up glass and the whole effect is quietly luxurious without being flashy. With a flourish Abdul produces the menu – the scope of which is immediately eye-catching and talks me through some of his highlights. The salmon tikka is, according to the chef, ‘mouth-wateringly good’, and a quick Google reveals his public feel much the same. Sadly, I am allergic to fish and so had to pass on this delight but Abdul assured me even better was to come. And how right he was! Full disclosure, I have lived or travelled in India for nearly 20 years and I have never experienced a poppadom like the one that was produced as an amuse bouche by a smiling Abdul. A thin soft ‘papad’ was covered in a vibrant layer of tamarind, crispy red onion, channa and, even, the crunch of Bombay Mix. I could only stare at it for a few minutes in interest and slight suspicion before the first (incredible) mouthful. Safe to say, I will never be satisfied by a bare naked poppadom again after this explosion of taste, tanginess and creativity. One of the great crimes of mid-range Indian restaurants in the UK is a complete absence of surprise. This is where I-Naga is leading the field and raising the bar for curry houses everywhere.
Having thought we might have peaked with the fully-loaded poppadom, the next course, a petite plate of smoky rich red Chicken Tikka, topped with a voluptuous king prawn (although sadly I could not eat this) and caramelised sweet onion brought everything crashing to a halt. Even allowing for the gastronomic banality of lockdown life, that delicate starter was, hands down, the best thing I ate in 2020. Such a familiar dish, one that I have indulged in in palaces, dhabas and streetcarts, from Lahore to Kolkata, and yet here in the fringes of Bromley, I find the most exquisite example of it I can remember. Subtle and delectable like the courtesan Pakeezah herself. As a non-driver, Google Maps tells me it is 1 hour 9 minutes, taking in a tube, overground train and suburban bus, from my front door to I-Naga. That is a journey I would willingly do again and again, in all weathers, for this one, transcending, starter.
Abdul and his team are extremely attentive but keep the balance just right allowing space for the dining experience while never more than a smile away. Still coming down to earth from the tikka, I was ushered into another taste realm, with a flaky rolled paratha filled with meltingly tender spiced lamb. The changing of gears worked well and the lamb was warm, comforting and as though it might have been cooked in a clay tandoor for 24 hours. It felt like sitting at dusk in a wood-smoked North Indian village watching the fields and mango trees, it felt like being a prized guest, it felt like celebration, it felt like home. I was beginning to see the strength and magic of I-Naga, it takes the diner on a journey through these small plates of storytelling. For the British, it will be Jewel-in-the-Crown, Golden-Triangle exotic while for the South Asian diaspora, it is nostalgia, the daadi on a charpoy shelling beans, soul food. Either way, Abdul has built so much more than a restaurant on this corner of Croydon Road. It is a magic carpet.
Beaten-brass karahi dishes come out laden with Anglo-Indian Chicken Curry, thick, mildly spiced and aromatic – I can easily imagine ayahs feeding it to plump children of the Indian Raj – and perfectly flavoured basmati rice. Wanting to explore further into Abdul’s local heritage on the menu, I requested one of the chef’s signature dishes, a fiery Garlic Chicken Tikka, in a velvety sauce – it did not disappoint and was a perfect high note to a memorable meal. Dessert was a sweet tongue refresher in the form of Pistachio-infused kulfi, as creamy and fresh as anything served on Chowpatty beach at sunset.
Abdul likes to say that ‘a good customer will never leave a bad review; if he is unhappy with a meal and feels he has been undersold, he simply won’t return.’ There is no danger of that from this reviewer – I am already looking forward to going back and sampling Abdul’s original homestyle Bengali Chicken Korma, in which according to the chef, ‘there are no coconut or almonds, the ghee does all the talking and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried it’. This year will see Abdul launching a weekly Bengali curry night and bringing more secrets from his family kitchen to lucky diners. 2021 is looking up already.
I-Naga Restaurant, 84 Croydon Rd, Coney Hall Roundabout, West Wickham BR4 9HYRead more
Prince Charles has sent a message of congratulations to Bangladesh on its 50th anniversary – as has UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Expressing his regret that the pandemic had prevented him from visiting the country personally, Prince Charles commended Bangladesh’s remarkable achievements, including: bringing more than 50 million people out of extreme poverty since 1990; increasing life expectancy and reducing infant mortality; and turning the economy into one of the fastest-growing in the world.
Reflecting on the past fifty years, the Prince also praised Bangladesh’s “considerable leadership on tackling the existential threats from accelerating climate change” and welcomed “the role of The Honourable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, in chairing the Climate Vulnerable Forum of nations most affected by the multiple threats of global warming, climate change and biodiversity loss”.
The Prince, who is Royal Founding Patron of the British Asian Trust, noted the Trust’s support for Bangladesh, and highlighted the Trust’s work in the past year which has included setting up COVID-19 sample collection kiosks, building on mental health awareness by providing counselling services, and supporting children missing out on school through a virtual education initiative.
Contemplating the pandemic, The Prince acknowledged the “dreadfully heavy impact on so many lives and livelihoods” and expressed “heartfelt gratitude to frontline workers helping to keep Bangladesh safe during these difficult times, and to the many British Bangladeshis who contribute so much to the National Health Service in the UK”.
The Prince went on to recognise the 600,000 strong British-Bangladeshi diaspora community and the “incredible contribution this community has made to all walks of British life”.
He added: “We come together today in the context of the Commonwealth, as friends and beneficiaries of a common heritage. We shall remain together as partners over the years to come.
“I send my fondest wishes to Bangladesh and all those celebrating this very special occasion. Shadhinotar ponchash bochhore Bangladesh ke amar obhinandan!”
In his video message, Boris Johnson said it was ‘amazing how much progress the country has made since its birth’ recalling how warmly he was received when visiting Bangladesh in 2018.
He went on to praise the major contribution made by the 600,000 strong community to British society, notably the massive contribution made to the NHS.
He added: “Looking forward to the next 50 years of friendship. I wish everyone the very best for your Golden Jubilee.”Read more
Curry Life will host its culinary workshop and networking dinner on 27 June 2021 at the Radisson Edwardian New Providence Wharf in London’s Docklands.
The annual event, a highlight of the UK curry industry’s event calendar, was cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As hospitality services across the country prepare to open up for business, in line with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, the workshop’s primary focus will be on life after the pandemic and building a recovery plan for the curry industry.
Syed Ahmed, the event organiser and editor at Curry Life Media Group, said: “The curry industry is one of British cuisine success stories. It has taken enormous hits due to the pandemic. We have invited several experts to participate in a panel discussion to examine how curry businesses can build a profitable path in the aftermath of Covid-19.
“As we have done every year, we will discuss the sector’s latest trends and share tips on technology that will drive these businesses forward, alongside the importance of digital marketing and sustainability.”
Celebrity chef and restaurant consultant Mridula Baljekar, best-selling author of several curry cookbooks, will host a cooking demonstration highlighting why exquisite dishes are essential for a successful business.
Other participants at the culinary workshop include acclaimed chefs Rupert Rowley, currently development chef for MSK Ingredients, Mark Poynton, formerly of Michelin-starred restaurant Alimentum and Dominic Chapman, head chef at The Beehive at White Waltham. Chapman previously worked at Kensington Place in London and was once head chef at Heston Blumenthal’s Hind Head in Bray. Award-winning restaurant manager Mo Gherras will also be taking part.
Guests at the event will also have the opportunity to enjoy a three-course meal featuring an array of spicy dishes devised by London-based award-winning Asian caterers Mint Catering.
Participating chefs and restaurants will receive a certificate for attending the culinary workshop and panel session. The headline sponsor for the event is Just Eat, with additional event partners including Unisoft Solutions, CLCC and Travel Links Worldwide.
Those interested in attending this event must reserve tickets in advance. To reserve your space at the event, call 07956 588 777 or send a text.Read more
Brick Lane, located in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, has been associated with curry and South Asian cuisine since the 1970s. Like the ‘Curry Mile’ in Manchester, the area has become synonymous with not just the food, but also the culture, and over the years has earned itself the name – ‘Banglatown’. An area, which is hugely important and symbolic to Britain’s Bangladeshi community, in much the same way that Southall known as ‘Little India’ is to the Indian community and Brixton, is to the African-Caribbean community.
Following the onset of COVID-19, just like the rest of central London, Banglatown has suffered immensely. Today Brick Lane, restaurants and shops are largely empty, as a combination of factors deter customers from venturing into the city. Something, which would be unheard of under normal circumstances. Brick Lane is normally a hub of tourists and locals, many of which are planning on having curry for their evening meal. However, Banglatown’s problems didn’t begin with COVID-19, but the virus may “be the final nail in the coffin for Brick Lane”, according to a new report.
The report which is called ‘Beyond Banglatown – Continuity, change and new urban economies in Brick Lane’, has been produced by Claire Alexander, Sean Carey, Sundeep Lidher, Suzi Hall and Julia King, and forms part of the Beyond Banglatown research project. Produced alongside the Runnymead Trust, a leading independent race equality thinktank. The initiative is focused on tracing the changing fortunes of Banglatown’s restaurants, and the implications of this change for the Bangladeshi community in East London and for Brick Lane itself.
The report has revealed a steep decline in Brick Lane’s South Asian-owned restaurants that traditionally serve curry, showing a staggering decrease of over 60% in the past 15 years. In the mid-2000s there were 60 outlets compared to just 23 in early 2020. Banglatown has been transformed into something else in recent years due to a combination of gentrification and regeneration. The region’s identity has evolved now to incorporate new ‘hipster’ cafés, vintage clothes shops, delicatessens and boutique chocolatiers, all while the number of Bangladeshi-run curry eateries has plummeted.
This was all before the catastrophic impact of coronavirus. The report now calls for this heritage to be recognised and commemorated in Brick Lane itself, as well as in heritage institutions and education, otherwise this vital history may be lost to future generations. The report has also found that many restaurants have been excluded by gentrification and regeneration, and increasingly replaced by other businesses. Since the virus has struck the need for this has become even direr. While many of these problems existed before, the pandemic has exacerbated them.
Today restaurants in Brick Lane need to not only cope with the cultural shift, something that was already getting harder due to the ongoing ‘Curry Crisis’ (The reluctance of the new generation of British Bangladeshis to work in the hospitality sector), but a virus which has caused their restaurants to lose near to all custom. This, plus high rents, high rates of tax and the mayor of London’s controversial extension of Congestion Charging have made life incredibly hard. What’s worse, is due to their location and status, many restaurants in Brick Lane do not qualify for support from the Government to get them through the pandemic. With no financial aid, increased competition and no steady stream of customers, how are such businesses expected to survive?
Shams Uddin, who runs The Monsoon on Brick Lane since 2000, fears the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme will not be enough, saying: “Look, Rishi Sunak can cut VAT and have as many voucher schemes as he likes, but if you don’t have any customers what’s the point? People aren’t going to pay £15 to come into the city for a £10 discount on their food. It doesn’t make sense. People are looking for jobs, not discounts on their meals out”
He went on to say, “Normally, at this time of the year, the City people go on holiday and we get the tourists but because of the virus, we’ve got hardly anyone. Yesterday, we were open as usual from midday to 1am and we only had seven customers. Today, we haven’t had any at all. The landlord still wants the rent. Unless customers come back soon most restaurants in Brick Lane will only be able to survive another three or four months. This place is heading towards the coffin box without urgent help.”
Abdul Quyum Jamal, owner of Taj Store is part of a family that have occupied Brick Lane since 1936 when they opened the first Asian store in the UK. They then opened their first café Sweet Heaven, in 1976; this would later become the Taj Mahal Restaurant and Le Taj before coming under new management. Jamal told us, “The place is evolving, and it’s becoming rather arty. In a way it’s modernising; and that’s great, but we need to also protect our identity. If it changes too much it will lose its sense of community. You see people aren’t settling or putting down roots anymore.”
In regard to COVID-19 and what can be done to help; Jamal said, “We know they acted too slow to fight this virus. Everybody knows that, but these problems started way before the virus. If the Government want to help, they need to bail out some businesses. It’s the only way some will survive. The area also needs promotion again to help us attract visitors. They need to know it’s safe to come back. Let’s get on with that.”
Professor Claire Alexander, Professor of Sociology at The University of Manchester said, “The loss of Banglatown is not simply a business issue, it is about people. It represents the loss of a rich history of migration, settlement and the struggle to belong in multi-cultural Britain. The threat to the curry houses of Brick Lane, and across the country, strikes at the heart of one of the UK’s most vulnerable communities and risks decimating its central contribution to British life and culture – the British curry”
Dr Zubaida Haque, Interim Director, Runnymede Trust says: “Covid-19 has severely impacted Brick Lane’s renowned curry restaurants and cafes, which have already been decimated by gentrification, and restrictive visa requirements making it extremely expensive and cumbersome to recruit trained chefs from South Asia.” He went on to say: “On top of this the Bangladeshi-run curry restaurants are among the hardest hit by the shutdown caused by the pandemic – COVID-19 not only a health crisis it is also economic and we urge government and the Mayor of London to step in with strong business and financial support to help weather this harsh economic storm.”
The report now asks the Government to provide significant financial support to help businesses on Brick Lane survive COVID-19. Businesses in the centre of London have been overlooked and as a result, they are suffering. It also asks that the unique cultural and social heritage offered by Brick Lane’s Indian restaurants should be recognised and renewed, with investment and training within the London Plan. As well as to develop borough planning support, ideally through ground-floor property usage restrictions, capping of rents, extension of licensing hours and investment in the night time economy. And to provide training and support to restaurant owners to adapt to a changing business environment.
Finally, the report recommends that city and borough planners should recognise the hidden social and economic costs of regeneration and global investment in east London, and secure affordable social housing for low-paid workers and affordable workspaces. As well as to broaden heritage support to formally recognise the unique contribution of the Bangladeshi community to the history of Brick Lane and east London, and global London, in heritage institutions, educational provision, and the material fabric of the street.
Banglatown is an important and integral part of both Brick Lane’s history and the history of the Bangladeshi community in Britain. It also highlights the little-known history of the East End of London, and Britain itself.