A letter sent to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has urged the Cabinet Minister to offer an “immediate amnesty” to undocumented workers. The letter has been sent by the Bangladesh Caterer’s Association and comes in the wake of COVID-19 and the chaos it’s brought to the UK hospitality industry.
The letter argues that undocumented workers could provide essential support to the industry which is already short-handed as a result of the virus. It states that such workers could have vital knowledge, and experience, which could be essential in keeping the industry on its feet, especially curry houses and restaurants serving Asian cuisine.
Since 2005 the UK food industry has been experiencing what’s known as the ‘Curry Crisis’. This represents a shortage of skilled cooks that has steadily increased over the years. Now with the added pressure of coronavirus, things are more dire than ever.
The letter warns that “extraordinary times, require extraordinary measures” – and that such undocumented workers already have no access to the NHS, so arguments that use that as a reason are flawed.
It also argued that “Prime Minister Johnson himself has advocated the idea of an amnesty for illegal migrants on numerous occasions and has been in favour of this idea for some time.”
So far, the Bangladesh Caterer’s Association has not received a response.Read more
“My secret is in the spice.” And for multi award winning County Durham chef, Syed Zohorul Islam, that magic mix won him another spectacular accolade as he was recently traveling to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) India, as part of the Taste of Britain Curry Festival team.
That accolade came for the Executive Chef at the Capital restaurant in Durham while he was flying the flag for the British Curry from the North East of England at the Raaj Kutir Hotel, Kolkata, India, where he and three other curry chefs showcased their Best of British popular high street favourite dishes in the city where the curry trail of Great Britain originally started from.
Syed, 56, at this prestigious food festival served up a variety of dishes – his speciality lamb, chicken, duck and fish dishes. Of course the classics favourites such as Chicken Tikka masala, Zalfrezi and Balti dishes were also on the menu.
With a string of prestigious awards under his belt, his passion for cooking, inventiveness and creativity has taken him to British curry promotion from London to Ljubljana, Manchester to Madrid and Durham to Dhaka.
From his grandmother’s humble home in Sylhet, Bangladesh, where he first discovered his love of cooking. Syed has steadily climbed the ladder of success since coming to England at the age of 16, learning his trade at his uncle’s restaurant in Sunderland – the city which is home to him, his wife and family of five.
But he says of his latest trip to Kolkata, India, where he was a part of the Taste of Britain Curry Festival team was “a real challenge.”
That’s because as he explained: “Kolkata was once the proud capital of the British Raj in India and it also has a big Anglo-Indian community and of course this is a city which was home for Nobel Laureate Mother Theresa.
“We gave our diners the best of British. The diners of the city of Kolkata are not unfamiliar with British tradition and culture, so we all had to do our very best and something different.
“We had a great team to India this time. I have really enjoyed working with Michelin Star chef Mark Poynton from Cambridge, who was part of the delegation. It is always a pleasure to work with a chef from the mainstream of British food scene. I have already started to experiment with some of chef Mark’s recipes from the Cambridgeshire Cookbook he presented to me.”
Syed is immensely proud of his achievements as a chef. His restaurant the Capital is based in the Claypath of Durham, stone through away from the University of Durham and Durham Cathedral.
As this is a top university city many of his Restaurant customers are students and visitors to this great historic city.
Syed has an enthusiastic team to ensure all his diners are treated with best food and services.
Syed says, “to run a good restaurant you need a top team. And if you have a top team then you have a top restaurant “Because of the great team effort for past 18 years, the Capital Restaurant has gained a dedicated following of customers who travel regularly from Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Washington even from Stockton on Tees.”
The most popular dish at the Capital is Zalfrezi because it’s not too hot and not too mild yet with a little kick. However, from every September like new in takes at the University, new dishes are added on the menu and a selection of main courses rotated with the seasons, giving customers fresh delights to tickle their taste buds.
The Capital Restaurant is very much a family business with his nephew and business partner Shibir Miah, managing Front House and overall business.
Syed Islam and Shibir Miah have together replicated success of the Capital Restaurant a mere stone’s throw away in the city’s Market Place where they are also running The Spice Lounge restaurant.
Both restaurants serve up the same award winning formula which Syed knows their customers love – the traditional flavours of Bangladesh combined with modern Indian fusion dishes, his exclusive, speciality dishes of aromatically spiced spring lamb, duck cooked in tamarind and honey sauce, his delicately flavoured Chicken Korma and mouth-watering salmon and King Prawn fusions.
The hallmark of this innovative chef’s success is all down to the fact that he is always “thinking and experimenting.” And that has also won him an enviable reputation as a first class wedding cook, catering for hundreds of people at a time throughout the North East of England.
Shibir Miah, says: “He is very passionate about what he does and he loves coming up with new dishes and he is very consistent in his cooking as well.”
Such success is all down to his skilful cooking, impressive creativity and of course that secret spice mix, of which Syed says: “It’s a secret I can’t tell.”
The Capital Restaurant, 69 Claypath, Durham DH1 1QT
Tel: 0191 386 8803 www.capitalindian.co.ukRead more
Eloquent, organised and engaging. These are the words which best describe Surojit Walawalkar, who considers his 11 years with United Breweries Group to be the “pinnacle” of his long career in marketing. As he tells CurryLife his story, successes and failures included, it is clear that every single moment of his career and life has been a dream. It is a story to which young, budding marketeers would do well to listen to and learn from. Mr Walawalkar – or Wally, as he likes to call himself – is the true definition of a role model.
His journey begins in 1961 when, following his BSc in St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, he studied a postgraduate diploma in Business Studies at the Scottish College of Commerce in Glasgow, winning the Turnbull prize as student of the Year. He then completed a three-year graduate apprenticeship in Wolverhampton engineering firm Joseph Sankey and Sons Ltd (GKN), before returning to India as Product Sales Manager at GKN’s subsidiary in Mumbai, Guest Keen Williams Ltd.
After four years in this job, Wally felt the scope for marketing in its true sense was quite limited in the manufacturing sector. It was then that he decided to move to the retail consumer market. He said: “I wanted to do something that had a connection with people. Consumer marketing seemed to appeal to me greatly and was closer to what I had studied for.”
Sure enough, the prestigious Hindustan Lever Ltd hired Wally as Product Manager in the New Foods Division of their Mumbai Head Office in 1968. As anyone associated with its parent company, Unilever, will know – this is a truly ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to work with a world-class company at the forefront of brand marketing.
Wally returned to the UK in the early 1970s as Hindustan Lever’s Export Manager for packaged Indian food products. This was his first foray into the emerging Indian retail food and drinks market.
He joined their UK agents, BE International Foods Ltd, focussing on their Rajah brand spices along with imported Indian brands like Hima, Kissan and Dippys. Here he also got the opportunity to help start up a subsidiary company called Crown Noodles, manufacturing instant noodles in Crumlin, South Wales. Apart from making instant noodles his company developed the UK’s first ‘cup noodle’ – a precursor to the ubiquitous “Pot Noodle” developed by Golden Wonder after they took over the company.
It was not until the late 70s that Wally stepped into the beer market; the field that would become his “claim to fame”. United Breweries of India at this time felt it was a good opportunity for them to set up their own branch in UK marketing a range of their products particularly their flagship product Kingfisher beer, he said. While their agents BE International were importers and distributors of food and drinks predominantly from China and India, they were not brand developers.
Despite the fact that Indian restaurants were growing in popularity during the time, the drinks sold in the restaurant market remained dominated by the likes of Dortmunder and Carlsberg. A full-scale marketing project for introducing Kingfisher beer to the niche Indian restaurants was needed.
Thus a new company called United Breweries International UK was launched at a gala event in the Dorchester in 1982 and Wally was appointed to head up the operation as Vice President. So began his mission to introduce “Indian beer to the ethnic niche market”.
This project was easier said than done.
”I found it to be an impossible task,” he said. “When people, restaurant owners and customers alike, heard the drinks were imported from India, there was instant hesitation. The perception of poor hygiene standards, especially the quality of water in a developing country like India was brought into question.”
A long shipping journey, delays at customs clearance, non palletised cargo, all added to further quality concerns. Finally, there was no availability of draught lager in India.
This ultimately led him to start a joint venture for United Breweries with a Kent-based brewery called Shepherd Neame. This was the first joint venture of its kind to brew Kingfisher under license anywhere in the world. The solution worked like a charm, because it could now be supplied in draught and bottled form. This was the first time Kingfisher lager was available in draught, and the 1980s saw Indian beer- produced in the UK- finding a place on the menus of most Indian restaurants and with taps sitting instead of or next to Carlsberg.
Throughout the decade, Kingfisher, brewed under license in the UK, mainly dominated the market. Then, as the 80s came to a close, a new bottled brand imported from India called Cobra Beer was launched in by Karan Bilimoria CBE – with the claim of being ‘authentically Indian’ and being less ‘gassy’ – it established a growing share of the market.
Soon enough, Cobra followed the inevitable steps of being brewed in the EU under license and, by introducing a draught version, the market for Indian beers in the 90s became bigger and fiercely competitive. This is where Surojit Walawalkar’s marketing ingenuity came into play.
“During the 90s, the exotic taste of curry had increasingly become a part of the British food pallete,” he said. With the public already enamoured with the flavourful dishes of the Indian subcontinent, the region’s beer was its natural companion. A cold glass of Kingfisher or a Cobra beer became the automatic accompaniment to any meal ordered at an Indian restaurant.
“Curiously though”, he added, “a majority of the so-called ‘Indian restaurants’ that were in the popular hub of the British public dining-out experience were actually Bangladeshi.” Wally, who is half- Maharashtrian and half- Bengali, explained that he identifies strongly with his Bengali heritage, stemming from his mum’s side of the family. Though born in Jaipur, he completed his schooling and college in Calcutta, and was principally brought up by his Bengali maternal grandparents.
Though he doesn’t explicitly mention it, this part of his identity is what probably drew him to the prospect of recognising the brilliant contributions of the Bangladeshi community to the Indian food market in the UK. The explosive growth in the Indian restaurant trade in the 70s and 80s coincided with a singularly important historical moment in the history of the Indian sub continent. This was the formation of Bangladesh and its liberation movement starting in the spring of 1971.
As time progressed, many enterprising people from the Bangladesh especially from and around Sylhet and Dhaka emigrated to the UK. They helped expand exponentially the growing ‘Indian’ restaurant trade. Restaurants serving Indian food began spreading into every nook and corner of UK: from leafy suburban towns to remote villages in every part of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
He said: “I thought that the role of Bangladesh had to be recognised in some way by the consuming public and from a marketing point of view. I wondered: ‘why not have a brand of beer that echoes a connection between the country where the owners, managers, chefs and waiters come from?’”
This gave birth to the brand of premium beer called “Bangla”. Even if the move had an emotional motivation, the fact that it was a clever marketing scheme can’t be argued, and Wally reluctantly acknowledges it.
Not neglecting the other stream of Indian restaurants that were not Bangladeshi, he also launched a brand called “Lal Toofan”. This was carefully researched and the brand name was chosen to have a more blatantly Indian sounding name, thus declaring clear water from the more anglicised names such as the established brands Kingfisher or Cobra.
Thus began the last chapter of his marketing career – the launch of both “Lal Toofan,” aimed at the traditional Indian restaurant sector of the market, and his crowning glory “Bangla,” aimed at the larger Bangladeshi sector with more than 6,000 restaurants. He thus aimed to bifurcate the ‘niche Indian restaurant market’.
Wally left United Breweries Group in 1992 to become Managing Director of their Shaw Wallace Overseas Ltd. Using the tried and tested formula of joint venture brewing, he started a new joint venture between Shaw Wallace Overseas Ltd and Ushers of Trowbridge called Ushers Shaw Wallace (USW Ltd). It was under this company that he in 1993 launched Lal Toofan and Bangla three years later.
With the passage of time, Ushers of Trowbridge closed down its brewery in 2000 and the ownership of the brands moved on to Refresh UK and now continues to be well nurtured and supported by the successful company LWC in Manchester.
The brands became a part of Wally’s remaining active career in marketing until he retired in 2000. As successful brands do, they continue to thrive. As a person who seems to have kept busy for most of his life, it is no surprise that the 79-year-old returned to work with a year later as a consultant for Refresh UK in 2006, where he continued to work tirelessly for another six years after decided to “retire” from his long marketing career.
Alongside his work as a marketing consultant, Wally has extended his work experience to volunteering for charitable organisations over the last 14 years.
He said: “I took a special interest in learning disabilities as my eldest son has learning disabilities and autism. I took up the chairmanship of the management committee of St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre, which provides courses and activities for adults with learning disabilities for the RC Diocese of Westminster until 2006.
“I’m currently the Chairman of CAPE, an association of carers and parents of persons with learning disability in Enfield, and I am also on the Learning Disability Partnership board for Enfield Local Authority.
“It is work in a very different setting compared to the world of business,” he added, but I don’t think he’d want it any other way, if the pride and joy that shines through in his voice is anything to go by.
Surojit “Wally” Walawalkar has lots of interesting parts to his life story that one can focus on, be it his time working alongside business executives, entrepreneurs and owners of companies large and small, or serving as a board member in a charity or a local authority sector. He readily admits that after 56 years of being happily married, he owes a huge debt of gratitude to his clear-thinking, supportive and quietly-inspiring wife Ann, who is a retired senior civil servant hailing from Scotland. He talks proudly about his two sons, daughter and three grandchildren who have all made notable successes in their own ways. But the part of his life that not many people focus on is the successful story of the introspective, yet ambitious and articulate, immigration who has made a life for himself in the UK by doing what he’s good at and what he enjoys.
When this point is made, he is flattered and honoured. It seems that being recognised for the journey he’s been on isn’t high on Walawalkar’s list of priorities. “Being forgotten is only a part of life,” he said. As the dust settles on forgotten chapters of his life he cannot help but think of a quote from of revered writer and philosopher Khalil Gibran.
“Yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.”
This attitude, and the wisdom that so clearly envelopes his every word, makes his story all the more worth remembering. An example to inspire future generations.Read more
Curry chef will publication of the pioneering Curry Life Magazine, founded in 2003, and widely regarded as the most influential voice of the curry industry in Britain.
Curry Chef will get full backing from the professional team of journalists and feature writers at Curry Life Media Group, while enabling Curry Life Chef Club (CLCC) members to express and promote their own independent agenda.
As demand for curry chefs has grown significantly in Britain, more and more people are taking up the membership of the CLCC – mainly to enhance and develop their culinary skills by exchanging new ideas with their peers.
Editor and CEO of Curry Life Media Group, Syed Belal Ahmed, says: “We have seen a big surge in membership interest since last year – when our Culinary Workshop and Networking Dinner ended up being oversubscribed.
“The Culinary Workshop, organised by Curry Life, is where CLCC members and restaurateurs congregate annually, together with experts from the hospitality industry, to share innovative ideas, latest trends, hints and tips.
“Every year we have noticed CLCC members take guidance, recommendations and feedback from the workshop – so that they can make improvements and try to bring about positive changes to their restaurants,” says Ahmed.
Syed Nahas Pasha, Editor in Chief and Chairman of Curry Life Media Group, also expressed his delight in backing this niche publication in Bengali – adding: “Curry Chef will complement the work that Curry Life has been doing for almost two decades, but will focus on chefs only.
“Targeting otherwise ‘off the radar’ Curry Chefs – and finding those willing to learn – will help to solve skills shortages within the Industry, without having to rely on overseas staff, as the Coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. The impact on our Curry Industry will be far greater than expected.
“We need to make sure no one falls through the net as a result of this pandemic, especially Curry Chefs who are the backbone of our industry. We need to provide the right support to help chefs develop their skills so that can meet the challenge of post Covid –19 world of business.”
President of the Curry Life Chefs Club, Chef Abul Monsur, says: “Our members really wanted to launch a newsletter in Bengali – so that they could keep on top of all the latest industry information and any available scope for professional development.”
He adds: “It’s great news that Curry Chef is coming out. Hopefully it will cover every aspect of a chef’s life – including positive profile pieces, training, career development opportunities and – most of all – sharing best practice throughout our industry.”Read more
The Curry Industry is full of wonderful and passionate people and we proved that again and again during the crisis. The Covid -19 Pandemic is the worst thing to hit the restaurant sector in modern times. We have never seen anything like this before. Many businesses including restaurants, pubs and bars were forced to closed to deal with the challenge of this pandemic.
Some Curry Houses has been running limited takeaways delivery and collections operation only. Despite businesses are faced with the most challenging time for generation, the Curry House Heroes joined in a national effort to deliver most favourite free curries for elderly, vulnerable, the NHS heroes and Key Workers, those working tirelessly during this tough time.
While many of these restaurants have offered discounts for Hospitals and Key Workers for a long time, it demonstrates the relentless generosity of many eateries that even in this dire time for the Curry Industry, they are still rewarding others for working so hard with delivering free curries.
Bangladesh Caterers Association (BCA) that represents many thousands of Curry Houses across the country has been actively asking its members to help out in a national effort to deliver free curries to NHS staffs, vulnerable people in the society.
Mr M A Munim, President of BCA, said: “there aren’t many people who deserve to be rewarded with free curries more during the Coronavirus outbreak than NHS staff members and key workers.
They are already going without sleep. If they also don’t have good food, they will burn out faster, function less well and become ill themselves.”
In this issue of Curry Life our reporter SAM SMITH reflected on some Curry House Heroes involved in this commendable initiative across the country to deliver free curries to our NHS Heroes, Key Workers and vulnerable people during this pandemic which devastated our nation.
Whetstone, London N20 9HH
The Bayleaf of High Road, London has welcomed the opportunity to give back to the community. Since the pandemic began, they have provided 3000 free meals to vulnerable people who are in isolation. They have also donated £2000 pounds to the needy in Bangladesh.
Additionally, their local MP for Chipping Barnet, Theresa Villiers volunteered to join forces with the Bayleaf and its owner Tofozzul Miah in delivering food to the staff of North London Hospice.
Mr Miah, said: “this is all in an effort to support our local community in as best as we can”.
Walderslade, Chatham, Kent ME5 9UD
Since March, Indian restaurant the Taj Cuisine in Walderslade have been delivering curry to their local hospital in an effort to support front line NHS workers. The award-winning restaurant has been delivering 100 meals a week every Tuesday to show their appreciation to their nearby health workers and the NHS as a whole. Owner Abul Monsur, said: “We delivered food to the hospital staff to demonstrate our support, appreciation and love for the NHS.”
Shrewsbury SY1 1QU
Small but popular Indian restaurant Café Saffron in Shrewsbury has been hard at work supporting their community since the onset of COVID-19. What’s been described as a ‘’small army” of volunteers have all come forward to assist the restaurant in their efforts to donate 100 meals a week to those in need in their local area. Including their local hospital. So far, they have donated 300 meals and according to manager Abdul. Soon they may double their efforts and may be donating 200 meals a week!
Taste of Paradise
Award Winning Curry Chef from Taste of Paradise, Market town of Newport in Telford, have delivered hundreds of free curries at the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford, Shropshire.
Chef Alam Hussain said: “We are a very small business. But, I’m deeply humbled to be able to use my skills to help support our NHS and frontline workers in these challenging times.”
Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 3DA
The Mahaan Restaurant represents the largest Indian restaurant in Sussex. It’s owner Askor Ali has not only shown generosity to his local community by delivering free meals to the elderly in his local community and over 150 meals to Worthing Hospital, he’s also offering NHS workers a 20% discount if they order food to their homes. In fact, Mahaan offered NHS workers discount even before the pandemic.
Finally, many of Askor’s staff may not have family to stay with in lockdown. Those staffs have been allowed to live above the restaurant and eat for free during the pandemic.
Hussain’s Indian Cuisine
Weston-super-Mare, BS23 1RQ
Family business Hussain’s Indian Cuisine is run by father and daughter duo Alkas and Aqila. The Hussain’s have really decided to think outside the box when adapting to the COVID-19 crisis. Realising that their regulars would all be stuck at home and during sunny days they decided to create a special BBQ food pack to make lockdown easier. They’ve also been donating 10% of their earnings to the NHS as well as offering discounts to front line workers and supplying meals for those working in hospitals. Profit isn’t something the restaurant is concerned with during a pandemic.
Camborne, TR14 8SW
This restaurant has high hopes when the opened their doors on the middle of February 2020. As a new business, the last thing they expected was to open just as a global pandemic struck the world. But they adapted as soon as it did. Not only have Sultanz been supporting their local hospitals, the fledgling restaurant has also been cooking delicious Indian food to donate to nearby homeless shelters.
Their motto during this crisis is “we are here for the locals”, who recognising the challenges the new restaurant has faced, have rallied round to support them too by ordering takeaways.
Spitalfields, London E1 7HP
East London based famous Bangladeshi Restaurant Dichad has been very busy supporting the NHS in London. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, they and another family owned restaurant called Indian Butler have provided over 2000 hot lunches to St Thomas Hospital, St Barts, Royal London, Whipps Cross, Hillingdon Hospital, and to many local GP offices. They have also recognised the importance of Care Homes and have also supplied care workers with cooked food too. While food was delivered to Royal London Hospital from Dilchad, Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs, several councillors and Dilchad family members Shafiqur Rahman Chowdhury was present.
The Stoke-on-Trent based Roshni Restaurant didn’t hesitate to support the NHS when COVID-19 struck the UK. In fact, they surprised their local Royal Stoke University Hospital with a massive supply of curry and sundries to keep front line staff well fed.
Owner Muhammed Sami said this to his local newspaper, “We were very happy to do it and have already said that if they want us to do it again, we will. We should all help each other, especially during times like this.”
Cheshire, CH64 6SA
Britannia Spice, as well as other nearby restaurants The Ruhi Balti Birkenhead, Paneer Wallasey and Wirral Tandoori Bromborough all kindly provided curry for families in their local area. Each restaurant did this in partnership with Tranmere Rovers Football Club and MPs Mick Whitley and Alison McGovern.
The food was provided at the Marquee in Prenton Park with help from volunteers. This initiative was a unique and creative way for all involved to help their local community during a difficult time. Every person involved deserves the title of Curry Hero.
The Capital Restaurant
County Durham, DH1 1QT
Syed Islam who runs the Capital Restaurant in Durham and his team joined forces with their local MP to prepare over 100 meals for their local hospital. The team arrived with all meals boxed up and ready, providing front-line NHS staff at University Hospital North Durham with some much-needed support during their busy shifts fighting coronavirus. Speaking to their local newspaper later MP Mary Foy said, “This is another heart-warming example of how the communities and businesses in my brilliant constituency look out for one another. I hope all the staff who received one of Syed’s incredible meals enjoyed them.”
Bridgnorth, WV16 4QN
The Himalaya Tandoori has done a tremendous amount to help others since the coronavirus crisis started. Not only has the restaurant offered a roof to its staff with nowhere to go during lockdown, they have donated a vast amount of curry to their local hospital and offered a discount to NHS workers. But what’s even more exciting is the restaurant is taking part in The Big Curry Night In – a nationwide celebration of curry and Eastern cuisine.
The scheme has been created to also raise funds for the British Asian Trust’s appeal to also help the needy in South East Asia, another part of the world that has been ravaged by COVID-19.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.