Of all the world's culinary appropriations, the British curry is the most grievous — and the most successful. The ‘chicken tikka masala’ was famously garlanded a few years ago as Britain's national dish, supplanting even fish and chips. Indian restaurants and takeaways have established themselves in even the remotest outposts of the United Kingdom.
It doesn't matter that no desi would recognise the cuisine as Indian. This food is, after all, mainly prepared by cooks of Bangladeshi heritage for British palates, so it's bound to be a bit hybrid. And whatever you might say about the authenticity of these dishes, they have proved to be stunningly popular.
If there is an epicentre of the British curry, it is Brick Lane, a mile-long street in the East End of London, which has dozens of cheap and cheerful curry houses.
This isn't the site of Britain's oldest Indian restaurants, or the best, or indeed the biggest. But it's the best-known curry corner in the country. But now, its future is in question, because of a massive development project that could usher in a gentrification of the area and price out the curry barons, the sweet shops and all the other businesses that bring a touch — and taste — of South Asia to London’s streets.
Brick Lane has already been part yuppified. The northern section of the street, adjoining the now ultra-cool area of Shoreditch, is awash with trendy eating places and coffee bars, retro clothes shops and handmade chocolates emporia, which have squeezed out quite a few of the Bangladeshi-run restaurants and clothes and leather stores. The two 24-hour beigel stores, which have been at the heart of this part of Brick Lane for generations, are still going, thankfully. But for how much longer?
The development project that has so alarmed the local community will see a huge disused brewery — currently the home of scores of small businesses and craft and design studios — transformed into a shiny collection of offices, top-end shops, and a gym.
It feels a bit like putting a posh shopping mall in the middle of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. It’s not a good fit for the area, and by its size and prominence, it will tower over and transform the rest of the street.
In the southern part of Brick Lane, the area known as ‘Banglatown’ because of its large Sylheti community, banners draped across the breadth of the street read “Stop the Truman Brewery Shopping Mall”, in both English and Bengali. Conservationists and community activists agree that the development will be “a disaster for Brick Lane”, which, in time, will push out the small traders and curry houses that give the area its identity.
Over 7,000 Letters Have Been Sent
A local Member of Parliament, Apsana Begum, has warned that both restaurants and residents could be forced out by rising rents, and the area's “rich cultural vibrancy” will be harmed by the pursuit of financial gain. More than 7,000 letters of objection were sent to the local council. But a few days ago, councillors pressed ahead and approved the redevelopment plans.
The British curry, however, has been beleaguered for quite a while. Tastes change, and chicken tikka is no longer the flavour of the moment in the way that it was a decade ago. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has hit the restaurant trade hard, and smaller Indian restaurants have faced a real problem in recruiting chefs. It's not exactly a glamorous job — many young British Bangladeshis have broader ambitions, and the scope for bringing over new staff from Bangladesh is limited because of tighter immigration rules.
And Brits have caught on that there's more to Indian cuisine than prawn vindaloo with pulao rice and a papadum. There have always been a few vegetarian Indian restaurants in London. Now, you can also get a decent dosa, or enjoy the best dishes from Kerala, savour Dishoom-style Parsee cafe cuisine, or even — if you search hard — enjoy some traditional Bengali food, complete with fish, parval, mustard oil and all the works.
A Sense of Community and Communion
For the Bangladeshi community in London's East End, Brick Lane is more than a business centre. It's the hub of their community. Some of the specialist food and music shops have already been forced out onto side streets. But the most commanding building on Brick Lane, the Jamme Masjid, remains a spectacular piece of architecture. Over centuries, it has served succeeding generations of migrants to London. It was built in the 1740s as a French Protestant church, then in the 1890s, it became a synagogue serving the poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who crowded into this quarter of London, and it became a mosque in the 1970s.
There's something very lived-in about Brick Lane. It's just a few minutes walk from the financial heart of London, but it was, until recently, untouched by corporate money and big high-street brands. The sense of community, and of communion with the city's past, is what also motivates those who are still fighting to protect Brick Lane — and to save the British curry.
(Andrew Whitehead is former Editor of BBC World Service. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)