Recipe and Research: Beyond Banglatown with Claire Alexander

This month we approached a selection of academics, asking them to share a recipe with us that links to the work they’re currently researching. This is the first in the series.

Claire Alexander

My fascination with Bengali Brick Lane began in the mid-1990s, during fieldwork for The Asian Gang, when I would visit with ‘Yasmin’, the head worker of the youth project, to buy spices and meat from Taj Stores, and pick up takeaway kebabs from Sweet & Spicy. At that point Banglatown was only beginning, but the new restaurants which were opening along the southern end of the street were startlingly different from the traditional red flocked wallpaper and imperial nostalgia of most ‘Indian’ restaurants of the time. My favourite was Café Naz, which was decked out in cool greys and blues, and had Mughal- inspired murals of tigers and played Bollywood music.

A decade later, I returned to Brick Lane as part of the ‘Bengal Diaspora’ project[i], which was exploring the migration and settlement of Bengali Muslims within and from South Asia, and to the UK. At that time, Banglatown was probably at its peak – around 60 restaurants and cafes crowding southern Brick Lane and Osborn Street, and the surrounding sidestreets – and the recent Brick Lane film (2007) had shone a (not always welcome or uncontested) light on the Bangladeshi community in the area. I interviewed a number of cultural activists and restaurant owners about the history of Bengali Brick Lane, and its significance in the anti-racist struggles of the South Asian community, which had made it the symbolic  ‘heartland’ of the Bangladeshi community in Britain. I also met Sean Carey, an anthropologist who had worked in the area for many years, and who gave me a walking tour of Banglatown, regaling me with stories about the hidden history of the restaurants – of gambling dens in the basements, of Musa Patel’s friendship with the Kray twins, of anti-racist activists turned business owners. Even at this point, the interviews suggested a very Bengali fatalism about failures of the Banglatown project and its uncertain future.

The Beyond Banglatown project[ii] took shape then, but it would be another decade before we would start the research and by that time my plans to record these stories had been overtaken by the decline of the restaurant trade along Brick Lane. When we started the research in 2018, there were only 23 restaurants and cafes left – a decline of 62%. Café Naz and Sweet & Spicy were both closed. The remainder were struggling in the face of gentrification, and the encroachment of hipster Shoreditch southward along the street. There were other pressures too: changing consumer tastes and practices; the decline in the local night time economy; spiralling rents and business rates; problems with staffing due to migration controls; the reluctance of the younger generation to enter the sector.

We finished the fieldwork in February 2020, just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated an already fragile food retail economy. Only 1 restaurant stayed open for takeaway deliveries during the lockdown and re-opening has been slow. One restauranteur told us the area was ‘like a ghost town’.

The implications for the local Bangladeshi community are severe, and likely to be replicated across the country. Over 60% of Bangladeshi men in Britain work in the hospitality and catering sector, and 25% as chefs, cooks or waiters. However, the loss of Banglatown is more than just economic or social – it runs the risk of erasing the contribution of Bengali Brick Lane to the history of Brick Lane, of East London, and of migrant/multi-cultural Britain. The Beyond Banglatown project is hoping to capture this history – of an entwined imperial and post-colonial legacy told through food, of a generation of pioneers who staked their claim to belong in the street through blood and sweat, of a community whose resilience and adaptability has changed the face of Britishness – at a moment of crisis, and as it faces an uncertain future.  

The recipe is for ‘Monsoon Chicken Supreme’ and was kindly shared by owner, Shams Uddin, and his restaurant staff. Shams is Brick Lane’s longest serving restauranteur, having worked with Musa Patel in the legendary Clifton restaurant (1978-1996), before opening his own businesses after Patel’s death. Monsoon opened in 2000.

Photo: Claire Alexander

The Monsoon Chicken Supreme

Proprietor: Shams Uddin @ The Monsoon, 78 Brick Lane, London E1 6RL

Chef: Atik

Serves One

Ingredients

350 g of fresh chicken breast mini-fillets

Some gram flour (or cornflour)

Rapeseed oil for frying

3 tablespoons of ghee (clarified butter)

½ onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon garlic and ginger paste

2 tablespoons of ground almond

4 tablespoons of coconut milk

2 tablespoons of mild curry powder

3 tablespoons of lime juice + 1 teaspoon of brown sugar

7 fresh curry leaves

4 whole black peppercorns

4 cm cinnamon (cassia) stick

6 whole green cardamom pods

3 whole cloves

1 blade of mace

1 dried whole Kashmiri chili

salt and ground black pepper to taste

Cooking Method

  1. Combine 1/3 of the teaspoon of garlic and ginger paste to the chicken mini fillets and then add small amount of salt and ground black pepper. Allow to marinade for 10-15 minutes. Now coat the chicken in the gram flour and deep fry in the rapeseed oil until cooked through and crunchy (around three minutes). Set aside.
  2. Bring a deep saucepan or wok to medium heat (4 out of 10) and add the ghee until it is hot. Add the remaining garlic and ginger paste and fry for one minute. Add the onion and cook until golden brown. Now add the rest of the ingredients until you can smell the flavours (around six or seven minutes)
  3. Add the chicken to the sauce and warm through
  4. Serve with aromatic basmati rice and chopped tomato and decorate with pan leaves

Resources

Banglastories website (www.banglastories.org)

Beyond Banglatown website, report and film (www.beyondbanglatown.org.uk)

Claire Alexander is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, and Associate Director of the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity. She has researched race, ethnicity and migration in Britain for 30 years. She is currently researching the restaurant trade in Brick Lane, racial inequality in Higher Education and writing a follow-up to her ‘Asian Gang’ project.


[i] The Bengal Diaspora (AHRC, 2006-2009) with Joya Chatterji, Annu Jalais and Shahzad Firoz (see www.banglastories.org)

[ii] Beyond Banglatown (AHRC 2018-2020) with Sean Carey, Sundeep Lidher, Suzanne Hall, Julia King and Joya Chatterji (see www.beyondbanglatown.org.uk) .

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