From kala bhuna to shatkora curry – let's all get a taste for Bangladesh
Most Of Britain’s Indian Restaurants Are Run By Bangladeshis. So Why Don’t They Promote Their Cuisine, Asks Restaurateur And Poet Ahsan Akbar
In 1810, Hindoostane Coffee House in Marylebone became the first Indian restaurant in Britain. Its owner was a traveller and entrepreneur from Bengal who changed his name from Sheikh Din Muhammad to Sake Dean Mahomed. A man of many talents, in 1794 he was the first Indian to publish a book in English, documenting his travels. Sadly, money troubles forced him to sell the restaurant in 1811.
Nevertheless, Indian restaurants are a thriving business, and around 90% of the Indian restaurants in Britain today are owned and run by Bangladeshis. But even with a British-Bangladeshi population of around 600,000, the Bangladesh brand is weak – rarely does a curry house brand itself as a Bangladeshi establishment.
With Teatulia (itself temporarily a Covid casualty), we not only envisioned a Bangladeshi tea bar in Covent Garden, we also wanted to challenge the perception of Bangladesh in Britain and embrace our identity. Marketing experts advised us not to focus on Bangladesh. They argued that very few people can locate Bangladesh on the map, and almost all associations are negative. News stories about the country are usually about catastrophes, either natural or manmade.
India is an easier sell. In Britain, we have long felt we know India; we choose to be blissfully unaware of the brutally repressive and exploitative nature of our colonial empire, but are happy to lap up its soft, frilly cultural outputs in the form of Raj romance. With their familiar favourites and decor, Indian restaurants have played up to the appetite for such stereotypes, even if their Anglicised fare bears little relation to India itself, or its food.
In recent years, however, a new generation of entrepreneurs saw a gap in the market and have taken the curry market by storm. Dishoom, Gymkhana, Trishna, Darjeeling Express, and many others offer a more authentic Indian experience, with great success. Although Bangladeshis pioneered Indian cooking in the UK, there has been no comparable explosion of authentic Bangladeshi culture.
One could argue that the cuisine in Bangladesh isn’t distinct enough, but that’s simply not true. Exceptions do exist in London’s East End: most notably Gram Bangla and Amar Gaon in Brick Lane and Kolapata in Whitechapel, who advertise themselves as Bangladeshi restaurants, and there may be a handful more across the country. Dishes such as kala bhuna and mejbani beef from Chittagong, chui jhal from Jessore – which uses piper chaba, Sylhet’s tradition of shatkora curries – and biriyani and bakarkhani of Old Dhaka – the latter served with tea – draw on recipes derived from Mughal kitchens and beyond, and make Bangladeshi cuisine delectably strong and unique.
There are more than 8,000 Indian restaurants in the UK that are owned by Bangladeshis, and they worry about losing business by ditching “Indian” from their trading name. On purely commercial terms, they might take inspiration from a spate of Sri Lankan restaurants that are doing very well, such as Hopper’s, Kolamba or Paradise in Soho.
If diasporic Bangladeshis wish to make their mark, they can look to their old home for inspiration. Once dismissed as a hopeless case, in recent years Bangladesh has beaten its giant neighbour in virtually all social and economic indicators. If that wasn’t impressive enough, according to the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh scores higher than the US in gender equality. In contrast, with the introduction of Citizenship Amendment Act, and the farmers’ protest, Modi’s India has slipped from its liberal ideals – and a bit too in international estimation. Bangladesh turns 50 this month, and its tradition of art, music and literature is more vibrant than ever.
There are signs things are beginning to change on the food front too. TV’s Great British Bake Off champion Nadiya Hussain has done more for the nation’s visibility than the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose executive committee is shockingly all-male. Some businesses are challenging the lack of identity for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs. One is Bang Curry, a curry kit company that proudly says Bangladesh on its packaging. The recipes are from Bangladesh, even if one could have marketed them as Indian curries, too. Hopefully, this is just the start of businesses being bold and taking risks to tell a better story.
Bangladesh is not India or Sri Lanka or Pakistan. But it’s up to the new generation of Bangladeshis to tell that to the world.
Ahsan Akbar is founder of Teatulia and director of Dhaka Lit Fest