East London is one of the most overcrowded portions of the capital but it’s not for the reasons you would imagine. London is one of the largest cities in the world, so the East side is a huge portion of the city flagged by market activity, business and trade centres – the commercial hub of it all is the City of London, which is a neighbour to the impoverished estates of Tower Hamlets, Brick Lane and other neighbourhoods known for their immense migrant population. The scene is quite different if you actually head down the streets here however, because most of the city is still home to very important Grade II listed buildings, historical towncentres, churches, synagogues, mosques and other centres of religious worship.
East London is known for its diverse population because during the British Empire, many former workers of the Empire migrated to our country when they were no longer needed to help out on ship dockyards and with other merchant activity. They weren’t just cooks, or workers in fashion, that actually forms a tiny proportion of the lascars who immigrated to the United Kingdom. The East India Company, was a faction of the world’s biggest Empire, and took care of administrative matters pertaining to India and its neighbours and the Qing Dynasty from China, predominantly. Among its many achievements, was the introduction of the British Empire to India, alongside scrounging these lands for trade deals.
Somewhere around half of the world’s trade was accounted for by the East India Company, in areas such as cotton, silk, tea, opium, salt, and the indigo dye. Contrary to popular belief, the government had no control over the company, but it did receive the Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. Mostly controlled by wealthy merchants and aristocrats, it had strong competition in the spice trade market from the previously established Dutch East India Company. However, trade in pepper from Java (present-day Indonesia) for example, was a strong focal point of incoming earnings for the business.
After several battles over gaining control of the territories surrounding the Indian Ocean, with the Dutch and the Portuguese, the Company advised the Crown to open negotiations on matters, diplomatically instead. The Portuguese East India Company already had bases in mainland India, such as Chittagong, Goa, and Bombay, but these were later transferred to the British Empire. So this all brings us back to what the Empire eventually did for East London, apart from trade.
Cultural exchanges are common-sight when it comes to the culinary landscape of Great Britain, and Brick Lane is no different. Brick Lane is a very small locality in East London, dominated by migrants from Bangladesh, who came into the United Kingdom, during the days of the British Empire. Upon arrival, life for them was very difficult and they lived in absolute poverty or overcrowded housing for decades, constantly facing hardships in our society because of language barriers, and their illiteracy which made them unable to enter higher education, as well as being horrendously tricked by various landlords, when it came to purchasing or owning properties, or looking for suitable accommodation.
The kind of curry you get in Great Britain is very British and has nothing to do with the kind you get in Bangladesh, which is basically a North Indian variant. But you do have many of the cuisines of that landscape present in our shops, restaurants, and even in the supermarkets, no matter which you love more Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Because to British-Bangladeshis their roots are very important just like any other British, the food found in Brick Lane is especially curated from Bangladesh to suit the taste, palette and the cultures of Great Britain.
Great Britain already is one of the largest consumer base, alongside the United States of America, and Netherlands, of freshwater prawns from Bangladesh. But the intertwining of cultural practises don’t just stop inbetween the two countries there. Food in Bangladesh is all about rice, fish, vegetables and lentils, just like North India, and contrary to popular beliefs follows the style of serving the French pioneered, which means that meals are served in courses, rather than all of them at the same time.
Since the landscape of the country is surrounded by rivers and water bodies, you get mostly freshwater fish in Bangladesh rather than saltwater fish. But the food in the capital is mostly influenced by the Mughals, during their time as rulers of the country. When you walk into a restaurant in Brick Lane, you can actually see all of this present in the dishes. It doesn’t matter whether you love naan bread, kebabs or biryani, all of it arguably, comprises the most popular local cuisine landscape of Dhaka and neighbouring regions, as well. The food from those times are so well-liked, it has even gone onto shape food in Bangladesh, over the years.
Integration of our ethnic minority and communities are issues that still need solving so don’t be surprised if you walk into a restaurant in Brick Lane and not find Yorkshire Puddings on the menu. Rice is still the principal food for Bangladeshis, and complimented by more than fifty different lentil choices, such as red gram, pulses, black gram and Bengal gram. And when it comes to the vegetables the kind you get in the market is mostly leafy greens, eggplants, red onions, broad beans, okra, spinach and pumpkins.
Alcohol is not served with dishes most of the time in Brick Lane, and even when it is the options to pick something to drink for the night leaves much room for want, but this isn’t the kind of expectations you have from the restaurants here. The most popular kebab shops are the ones that tailor-make the food to British palettes without too much exoticness thrown in, and also when it comes to the decorations of the place, the less opulent, the better – most of our heartfelt favourites are the kind that work more like a retro place, very streamlined and efficiently serving the customers the food they would like to have, the cuisines they would like to try out!
In Bangladesh, the most loved meat dishes are chicken, beef, goat, mutton and duck but the food isn’t excessively oily because usually mustard oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil and clarified butter is used during cooking. When it comes to condiments, Bengalis like to choose garam masala, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. Although, all of this isn’t as popular in Brick Lane yet, as opposed to Mughlai food, it’s presence is on the rise, so it might be a good idea to indulge in a much more diverse cuisine, every now and again.
Most Bengalis like to eat fried food, and British-Bangladeshis seem to have been unable to give this up because on any given day, the windows of the shops can be spotted lined with all kinds of fried foods in several silver trays – think foods dipped in batter or breadcrumbs and then fried, croquettes of meat, potatoes or even vegetables, sometimes. The food is very salty, which makes one wonder where this portion of the British population likes to stand on the “salt debate”. With respects to spicy food, the dishes are a lot spicier than most of the mass-produced Portuguese foods you get in town, so if the heat on your fried chicken isn’t enough to satisfy you, just come down to Brick Lane!
One of the most favourite dishes to come out of Brick Lane is chutney – it can be had as a dip for crisps and poppadums or when not indulging in those mango sheets from Sainsbury’s, during festival-season! Pickles come in a variety of assortments in our markets, from mango to the spicier concoction of mustard seeds, mustard oil and various seeds, but most of the country is still pretty clueless for most of the dishes available in Brick Lane or Bangladesh, for that matter. If it helps, some of the dishes seem to be closer to home knowledge-wise, like steamed spicy fish and mashed potatoes or beans (strangely!) served with red shallot, chilli, mustard oil or clarified butter.
The North Indian roots in the cuisine is rarely visible to the naked eye, but it’s there if you look hard enough in many of the dishes served in banana leaves – a very popular choice in the shops here seems to be oily fish wrapped in a banana leaf, after basted in mustard, mustard oil, chili, turmeric and salt. It’s quite different from the Arabic Mughlai food of vegetables or meat, cooked in terracotta pots, the veg cooked wrapped in rice, salt (surprising!) and clarified butter, with the veg here usually consisting of potatoes, butternut squash, papayas, gourd and okra, and served with green chili and a boiled egg (sometimes shelled!).
Some similarities do exist though, whenever you typically spot a coconut, chickpeas, or a banana blossom in Brick Lane, such as vegetables like cabbage, green peas and potatoes, chopped, finely grated and cooked with spices, lentil (‘dal’), clarified butter and fish and for many of the Bengali sweets you get here! Brick Lane is famous in the country for the sweets they serve, which are just as much rich as the ones you get in Bangladesh.
Apart from the sweet-edition of the brewed drinks, think baked yoghurt, sweet yoghurt, sugarcane juice, date juice!, you have the regular sweets that are awfully sugary but they do taste brilliant. For sweets, you have, what seems to be the local Lane favourite – ‘rasmalai’ (a sweet doused in a sugary syrup), ‘sandesh’ (a dessert with a milk base), your favourite festival sweet, cotton candy, what looks like an interesting spin on the ‘pretzel’ – ‘jilapi’, a popular treat during celebrations of the sorts of weddings ‘zarda’, which is basically a sweet, coloured rice-based dish, ‘chômchôm’ which apparently originated in the same district in Bangladesh that spurns out their famous ‘saris’, a local emblem of sorts recently recognized by UNESCO as a national heritage, and ofcourse ‘pitha’ which is a favourite in the Lane during cold seasons.
When you want to sample exotic cuisine this fall, Brick Lane is the place to go, this is the coolest place in town to try out food very different to the kinds we usually have, along with some much-treasured favourites. Traditions dictate in Bangladesh, that the style of eating during weddings or any important or eloquent celebratory functions, to be entirely different from those in practice everyday in homes across the country but no matter where you look, you will find flat breads, rice, spicy food, usually for the various kinds of meat, pickles as appetisers, which are sometimes exchanged with numerous brewed drinks, and sweets, to be widely-regarded as staple foods.