Considering the majority of UK curryhouses are owned and operated by Bangladeshis, it aint easy to find great Bangla khana on British streets… or, in fact, ANY Bangla khana. Not the sort that people cook and eat themselves at home, at any rate. You might find the odd ‘chef’s special’, underwhelmingly described – ‘cooked with Bangladeshi citrus’ or ‘tasty seeds of Bangladeshi runner beans’, but that’s about as far as it goes. In 1994 Enam Ali launched the ‘Dine Bangladeshi‘ initiative, but despite ongoing promotion from the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs, it remains elusive fare.
In fact, when Time Out’s Guy Dimond went on a mission to hit up Brick Lane and the surrounding area to seek out authentic Bangladeshi eats, he found chefs distinctly lacking in confidence regarding Western acceptance of the bony river fish and prevalent use of pungent, sour, and bitter flavours so characteristic of the country’s classic cuisine. Their unwillingness to offer him traditional dishes was because they didn’t believe he’d take to them. They felt they were doing him a favour in steering him away.
But today, everyone likes to call themselves a culinary Phileas Fogg, and, even where there’s a lack of knowledge or awareness, there’s at least a curiosity. And, when it comes to Bangladeshi fare, there’s a lot to be curious about. The majority of chefs historically hail from Sylhet in the Northeast, home to highly localised ingredients like the citrus fruit, ‘shatkora’, and those amazing beans, ‘uri’. It’s a crying shame that the confidence and pride isn’t there, because it blooming well should be.
There are very, very few cookbooks covering the topic, the first ever title being Pat Chapman’s 1996 ‘Bangladeshi Restaurant Curries’. Although it focuses on curryhouse ‘cuisine’, there’s some authentic finery to be ferreted out. Ont’ British telly, meanwhile, Rick Stein obviously fancied finding out more – because he visited the country for his ‘Far Eastern Odyssey’; and fell for the food fast. The accompanying book of the same name has a dedicated – albeit all-too-brief – Bangladeshi section.
So your best bet might well be to rootle Bangladeshi fare out in restaurants, insisting to dissuasive waiters that you’d honestly, really rather risk a rezala than a chicken tikka masala. If you’re not quite sure what the treasure you’re seeking looks like, or where it’s hidden, it helps to visit with a pro who’ll introduce you to a feast of fiery fish head stews, spicy vegetable mashes, and tongue-tingling pickles and chutneys, making grand use of the distinctive flavours of mustard oil and panch phoran.
You could do worse than appointing Yasmin Choudhury as master of your tasty destiny. The aim of her company, Lovedesh, is to introduce people to the under-explored delights of Bangladesh through experiencing the authentic food and culture available here in the UK. Her ultimate goal is to to woo you so thoroughly and well you’ll be driven to visit and discover the country for yourself – suffice to say, you’re pretty much guaranteed some good eating.
She might take you to Brick Lane; but way, way beyond the bastard menu of the curryhouse. Amargaon’s window tempts with a heaving counter of fresh-fried savouries. Choose a moglai, a vast pastry pillow stuffed with chicken and eggs; or a fat-bellied, samosa-like shingara, slicked with tomato ketchup before you stuff it down. Technicolour sweets come in myriad shapes; often based on fatless chenna cheese (and deep-fried, or at least bathed in syrup, to compensate).
For something more substantial, take a seat and select a stew. Gram Bangla offers similar home-style fare, with fish a frequent feature. For a Bangladeshi, it just won’t do to go a day without fish. Whether from river or sea, it’s often anointed with pungent mustard paste, and always, always eaten with rice in copious quantities. After something that typifies the local area’s clashing cultures fusing fabulously? Kebab shops round these parts do a decent shatkora-spiked doner.
Kolapata is a rare find; a place serving contemporary Bangladeshi food that’s a little more upmarket than the other, more workmanlike peddlers of true Bangla khana in the area. This is a place to eat typical Bangladeshi favourites in a ‘proper restaurant’ environment; smart enough to take a date or the in-laws. It’s a smart move – you can find spectacular Bangladeshi food in the East End, and there’s no reason for it to be consumed in shoddy surrounds; ‘suffered’ rather than savoured.
So why so many Bangla chefs round Brick Lane? Oceans of lascars – sailors – landed up without a means of earning a crust when the docking trade went into decline. The popular Punjabi-run eateries booming amongst Brits in the 1960s needed cooks. So Bangladeshis skilled up sharpish in cooking kormas by cutting corners; opened restaurants; and made London their own market. They might not have ever encountered a Goan vindaloo, but they’d give it a good go. And, to great reception.
These enterprising restaurateurs created vast menus from a single formulaic ‘base gravy’ augmented in myriad manners: pop in a potato and chuck in chilli powder for that ‘vindaloo’, dollop in dal for a ‘dhansak’. Each and every dish could come in chicken, lamb, prawn, or veg variants – whichever protein a person preferred. Dining trends – ‘balti’, ‘tandoori’ – were adopted and approximated. It may have been inauthentic, but British customers lapped it up – and continue to do so today.
But I reckon Brits would do just as much lapping when in the lap of true Bangladeshi hospitality, learning to savour the stories and suppers of Sylhet. There is an appetite yet to be fed. It’s just a question of getting those stomachs rumbling; listening out for those first desirous grumbles and catering to the demand. But before you demand I stop grumbling on myself, I’m off on a Brick Lane Bangladeshi food walk. And, on my full-bellied return, I will do my best to make you ravenous.
- Read Guy Dimond’s piece for TimeOut on Bangladeshi food here.
- Read Pooja Vir’s verdict on Kolapata on her blog, Table For ONE, here.
- Read about ‘The Curry Chefs of Brick Lane’, a 2012 photographic exhibition, here.