Last month, Indian restaurant owners in the UK warned they may have to close because Bangladeshi immigrants who do the cooking are banned from entering Britain under new rules requiring them to speak English. Business Secretary John Denham stepped in saying he wanted a thousand British curry chefs trained as soon as possible and has provided emergency funding to the catering industry emergency to set up courses in ethnic food.
Curry is a $6 billion industry in Britain. Of the countries 8,000 or so Indian restaurants, the great majority are run by Bangladeshis. A staggering 90 percent of these come from the seaman’s zone in the small district of Syhlet. Until 1947 Syhlet was a part of the Assam province in British India. After the partition, it was partitioned from Assam and included as a part of East Pakistan and now is a part of Bangladesh. During the Raj it was strategically important due to the series of waterways which linked the Assam tea plantations with the port of Calcutta. When the British introduced steamships, the Syhleti boatmen became employed as sailors in the engine rooms.
Many moved to Calcutta for work. There they joined the huge contingent of lascars who found employment on ocean-going steamships. Because the Syhletis could not speak English, they remained confined to the noisy engine rooms stoking the huge boilers with coal. Many died of heatstroke or the occasional explosion. With conditions so poor, they jumped ship whenever they could. Many ended up in London’s East End where they lived in a network of grotty boarding houses full of sly grog, gambling and opium smokers.
But by the outbreak of World War II, many landlords had cleaned up their act and a number of cafes emerged to cater for the tastes of the lascars. All along areas such as Sandy Row, Brick Lane, New Road and Commercial Road, boarding houses for Syhleti seamen were accompanied by nearby cafes which doubled as community centres. These seamen’s cafes would become the root of Britain’s Indian restaurant industry.
One of these seamen was Nawab Ali who jumped ship in Cardiff during the war. Like the majority of his fellow Syhletis, Ali got a job in catering; in his case cleaning, washing up and peeling potatoes in an Egyptian coffee shop. He moved on to Veeraswamy’s, Britain’s oldest Indian restaurant, which was visited by Gandhi and Nehru among others. At the time, Veeraswamy’s was one of just a handful of Indian restaurants in London. It served Anglo-Indian curries to rich Londoners and retired civil servants nostalgic for their colonial home.
After the war, there were plenty of bombed out cafés in need of restoration. Syhleti seamen used their savings to buy them as well as many decrepit fish-and-chip shops. Fish and chips was originally seen as slum food, but by the 1950s was gradually taken up by working class families as a change to the monotony of meat-and-three-veg. Nawab Ali was one of the many Syhletis who spruced up an old fish and chip shop and in addition sold tea, coffee, rice and curry to his predominantly white customers. The Syhleti owners also kept up the old custom of keeping their shops open after 11pm to catch the trade as the pubs were closing.
Gradually the white customers became more adventurous and began trying out the curry side of the menu. In particular the after pub crowd found that a spicy vindaloo went down exceedingly well on stomach full of beer. Thus began the tradition of a curry after a night in the pub. As the customers became more fond of the curries, the cafes simply dropped the fish and chips from the menu and became out-and-out Indian restaurants and take-aways.
New ventures in the 1950s began to choose Indian names for the restaurants and an entirely Indian menu. The close bond between the Syhletis in the community centres meant they began to dominate the trade. While they became Pakistanis in 1947 and then Bangladeshis in 1971, London-based Syhletis were mostly happy to be described as “Indians” in order to conjure up romantic images of the Raj in their clientele. The décor also projected this idea with pictures of elephants and maharajas. Most copied the menu of Veeraswamy’s and other early Indian restaurants who served the Mughlai and Punjabi vindaloo, biryani and rogan josh curries favoured by Anglo-Indians.
When Bangladeshis were allowed to apply for British passports in 1956, established immigrants brought their families over. A growing Asian immigrant community stimulated the growth of a little India around Drummond St near London’s Euston Station. Asian grocers supplied Bangladeshi spices to the restaurant trade. This was accompanied by a revolution in British eating habits in the 1960s. Syhletis responded by opening new restaurants and expanding their cuisine. By 1970, there were two thousand Indian restaurants which were part of the landscape of every British town and curry was part of the national diet.
More than any other ethnic food, curry is now a quintessential part of British culture. Britons spend $4 billion a year eating out in curry houses. Supermarkets no longer put curry paste in the ethnic foods category but define them as “mainstream British flavours”. However Lizzy Collingham, in her delightful book, “Curry – A Biography” says that despite eating large amounts of curry, the British are not always welcoming to the Asians who make it for them. She says the prevalence of curry in the British diet is not a sign of a new multicultural sensitivity, but rather is symptomatic of British insularity.
Their tastes may be cosmopolitan but their food habits remain thoroughly British. These matters clash with the mandatory English language immigration rule introduced in 2006. As the Financial Times points out, “it will count for naught that a would-be immigrant can mix a mean masala. He will need fluent English and a high-level cooking certificate too.”