Do Brick Lane’s curry houses have a future? by Sean Carey

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‘Are you from the income tax?’ asked a young Bangladeshi man, with his tongue only partly placed against his cheek, as I paused for a moment outside one of Brick Lane’s curry houses a few weeks ago. No, I laughed. Nevertheless, this encounter did make me reflect on why I might be perceived as some sort of official.

And the reason was not difficult to discern: while I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie, the conventional sartorial markers of officialdom, I was carrying a transparent blue folder containing questionnaires, interview consent forms and other pieces of paper. Why? Well, I’m part of an AHRC-funded team of researchers from the University of Manchester, the LSE and University of Cambridge who are currently involved in a project titled Beyond Banglatown: Continuity, Change and New Urban Economies in Brick Lane.

While the focus of the project is primarily on the Bangladeshi restaurant sector in Brick Lane, the team led by University of Manchester sociologist Claire Alexander, is aiming to use this as a platform to consider the changes and challenges confronting marginalised segments of the Bangladeshi community in East London, the multi-billion-pound Indian food retail sector in Britain, and the wider processes of cultural, social and economic transformation of ‘everyday streets’ pioneered by another member of the project group, architect-turned-urban ethnographer Suzanne Hall of the LSE.

This isn’t my first research project studying the cafes and restaurants of Brick Lane. Sixteen years ago, I was commissioned by two Tower Hamlets’ development agencies, Cityside Regeneration and the Ethnic Minority Enterprise Project (EMEP), to conduct a study of Banglatown’s burgeoning number of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani eateries centred on Brick Lane. In fact, I ended up surveying 35 of the then 38 outlets in the area. Soon after the research was finished the number of outlets had increased to 48 and then in 2006 to 53, which made the area not only the undisputed curry capital of the UK but also globally.

As part of this Cityside-EMEP research project I wrote a report, a version of which I delivered at a seminar at the Institute of Community Studies (ICS) in 2003. My visit had been arranged by Kate Gavron, who had long collaborated with ICS founder, the legendary Michael Young. Kate introduced me to Michael’s successor, the wonderfully affable urbanist, Peter Hall. Peter was enthusiastic about Brick Lane’s curry houses not simply because he liked curry, but also because he was familiar with a similar cluster of South Asian restaurants occupying part of Manchester’s Wilmslow Road. As a spatially-sensitive geographer he found all such agglomerations fascinating, and thus worthy of analysis.

At the end of my presentation Peter asked whether ICS could publish the Cityside Regeneration-EMEP report on Brick Lane as an occasional paper. After I received permission from the two funding agencies, I hurriedly carried out some additional data collection and rewrote some parts of the report to bring the study up-to-date. Curry Capital duly appeared in 2004 in a hard-copy format, while the digital version came about when ICS morphed into the Young Foundation.

Fast forward 14 years and the number of restaurants selling Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani food in Banglatown has declined significantly – there are now only 22 outlets similar to those documented in Curry Capital. The reasons for this reduction in numbers are complex and it’s that complexity among other things that I and other members of the research team are trying to unravel and analyse. What we do know at this stage is that Bangladeshi cafe and restaurant owners are having a major problem recruiting staff, especially kitchen staff. Tightened immigration procedures in recent years definitely haven’t helped. Many young Bangladeshi males marrying British Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets or other parts of East London had traditionally taken their first step into the mainstream employment market by working as kitchen porters in Brick Lane’s curry houses. This entry point enabled these young men to work their way up the kitchen hierarchy before taking their now well-honed skills to other curry houses in London and the South-east. But without this feeder system, and in the absence of UK government-funded catering colleges training people of diverse ethnicities in the art of Anglo-Bangla cuisine, the obvious question arises as to how long the complex network of Bangladeshi-owned curry houses in Brick Lane and the rest of the South-east UK can survive. More on that in a moment.

Unlike many UK high streets, Brick Lane does not have many empty premises. Indeed, new owners, keen to market new products, services and experiences have taken over leases of once prosperous curry houses. This shift in leasing arrangements undoubtedly signals significant changes in society, culture and economy in this part of East London. While some major retailers such as Tesco and All Saints, together with ‘fast-casual’ restaurant chains like Nando’s and Wagamama, can be found on or around Commercial Street, part of the City fringe, almost all the entrepreneurs who have taken over the leases of Brick Lane’s curry houses are independents. Indeed, walk along the length of Brick Lane and Osborn Street and you will see many such new-wave restaurants, including several catering for the capital’s burgeoning number of vegans like Mooshies Vegan Burger Bar and Vegan Yes, an Italian-Korean fusion venture. You will also find more mainstream offerings, including Chez Elles, a French bistro, and Moo Cantina, an Argentinian-style steakhouse.

An obvious contrast to what’s happening to the curry houses of Brick Lane can be found in West London. In Chelsea and especially in Mayfair, there is a fast-developing cluster of high-end Indian restaurants, six of which currently hold a Michelin star. These restaurants not only target the UK’s and the rest of world’s globe-trotting super-rich but also their small army of extremely well-remunerated managers, accountants and lawyers. What’s revealing is that these highly-profitable businesses have no problem importing chefs and other staff trained by prestigious Indian-based hotel groups such as Taj or Oberoi because, unlike the owners of regular curry houses, they can well afford the near £30,000 annual salary per restaurant worker that guarantees a visa.

All of which got me thinking about the future of the British curry industry. It’s not fanciful to envisage that in ten or fifteen years almost all the curry houses of Brick Lane as well as those to be found on high streets elsewhere in the capital and Home Counties will have closed. So, apart from cooking with assembled ingredients at home that will leave those of us who like curry with two main options: making bookings at posh restaurants in Mayfair or buying chilled and frozen foods from supermarkets or online retailers.

It’s not a very enticing prospect, is it?

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