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The last days of Brick Lane

How Covid-19 is hastening the death of the British curry.

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In 1974, the first licensed “Indian” restaurant opened on Brick Lane, in east London. The Clifton was named after a seaside suburb of Karachi, Pakistan, where its owner Musa Patel was born before migrating to Britain in 1957. Staffed by a mix of Keralans, Punjabis and Bengalis, this restaurant marked the first of a wave of curry houses that came to define Brick Lane.

Also known as “Banglatown”, Brick Lane and its surrounding area in the borough of Tower Hamlets had long been home to Bangladeshis: the largest concentration of this community in England and Wales. According to the 2011 census, 32 per cent of the borough’s residents are of Bangladeshi ethnicity.

First traditionally working in tailoring on and around Brick Lane, the Bangladeshi community began setting up catering businesses in the Seventies when the country’s cotton and textile industries began to decline.

Popular with locals, office workers in the nearby city, and tourists straying from the usual London landmarks, the resulting curry houses came to define a country that had adopted chicken tikka masala as its “true national dish”, according to then foreign secretary Robin Cook in 2001.

Along with Manchester’s “Curry Mile”, Birmingham’s “Balti Triangle” and the “Curry Capital” of Bradford, Brick Lane became an iconic location to go for an “Indian” (labelled as such, despite almost all the restaurants being run by Bangladeshis).

Yet the days of this tradition may be numbered.

South Asian-owned cafés and restaurants in Brick Lane serving curry have decreased by 62 per cent in just 15 years – there were 60 outlets at its peak in the mid-2000s, compared with just 23 earlier this year.

Dark Sugars, an artisanal chocolatier, now stands where The Clifton used to be, at the northern end of Brick Lane. It arrived in 2015, after years of rapid transformation in east London. This was the same year the controversial Cereal Killer café – serving £4 bowls of cereal – was established, and became a lightning rod for anger over the hipsterfication of England’s tenth most-deprived borough.

These days, Brick Lane is a mishmash of new cuisines and retailers – Korean fusion, vegan cafés and vintage clothing boutiques have popped up as the wider Shoreditch area has gentrified. You are just as likely to be offered a sample of raw cacao as be approached by one of the many curry restaurant owners who stand outside, trying to usher customers in off the street.

Regeneration excluded the curry houses of Brick Lane. Rents and business rates went up as consumer preferences changed and property prices rocketed. In neighbouring Hoxton, property prices increased 380 per cent between 1995 and 2015.

According to a two-year research project by the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, “Beyond Banglatown”, this is just one of several factors spelling the end of Brick Lane’s curry heritage.

The researchers found a shortage of trained chefs because of visa constraints on hospitality recruitment from South Asia, a significant decline in local nightlife because of changes in licensing hours imposed by the local authority, and a reluctance of the new generation of British Bangladeshis to follow their parents’ footsteps into hospitality.

“I don’t see a future for it,” says Shams Uddin, 61, owner of The Monsoon restaurant and Brick Lane’s longest-serving restaurateur. He came to UK from Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1976 at the age of 16 and has worked on Brick Lane ever since – moving from the leather trade to waiting, bartending and eventually restaurant ownership.

“God knows if Brick Lane, the curry industry, is going to survive, unless the government comes up with something.”

It is thought that just one of the Brick Lane curry restaurants managed to stay open during lockdown for takeaways. 

The Tuesday night before I speak to Uddin, he only served seven people – usually, he’d serve 80-100 on a summer weeknight evening. Usually at this time of year, the flow of office workers would give way to an influx of tourists. But now there is no one.

“We are not worried about VAT,” says Uddin, dismissing the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s VAT cut for hospitality to 5 per cent, and the “Eat Out to Help Out” August discount voucher scheme. “We are worried about people, customers – we are looking for business. If we have business, we can afford to pay the VAT.”

Uddin sees it as central government and Tower Hamlets Council’s joint responsibility to rescue Brick Lane, via “more advertisement on the international market” to promote the area as a “curry capital” for foreign visitors, plus local promotion, support and a revitalised night life.

“There is no club, no bar, there is nothing. If there was a place to go out and dance, young people would come here to eat again. Now there’s nothing, only a few curry houses dying,” he says. “Brick Lane’s future is very dark, very dark.”

He accuses the local authority of focusing its attention on other, perhaps trendier, parts of the locale. “Tower Hamlets Council tried to ignore Brick Lane,” he says. “If you come today or tomorrow, you will see eight o'clock, nine o'clock, there are no lights on. Brick Lane is treated like an outsider, that’s it.”

Uddin also urges the government to adopt more liberal immigration rules for recruiting chefs and restaurant workers from South Asia. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, chefs were dropped from the “shortage occupation” immigration list in 2011, and rule changes meant non-EU chefs had to have at least five years’ experience and a guaranteed minimum £28,260 salary to come and work in the UK.

Recruitment is increasingly vital as younger British Bangladeshis, like Uddin's own children, do not want to go into the business.

“Our new generation are not interested in the curry industry,” Uddin says. “Because they can have any other job, they have a lot of choice, they are studying. They want a 38-hour job a week, thank you very much. But this industry is very hard, the waitering job is like a nursing job, working so hard, and cooking is an art – not everybody can be a cook.”

As of 26 July, Tower Hamlets has paid out over £73.5m in grants to 5,055 business premises under emergency coronavirus measures. Yet because of the high cost of rent and bills, this will not guarantee curry houses’ survival.

Abdul Ahad, who runs City Spice and has been a restaurateur on Brick Lane for 18 years, tells me his £25k grant was “swallowed up” by two quarters’ rent. Over the weekend, he served 20-odd people, rather than the 150-plus he would usually serve on Saturday alone. Over the entire week, he estimates they may have had fewer than 50 customers.

“That’s not a business anymore,” he says.

Brought up locally, attending primary and secondary school in the area, Ahad started out in a Brick Lane kitchen washing dishes for £35 a week. It was his “lifelong dream” to open his own restaurant. “I would really like to stay in it for a few more years before I retire,” he says.

Nationally, the cost of food, particularly meat and chicken, has gone up over the past decade, he explains, and the local “rents and rates have gone up so much too – that’s the gentrification… If you go outside of London, their outgoings are a lot lower, their rent is a lot lower, the overheads are lower. Here in London, the overheads are phenomenal.”

Ahad calls coronavirus “the nail in the coffin”, as these issues already meant smaller restaurants were closing, and the industry as a whole was suffering.

“Unless we get some help from the local government or central government, businesses like ours won’t be here in six months’ time. And the sense of community is dying as well, the whole thing. We need businesses like ours here, so that the sense of community remains in this part of east London.”

Although he made use of the furlough scheme, he is worried such support won’t exist in the long term as the virus continues to spread.

“We need the council and the government to actually unite to positively promote the area, to say we’re backing it as open for business, the restaurants are open, the shops are open. The whole area seems to be not taking on board that it's open for business.”

Brick Lane isn’t the only place losing its curry houses. Britain as a whole has suffered a decline in the industry. 

“Before coronavirus, two curry restaurants were closing a week,” says Bashir Ahmed, president of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a restaurateur who has run a chain of Indian-Bangladeshi restaurants since 1981, and opened Kasturi in Aldgate – near Brick Lane – in 2001.

Covid-19 could hasten this decline.

“We believe more than 30 per cent of the curry restaurants will be not able to come back,” he warns.

Lack of “experienced people, training, new staff and innovations” have added up to a “collective failure” of the industry, says Ahmed.

“The food consumer is changing. The curry industry needed to come up with a new generation of foods, new concepts, which we failed to adopt because of shortages of trained chefs… The Indian-Bangladeshi food recipe is a mother-to-daughter concept, you need a good chef to train them, this is the job of a scientist. Unfortunately, the government believed maybe our western European colleagues could replace it, which failed miserably.”

Indeed, according to a report by the Guardian, David Cameron introduced “curry colleges” to train British chefs in 2012 – a scheme that collapsed within a year when only 25 out of 70 places were filled, after which nine dropped out.

“Government was not supporting us to bring over the new chefs, and this whole sector actually contains 65 per cent human resources from outside the UK”.

Ahmed believes that innovation, plus inspiration and training for a younger generation, could rescue the industry with practical help from government: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel if the government is favourable to this industry, because curry actually generates more than £4bn for the British exchequer, and employs more than 80,000 people”.

Nevertheless, he said earlier this month to the Runnymede Trust’s researchers that he could not see “Brick Lane surviving much longer as the curry capital of the UK – it’s dying”.

The cost to both east London and the country as a whole would be more than financial. That such a rich part of our immigration heritage has been so neglected will make us culturally poorer.

“It is so sad for British Bangladeshis of my generation, especially, because our grandparents worked so hard to establish this industry against so many obstacles,” says Ahmed. “They were able to build it up for us, and we took it up. We were able to change the habit of a nation, they loved curry so much, but it’s disappearing in front of our eyes.”

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets says:

“Brick Lane is one of London’s most iconic streets and in normal times would be a destination for visitors from across the world. The pandemic has presented a huge challenge for restaurants across the capital, but for areas like Brick Lane that rely so much on tourism, that impact is likely to be much longer lasting.

“We have been working with businesses and will continue to support them to reopen safely and successfully, but we shouldn’t underestimate the task ahead. In the coming weeks, we’ll be introducing temporary pedestrianisation on part of the road meaning restaurants will be able to move tables and chairs onto the street. We’re also working with partners in the area to promote all that there is to offer.

“Our message to Londoners and to those visiting our city is clear, Brick Lane is open for business and we can’t wait to welcome you back.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says:

“Curry houses are a vital part of the UK’s culinary life and we are doing everything possible to help them bounce back as we recover from coronavirus.

“Our recent changes to planning regulations allow local authorities to promote more outside dining, and our new Eat Out to Help Out scheme will attract more customers to restaurants across the country.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.