The sights and sounds of Europe’s Curry Capital, bustling with art, flavour and history
The melting pot that is East London has always been touted as culturally rich with a distinctive personality as opposed to its Western counterpart. Historically, this has been one of the poorest areas of London. Victorian industrialisation failed to improve grim conditions and further escalated poverty, gang violence, prostitution and crime. Perhaps, what maligned its reputation even more were the mysterious and ghastly crimes in 1888 by Britain’s notorious serial killer -- Jack the Ripper of Whitechapel who terrorised the dark alleyways of East End and gruesomely murdered prostitutes.
In spite of obscure circumstances, development in trade and manufacturing industry augmented job opportunities which escalated East London’s reputation as the hub of refugees and immigrants initiating from the French Huguenots in the 1700s.
In the 19th century, the area witnessed an influx of Eastern European Jews. But what predominantly persists in today’s time as the main ethnic group in the ‘Land of Cockney’ are the British Bangladeshis who immigrated to the UK in the 1970s, and now boast the largest population in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
In the late 1970s, immigrant Bangladeshi families started settling in East London, specifically around Brick Lane. With the Jewish community moving to the outskirts of London, the cultural influences of the Bengali diaspora were all too evident. Slowly, the Bengalis established themselves in Brick Lane and surrounding areas; Jewish bakeries were converted to curry houses, restaurants turned into Sylheti cafes, jewellery stores transformed into sari shops, and synagogues eventually became textile factories.
On the corner of Fournier Street, a former synagogue is now the ‘Brick Lane Jamme Masjid’ and serves as the nucleus of religious activities for the Muslim community. This transformation of religious institutes echoes the waves of immigration in East London.
Giving the city an abundance of delicious chicken tikka masala at any hour of the day, today Brick Lane -- also known as Bangla Town -- is infamously called the ‘Curry Capital’ of Europe. Adding vibrancy to the East End, this celebrated street that dates back roughly 450 years now attracts thousands of tourists for its eclectic food, local cafes, graffiti, traditional festivities, galleries and weekend markets. A visit to the bustling Sunday Market is a haven for anyone who wants a cheap bargain. On crowded sidewalks, hundreds of stallholders and individuals sell everything from antiques, second-hand household goods, CDs/DVDs, fruits and vegetables to Indian jewellery, gaudy eastern wear, and vintage accessories.
With an array of multicultural cuisine, it’s hard to avoid posh mainstream restaurants which have popped up in the area but with a bit of browsing you stumble upon amazing cheap eats. There’s a small place tucked outside Whitechapel tube station which sells the best ‘samosa chaat’ and ‘jalebi’ for a pound.
"Dirt cheap, if you ask me! You won’t find chaat this good even in Southall. Or even better you should come round my mum’s in Aldgate East; she makes the best one," 29 year old British-Bangladeshi, Farhana proclaims loudly every time the craving for desi street-food takes over.
With the help of locals that pride themselves on avoiding ‘hipster’ joints around Spitalfields and keeping it strictly authentic, I deduced that I should probably stick to much-loved places like Tayyabs, Aladin, Sheba, Masala, and of course the iconic Lahore Kebab House. There are still remnants of traditional Jewish bagel bars left, namely the popular 24 hours ‘Beigel Bake’ which attracts people from all over the city. Despite being dingy in appearance, with their assortment of bagels, cakes, and pastries, the quirky shop cheekily claims to be the ‘first and best beigel shop in Britain’ and rightly so.
With a booming artistic community, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the area is the graffiti culture. The alleyways of Brick Lane have been the epicentre of street art and creative expression. Strolling down the streets of Shoreditch or taking unintentional detours for unknown adventures, you realise that there’s a story splattered on every wall. It might be utopian or anarchic, belligerent, tongue-in-cheek or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, politically correct or rebellious -- nonetheless it’s a visual treat for sore eyes.
One piece of urban art tucked away in the middle of this artistic mecca always puts a smile on my face. On the first of many trips to Brick Lane Market, I spotted graffiti by Nathan Bowen with a Pakistani flag outside a fish & chips shop. In the midst of old and new, stood a quaint little reminder of my homeland; pulsating with colour and energy.
In hopes of finding a romanticised backstory, I decided to ask around about its origins. Turns out a Pakistani guy who works in a kebab shop asked the artist to include Pakistan’s flag in return for free onion bhajis and samosas. Anticlimactic, if you ask me.
Locals often complain about the redevelopment of the area, overpriced artisanal cafes and blame gentrification for displacing them in terms of feeling connected to the Brick Lane of yesteryears.
Twenty six-year-old British-Bangladeshi Shofiqul Hossain grumbles that their community faces fragmentation along with unaffordable housing woes due to increased prices for renting and buying homes. Lamenting the loss of the "old East End" he whines in his cockney accent, "The spirit is proper dying. I’ve spent my whole life here but lately it feels like I don’t even recognise this place anymore. Hipsters are good for business, sure. But the neighbourhood’s gone to shite."
A recent example of contrasting views on gentrification can be taken from the Cereal Killer café -- a colourful, nostalgic eatery that sells over 120 different types of cereal from around the globe. With memorabilia from the 1980-90s, the high-end boutique sells a bowl of cereal for £4.50; a price point that fails to impress the working class of East London. This addition to Brick Lane is seen as a uniquely novel idea by many but doesn’t settle too well with sceptical locals who view such eateries as a threat to the street’s identity.
While I excitedly decide on some Marshmallow Froot Loops with Soy Milk, Shofiqul isn’t having any of this ostentation and puts his foot down, "I’m not paying five bloody quid for a bowl of cereal." To each his own!