Midath Hayder asks if Bangladeshi food is about to go mainstream in the UK
Watching The Chronicles of Nadiya, the BBC mini-series that saw the 2015 Great British Bake Off winner explore the food of her parents’ home country, and more recently Nadiya’s British Food Adventure has been a revelation to me. After only having seen Bangladeshi food explored by Rick Stein in the past, this was the first time in my memory that one of us was able to present the heart of our culture – the food – on terms that resembled our own.
For many, Nadiya’s series will have been their first foray into Bangladeshi cuisine, “is there even such a thing, distinct from my usual curry?” I hear you ask. A little digging into the history of our favourite South Asian foods reveals that you’ve probably eaten more ‘Bangladeshi’ food than you realise. In fact, despite being the smallest South Asian group in the UK – the 2011 census showed around 450,000 Bangladeshis, 1.5 million Indians and over a million Pakistanis – we’ve had a huge impact on the UK’s ‘Indian’ restaurant scene.
Bangladeshis have been feeding Brits for a long time. Sylhetis made up a large proportion of cooks serving on British Imperial vessels during empire, with many settling in the UK after their service. Until 1971 three-quarters of the 1,200 ‘Indian’ restaurants in the UK were run by Pakistanis, this rose to 3,000 by 1980 with many new businesses being started by Bangladeshis who had fled the violence of the country’s war for independence.
When pretty much everyone will have eaten at a Bangladeshi-run Indian restaurant in their lives, why is it that no one knows our most famous dishes then? Perhaps it was the impact that those early restaurateurs from the north of the subcontinent had on educating palettes as to what made a good curry. It is, after all, well-documented that many dishes common to our Indian menus in the UK were created for the British market (see vindaloo, chicken tikka masala and balti). These were probably a lot easier to sell than hutki, dried fish that smells like hell (but tastes amazing), would be.
Having grown up in a Bangladeshi family that ran one of these ‘Indian’ restaurants, I’m only too aware of the contrast between the customer menu (which seems to be the same wherever you go) and the one we had at home. Dishes like chotpotti, a chickpea, potato and egg dish cooked in tamarind sauce, or fish curries using river fish native to Bangladesh (these are imported and sold in certain Bangladeshi grocery shops). Then there’s pita, sweet or savoury filled flatbreads made with rice flour, often fried in ghee.
In her recent TV show, Nadiya Hussain cooks and prepares a mixture of Bangladeshi-inspired fish curries, as well as halal versions of British food. While she has done a fantastic job in mixing both, it can be disappointing to see watered-down versions of Bangladeshi food on television. In that sense are still missing the acknowledgement that we’ve been waiting for.
In their search for authenticity, foodies are now eschewing the traditional ‘going for an Indian’ in favour of more niche options. Parochially-named ‘pure vegetarian’ offerings fit well into ‘clean’ lifestyles; the fish curries of Goa and the hoppers of Sri Lanka are making a mark. But I wonder – will we see a rise in the brand of Bangladeshi food? And what lies in store for the unvogue curry house that created our national dish?
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Midath Hayder is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex. His thesis is a study of transnational stardom, looking at Bollywood film stars and the intersections of race, ethnicity and gender; using stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Kalki Koechlin and Priyanka Chopra as case studies. His works seeks to understand modern day Indian stardom, and their place within global popular culture. He also works as an associate tutor teaching film studies to undergraduates teaching Bollywood, Global and European cinema.
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