Henna Zamurd-Butt speaks to Dina Begum about her collection of recipes gathered from traders in East London’s most diverse culinary hotspot
The question ‘what do Londoners eat?’ Can be answered fairly honestly by saying ‘pretty much anything and everything’. The city has seen the constant ebb and flow of migration for hundreds of years, with each community layering their new methods and tastes onto the palimpsest of what came before.
Food writer Dina Begum unearths just this living history in her Brick Lane Cookbook, which peers into a part of London that wears its diverse communities in its appetite. Here we discuss what inspired her to bring together the collection of recipes that includes contributions from the varied traders in the area, amongst Bangladeshi family classics and Begum’s own inventions.
Since the 1970s Bangladeshis have made up a significant part of Brick Lane’s population, making their mark on the local food scene. Growing up nearby, Begum fondly recalls her weekly trips to the area.
“I still remember Sunday lunch with my dad at a Pakistani café called Sweet & Spicy where dad would treat me to delicious kebabs, naans, lassi and gulab jamuns. This used to be one of the things I’d look forward to every week. We would also shop here for provisions so that my mother could cook her amazing meals of fish and meat curries, rice and desserts.”
Inspired from a young age by the wide-ranging flavours of East London, Begum was keen to bring these together, whilst also raising the profile of Bangladeshi cooking, which she feels is “hugely underrepresented”.
“The book is split between my Bangladeshi recipes and contributions from businesses who trade on Brick Lane. My publisher Emily of Kitchen Press and I had many chats about the best way to present the book. We wanted a way in which we would tell the story of culinary Brick Lane not just from my Bangladeshi point of view, but from the many stories and cuisines that made their mark in the area. I knew I wanted to include Jewish, French and Middle Eastern recipes, as I’ve grown up with eateries such as Beigel Shop – which is a local institution.”
Many of the recipes included in the volume have achieved iconic status over the years, amongst Londoners and tourists alike. From salt beef bagels to deep-fried and syrup-soaked kalojaam, Begum thinks there’s something magical about recreating these classics at home. I’m struck that the traders were willing to part with their secret family methods, but it’s clear that the book was collaborative, and Begum often cites the contributors, who she says were forthcoming in wanting to show off their carefully-honed recipes.
Flicking through the cookbook shows recipes that dart across a world map, from Argentina to Syria to France, yet Begum sees all of these converge in Brick Lane with their own special magic, reflecting local tastes. There’s highly distinct offerings like The Patate’s Beef Bourguingnon Burger, with grilled beef pieces from the traditionally-made casserole served on a bun with cheese and controversial but delicious-looking twists on classics like Begum’s Chocolate Chai and Cheese Samosas, alongside family favourites that mightn’t gave changed in generations like Damascu Bite’s Moussaka and Beigel Shop’s Matzo Dumpling Soup.
“Recipes from some of the businesses cannot be found elsewhere, such as salt beef from Beigel Shop which is the oldest Bagel shop in Britain. There’s also traditional Argentinian recipes from Toropampa – traders who cook the Argentine way as they have done so for generations and Gram Bangla’s bitter gourd and potato dish.”
Shifts in taste, ingredients and methods are all inevitable, and whilst dishes might retain a spirit of another place or time, they are bound to change. When it comes to food it’s important to be a little relaxed about the term authentic, explains the writer.
“Recipes can and do vary from family to family in some way and over time and across diasporas. Ingredients in a recipe can stay the same for instance, but changing the method can completely change the end result.”
Gozleme’s Vegan Baklawa and St Sugar of London’s Raw Paleo Coffee Brownie bring the collection right up to date reflecting the wellness turn in our culinary imaginations in recent years, and looking jarringly incongruent a few pages from Lamb Koftas and Beef Empanadas. The variety is what makes this volume, though. Brick Lane Cookbook embodies both nostalgia and adventure, tradition and modernity, a platter of East London in our time.
Brick Lane Cookbook by Dina Begum is published in hardback by Kitchen Press and is available from Waterstones, Amazon and independent bookshops.
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Henna Zamurd-Butt is the editor of Media Diversified and co-director of Bare Lit Festival. She is also pursuing doctoral research at Goldsmiths college on geopolitics and the internet.
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