EN VOYAGE – Ethnic London

12 Sep 2001

Today London is the home of the largest community of emigrants from the Indian subcontinent – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The flow of immigrants from these lands into Great Britain began in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is described by Caroline Adams in her fascinating book, Across Seven Seas. The pioneers of these early ‘explorations’ arrived from a small and little-known region of Bengal called Sylhet. They were mostly poor country people who found work as cabin boys on the vessels sailing back and forth between England and Calcutta on the Indies route. Many of them decided to settle in the East End of London, in West India Dock Road, Limehouse, near the docks. It was 1858. About a century would pass before the largest Bengali migration, which took place at the end of the Second World War. In fact, the number of residents of this nationality in the UK increased from 300 to 5000 people between 1956 and 1962.

London became a desirable destination for Asian people looking for work, not only from Bengal, but at the same time it was also an important center for university study. Important Indian cultural figures began to visit the City, from Mohandas Karamchand (later Mahatma) Gandhi to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Today London’s Asian communities form a real mosaic of what used to be the Indian subcontinent, with a variety of different languages and religions. The various communities have settled in separate areas. The Brick Lane district has always received waves of immigrants and is now the focal point of life in the Bengali community. Illustrative of this is the metamorphosis of a building in Fournier street, which reflects the changes in this area over the course of time. Originally built as a Huguenot chapel in the late 18th century, it subsequently became a Methodist church, before being converted in 1898 into a Jewish synagogue. Today it is a mosque, known as Jamne Masjid, and is a place of worship for the Islamic community.

The Gujarati communities are to be found in Wembley, while Southall is mainly inhabited by Punjabis and Sikhs. The heart of the Hindu element beats in Neasden, where the huge Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple is being built, the largest Hindu place of worship ever built outside India. The wonderful blocks of marble and ochre stone are finely chiseled in India and then transported to Europe by sea. Today the building has reached second storey height and the décor is more magnificent than anything seen ever before in Europe and the rest of the world. The temple can be visited: for information go to the small temporary temple nearby at the Haveli Community center (tel. 020-8-9652651).

Visiting an Asian food store is a unique experience: here you will find fruits and vegetables of the most unlikely shapes and colors, like the spiky bitter melon or the jackfruit with its disgusting smell but sublime flavor, and the prized Alphonso mangos. The spice corner, often jammed between the piles of sacks of basmati rice, is a psychedelic experience for the nose. The pungent aroma of asafetida resin, the fragrance of cardamom and ajwan seeds, along with the lighted sticks of incense and images of Shri Ganesh hanging from the walls provide a touch of magic mysticism even in a greengrocer’s store. On Saturday afternoons the shops are crowded with housewives swathed in colorful saris and the “made in Calcutta” speakers blare out banghra music at excessive volume, to the delight of the customers. This variety of cultures provides an opportunity for the gluttonous traveler in London to work through the concept of Indian cooking in all its various hues.

The variegated ethnic composition of the resident communities is reflected in the countless Asian restaurants and eateries specializing in regional cuisines, although the most widely represented and enjoyed version is the Mogul traditional cuisine, from northern India. A job in a large London Indian restaurant is a milestone in the career of a good chef, partly because the wages in London are certainly better than in India! This is why you can taste real Indian cooking in the capital, prepared by the best chefs in the world.

Chef Kumalé is the nom de plume of Vittorio Castellani, an expert on ethnic food.

Photo: Sari shop, Brick Lane, London

(copyright nik strangelove ©2001. all rights reserved)

Translated by Ailsa Wood

See Chef Kumalé’s tips on where to shop and eat in ethnic London soon in the upcoming Slow Food Planet section of the site

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