The Coriander Club, Lutfun Hussain
Yesterday, I returned to the Spitalfields City Farm, where I bought the wonderful spinach & eggs recently, to meet Lutfun Hussain and hear about her gardening and cookery club that she founded for Bengali women in 2000. We met in the polytunnel where Lutfun proudly showed me all the seedlings that she has grown from seed that she planted last autumn, and which will shortly be planted outside in the raised growing beds, to replace the winter vegetables that are ready to eat now. At every season of the year, there is activity here as the current crop is nurtured and harvested, while always the next crop is underway, ready to take its place, creating a supply of fresh vegetables all year round.
We took advantage of the sunshine to sit outside together by the fountain among the beds, where an impressive display of garlic was ready for picking, and Lutfun explained how it all began. Growing up in Bangladesh, Lutfun’s father grew fields of rice on their farm and she was always surrounded by the culture of growing vegetables. Then in 1969, when he married, she came to East London to an alien climate where no-one grew the traditional Bengali vegetables. Fortunately, there was a large garden and Lutfun made her own experiments but the first year her vegetables were killed by the frost. The next year she had some success, though the following year all her vegetables died again. But Lutfun persevered, and over many years she discovered which vegetables suited the climate and when you could plant them. “I tried and tried because I love gardening – when you are successful and even when you are not, you learn something.” she confirmed, revealing her tenaciously positive disposition.
Lutfun first came to the city farm as a volunteer, applying the knowledge she had acquired through her own experiments. “At that time, there were not many people planting Bengali vegetables, but slowly, slowly, people came to see the garden and then the community started to join and the club began.” explained Lutfun, who was appointed first as an Ethnic Minority Support Worker, then as a Horticultural Worker/Co-ordinator and finally as a Healthy Living Co-ordinator – which amounts to a lot of bureaucratic jargon for teaching the noble art of growing vegetables, that is Lutfun’s gift.
Today, The Coriander Club serves a vital function for Bengali women, some of whom only speak Bengali and do not have other opportunities to the leave the house. In isolation, they can experience loneliness and home-sickness but the club provides a regular opportunity to socialise with other women, learning to grow vegetables and how to cook them too. Each Monday, there is a pick and cook session, encouraging healthy eating, Tuesday and Thursday are gardening days for women at the farm and Wednesday is mixed, when all are welcome.
Lutfun is especially proud of growing Kodu or Bottle Gourd which is the pièce de résistance of all the vegetables grown by The Coriander Club – each August, the polytunnels at the city farm are hung with a phenomenal display of the hugest Kodus you could ever see. The plants grow on nets, so that the vegetables hang down, each suspended by elaborate contraptions of string bags that support their weight. In fact, thanks to Lutfun’s influence, you see these monster veg everywhere throughout Spitalfields each Summer, and I photographed some last year.
These eye-catching vegetables are symbols of the success of Lutfun’s experiments year ago, which have proved so influential through The Coriander Club, that Spitalfields has become remarkable for the large number of beautiful flourishing vegetable gardens, which embellish unlikely corners of the neighbourhood each Summer and introduce a welcome verdant influence upon our inner-city quarter. With glistening eyes of excitement, Lutfun revealed that she understands the exact science of the pollination of the Kodus, which possesses male and female flowers and has to be pollinated manually at the correct moment in the growth cycle. As a consequence, large coach parties now come regularly from Croydon, Birmingham and Manchester, of Bengali gardeners eager to learn the trick from Lutfun, so they can return to extend the spread of these extraordinary vegetables nationwide.
“People can come to volunteer, to learn how to grow and how to cook. Anyone can come and see.” Lutfun told me, extending an invitation to readers and indicating that vegetables are available to buy, “This is an educational garden, not a shop – but we do sell a little bit, we use a few in our cookery lessons and we give some to our members.”
It was a pleasure to meet an ardent and natural gardener with such a strong instinct for plants. As we walked around, Lutfun kept touching, stroking and caressing leaves, caring for her seedlings. As we approached each tray and or plot of vegetables, a different emotion passed like a cloud across Lutfun’s face as she willed them into growth. There was an atmosphere of pervasive calm in the vegetable garden, as the women worked quietly, repotting their seedlings and weeding the raised beds to the accompaniment of the fountain dancing in the background, and I could happily have stayed all day to share the consolation of growing vegetables in this sympathetic enclave.
Lutfun told me she grows pots of rice so that children who eat rice every day, but who have never seen a field of rice in their lives – as she did everyday when she was growing up in Bangladesh – can see a plant and understand the origin of a staple food. In passing, with a smile, she gestured to indicate displaying the rice plant to children and, in her simplest action, I could see it exactly.
Over the Summer, I plan some return visits to The Coriander Club to discover how this year’s crop of vegetables is progressing, but in the meantime copies of their cookery book are available from the Spitalfields City Farm.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman