With so many places to eat in Brick Lane, I am commonly baffled by too much choice. I stand in the midst of the cacophony of street cries, swept along by the drunken throng, entranced by the spices drifting on the breeze, aware that every restaurant has a prizewinning curry chef and a celebrity endorsement, almost seduced by the offers to “Step right in, the beers are on the house!” yet unable to decide where to go. But when I heard there was a restaurant where you could eat Bengali home cooking, exactly as you would find it in Bangladesh, I knew I wanted to eat there.
Abdul Shahid’s cafe, Gram Bangla, at 68 Brick Lane (opposite Christ Church School) is where Bengalis go to eat. “I used to miss my mother’s cooking when she went back to Bangladesh in 1979, so I thought I must find a way to create it for myself.” explained Abdul, declaring his quest, fulfilled today by the presence of happy family groups and workers from the other restaurants, enjoying the freshly cooked authentic dishes that speak of his homeland. In effect, Gram Bangla caters to the catering industry, with catering workers from all over London and beyond filling the restaurant on their days off, early in the week when their own restaurants are quiet. There is a relaxed yet respectful atmosphere that presides in this unpretentious cafe where large family groups gather in the late afternoon, waiters from rival restaurants exchange professional gossip over extended meals, and all the diners feel comfortable walking to the kitchen at the rear to make their orders.
The first Asian restaurants in Spitalfields in the sixties and seventies were originally to feed the immigrant workers in the garment industry, most of whom were single men without anyone to cook for them. Both the Clifton and the Aladin started as workers’ cafes, but, as Europeans also came to eat there too, gradually the menus changed, moving away from Bengali home cooking towards the Western versions of recipes from the Asian subcontinent that are familiar today.
Unless someone pointed it out to you, among the chaos of neon signs and curry touts in Brick Lane, you would never notice Gram Bangla, which has no need of either. In fact, this intriguingly undemonstrative establishment does not even have a menu because the customers already know exactly what they want to eat. Abdul Shahid, the proprietor, a startlingly healthy-looking man in deep green shirt, is a living advertisement for the Bengali food he serves which consists primarily of freshwater fish and vegetables with rice – utilising less meat and bread than cookery from the North of India. Specifically, this is the country version of Bengali food that agricultural workers would eat at home, conveyed by the name Gram Bangla – “gram” means “village” in Bengali. Even the hours reflect the Bengali working day, closer to a Mediterranean pattern, starting and ending later than the Northern European custom. Lunch at Gram Bangla is from two until four, which corresponds to the bulk of the trade, although the cafe stays open until midnight.
The first thing you do is to walk to the back of the restaurant and wash your hands in the sink. This is necessary because you will be eating with your hands. Crushing the food in your fingers allows you to discover any fish bones, as well as permitting you to rub the spicy food into the rice, encouraging it to absorb the strong flavours that are characteristic of this cuisine. Once you have washed your hands you survey the array of fish and vegetable dishes on the kitchen counter that are specialities here, many of which are to be found nowhere else outside Bangladesh. Behind the counter two cooks are at work, tending blackened pots upon the huge stove, cooking everything daily in small batches. With Abdul’s guidance, I chose a range of dishes which were swiftly delivered to my table in small bowls with plain rice, and that was where my experience of Bengali lunch truly began. People told me it was an acquired taste. “We have had two non-Bengali customers over the years,” admitted Abdul with an indulgent grin.
How can words convey my experience of Bengali lunch? From my first mouthful, I understood that Bengali food proposes its own intense palette of flavours, quite distinct from any “Indian” food I had eaten before. To enjoy these dishes, an appreciation of fish is essential and you must not be squeamish of spices or fish bones either. Abdul explained that one function of the spices was to extend the quantity of food for poor farmers, whose diet is rice with just a small amount of fish. It only takes a tiny amount of hot spicy fish to flavour a meal that is mostly rice. In Bangladesh, the price of fish makes it generally available only to the middle class, and consequently Bengali food is a frugal cuisine using every part of a fish and each part of the vegetables too, even bean pods. I started with Keski – which you might call freshwater anchovies, delicious tiny crunchy spicy fish. Then I ate Chitol – moist spicy fish balls made from the flesh of a large fish with the bones removed, which I enjoyed with Begun Bortha – stewed Aubergines with chopped green Chillis, and Korela – a popular bitter vegetable that reminded me a little of Broccoli.
Once I had whetted my appetite, I went back next day with a better sense what to expect. I had Boal with Uri and lentils with rice. My slice of Boal fish had a pale flesh with a delicate flavour that fell off the bone and the Uri was a tangy bean pod which complemented the fish nicely, while the lentils soaked up some of the spiciness, and it all added up to a satisfying meal. I was delighted. It was the beginning of something new. I cast my eyes around the modest yellow cafe decorated with prints of rural life to observe everyone else absorbed in their food, I felt comfortable. I enjoyed my Bengali lunch.