At Sweet & Spicy
If you ever stood in Brick Lane, baffled by the array of curry houses and harangued by the touts, and wondered “Where do the locals eat?” then seek out Sweet & Spicy down on the corner of Chicksand St, where proprietor Omar Butt works conscientiously from eleven until eleven every day, in this celebrated Spitalfields institution opened by his father Ikram Butt in 1969. Established originally as a cafe, Sweet & Spicy was only the third curry house to open on Brick Lane and, such is the popularity of its menu, it has remained largely unchanged through all this time.
Come for lunch or dinner. You will meet Omar Butt, tall with lively dark eyes and a stature that befits an ex-wrestler, yet modest and eager to greet customers. Chose your food at the counter, let Omar stack up your tray, then take your place in the cafeteria-style dining room at the back, lined with posters reflecting the Butt family’s involvement in wrestling over generations, and enjoy your meal in peace and quiet.
Sweet & Spicy offers a simple menu of the essential curry dishes which are complemented by two house specialities, popular since 1969. Halva puri with chana (spicy chickpeas) which Omar describes as the “Pakistani breakfast,” – traditionally the food of wrestlers who, he says, were characteristically “big rough men that ate halva all day.” Omar makes the halva personally twice a week at Sweet & Spicy, exactly as it is done in the halva shops of Pakistan where they also display the same wrestling posters that he has on his wall. And the warm halva makes a very tasty counterpoint to the spicy chana – sweet and spicy, just as the name over the door promises. Most customers pop in for the famous kebab roll – his other speciality – a shish kebab served in a deep-fried chapati with onions and chili sauce. A snack to suit all tastes for just two pounds. “It has so many dimensions of flavour that people really like,” waxes Omar, his eyes gleaming with culinary pride.
There is an appealingly egalitarian quality to this restaurant where anyone can afford to eat, where Omar oversees every aspect of the food with scrupulous care and where people of all the races that live in Spitalfields can meet in a relaxed environment, unified by their love of curry – honestly cooked, keenly priced and served without pretensions. Twice a day, Sweet & Spicy fills up with the lunch and dinner rush, but drop by late morning for a Pakistani breakfast, or visit in the afternoon, and you will discover Omar taking a well-deserved break to read his newspaper and eager to chat. With an understated authority, he presides over a unique community hub that has evolved naturally, offering a refuge of calm and civility amidst the clamour of Brick Lane.
“I used to come here at six years old. I guess I was be the youngest busboy on Brick Lane, serving and clearing tables for quite a few years. My family have always been involved in wrestling. My grandfather Allah Ditta, he was professional wrestler in Pakistan and my uncle, Aslam Butt, was National Champion. I have done international freestyle wrestling and I’ve tried very hard at an Indian style where you wrestle in a sand pit. I have travelled and wrestled in America, here and in Pakistan.
I studied business after I left school and then I came to work here full -time at twenty-four years old. I am a self-taught cook and I taught myself how to cook everything. Each morning I do a little cooking when I arrive and then I spend the rest of the day upstairs serving customers. It’s important to me, to attend to everything. For a restaurant to have long life-cycle, the owner has to be able to cook as well.
We open seven days a week and I am here seven days, from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. It’s been non-stop lately because of the economic situation. No-one likes a recession, but it shows you what you are capable of. Before, I didn’t know that I was able to work seventy hour weeks, but it is possible. I have a wife and two kids and I live on the Isle of Dogs but, because I have spent so much of my time on Brick Lane, it’s like I live here as well.
We were always a cafe, whereas the others became restaurants serving English customers but here it has always been a mixed clientele. People used to come for snacks after the visiting the Naz cinema next door and we served the machinists working in the clothing factories. We have a long loyal gallery of locals. It’s a cosmopolitan place. Today I had an Asian sea captain who first came forty years ago, Bengali businessmen, a table of Cubans, and some born and bred East Enders who have been coming all their lives. We run the business off our regular customers. I often get young men who say their father brought them here as a child. There’s something about this place, it’s a father and son place.”
One of Omar’s collection of wrestling posters. His uncle and grandfather were champions in Pakistan.
In the cool of the curry house in the afternoon.
Sweet & Spicy’s celebrated £2 kebab roll – the burrito of Brick Lane.
Halva with puri £1.45 – traditionally the food of wrestlers. Served hot with chana as ‘the Pakistani breakfast.’
Sweet & Spicy, 40 Brick Lane, London E1, 6RF.
You may also like to read about