So Long, Sweet & Spicy
As a tribute to Sweet & Spicy, which closed yesterday, I am republishing my feature celebrating a beloved Spitalfields institution on Brick Lane since 1969.
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 you could always seek out Sweet & Spicy down on the corner of Chicksand St. There proprietor Omar Butt worked 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 was the popularity of its menu, it remained largely unchanged through all the years.
You could come for lunch or dinner and you would always meet Omar Butt, tall with lively dark eyes and a stature that befits an ex-wrestler, yet modest and eager to greet customers. You chose your food at the counter, let Omar stack up your tray, then took 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 enjoyed your meal in peace and quiet.
Sweet & Spicy offered a simple menu of curry dishes complemented by two house specialities, both popular since 1969. Halva puri with chana (spicy chickpeas) which Omar described as the “Pakistani breakfast,” – traditionally the food of wrestlers who, he says, were characteristically “big rough men that ate halva all day.” Omar made the halva personally twice a week exactly as it is done in the halva shops of Pakistan where they also display the same wrestling posters that he had on his wall. And the warm halva made a very tasty counterpoint to the spicy chana – sweet and spicy, just as the name over the door promised. Most customers popped in as they passed along Brick Lane for the famous kebab roll – Omar’s other speciality – a shish kebab served in a deep-fried chapati with onions and chili sauce. “It has so many dimensions of flavour that people really like,” waxed Omar, his eyes gleaming with culinary pride.
There was an appealingly egalitarian quality to this restaurant where anyone could afford to eat, where Omar oversaw every aspect of the food with scrupulous care and where people of all the races that live in Spitalfields could meet in a relaxed environment, unified by their love of curry – honestly cooked, keenly priced and served without pretensions. Twice a day, Sweet & Spicy filled up with the lunch and dinner rush, but you could drop by late morning for a Pakistani breakfast, or visit in the afternoon, and you would discover Omar taking a well-deserved break to read his newspaper and eager to chat. With an understated authority, he presided over a unique community hub that had 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.’
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