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The Curry Chefs of Brick Lane

April 23, 2021
by the gentle author

At this time of crisis in Brick Lane, let us celebrate the curry chefs as immortalised by Jeremy Freedman‘s heroic portraits.

Join our free webinar on Monday 26th April at 7pm to hear GULJAR KHAN chair of Brick Lane Bangla Restaurants Association discussing the challenges for the Brick Lane traders in the light of the threat of the Truman Brewery development.

Click here to register for this event

Please note this webinar was originally announced for Tuesday but has been moved to Monday to avoid clashing with the Tower Hamlets Development Committee meeting to consider the Truman Brewery’s application to build a shopping mall with four floors of corporate offices above on Brick Lane.

I set out with photographer Jeremy Freedman to make the acquaintance of some of Brick Lane’s most celebrated Curry Chefs. We were privileged to be granted admission to the modest kitchens tucked away at the back or in the basement of the curry houses, where Head Chefs marshal whole teams of underchefs in a highly formalised hierarchy of responsibility.

In the heat of the kitchens, we discovered our excited subjects glistening with perspiration, all engaged in the midst of the collective drama that results in curry. We found that these were men who – for the most part – had worked their way up over many years from humble kitchen porters to enjoy their heroic leading roles, granting them the right to a degree of swagger in front of the lense.

We encountered the charismatic Zulen Ahmed, pictured above, standing over his clay-lined tandoori oven beneath the Saffron restaurant. Trained by the renowned Curry Chef, Ashik Miah, Zulen served eight years as a porter before ascending to run his own kitchen, now supervising a team consisting of two chefs who do the spicing and make the sauces, a tandoori chef, two cooks who cook rice and poppadums, a second chef who prepares side dishes and a porter who does the washing up. “The Head Chef listens to everybody,” he explained deferentially, with his staff standing around within earshot, and thereby revealing himself to be a natural leader.

Across the road at Masala, we met Head Chef, Shaiz Uddin, whose mother is a chef in Bangladesh. She taught him to cook when he was ten years old. Shaiz told me he worked in her kitchen as Curry Chef for seven years, before he came to London to bring the authentic style to Brick Lane, where today he is known for his constant invention in contriving new dishes for his eager customers.

It was quickly apparent that there is a daily routine common to all the curry kitchens of Brick Lane. At eleven each morning, the chefs come in and work until three to prepare the sauces and half cook the meat for the evening. At three they take a break until six, while the underchefs, who arrive at three, prepare the vegetables and salad. Then at six, when the chefs return, the rice is cooked and – now the kitchen is full – everyone works as a team until midnight, when it is time to throw out the leftovers and make the orders for the next day. This is the pattern that rules the lives of all involved. “I like to be busy,” Nurul Alam, Head Chef at Preem & Prithi, informed me blithely – he regularly cooks three hundred curries a night.

“When I started, I dreamed of being a chef,” confessed Jamal Uddin, Head Chef at Bengal Cuisine, referring to his ambition when he came here to Brick Lane from Bangladesh aged nineteen. Jamal now reigns supreme in his kitchen with a Tandoori Chef, a Cook and a Porter working under his supervision as he prepares as many as two hundred curries every day. “I love cooking,” he admitted to me as his gleaming face broke into a smile, though whether it was the intensity of his emotion or the humidity in the kitchen that was the cause of his glowing complexion, I never ascertained.

Syed Jahan Mir, Head Chef at Chillies Restaurant, told me he came to this country at the age of eighteen with his mother and father. Syed was able to learn from his father who was also a chef and they started out together at first, working side by side in the same restaurant. “He’s better than me, but now he is retired to Sunderland I am the best!” Syed asserted, placing a hand on his chest protectively. “Of course I like it,” he confirmed for me with fierce pride, “Twenty-four years, I’ve been doing this, just making curry – it’s my profession.” A poet with spices, Syed creates his own personal mixture for curry. “It’s all the blending,” he emphasised, running his fingers through the golden powder in a steel dish to demonstrate its special properties.

Mohammed Salik still remembers arriving in Britain at the age of seven. “It was quaint and nice here and the people so good, not overcrowded and dirty like my country,” he recalled with a sublime smile of reminiscence, “My dad used to work at the Savoy, but I wanted to be part of the community here in Brick Lane.” Starting as kitchen porter, Mohammed spent the first five years watching and learning and is now Head Chef at Eastern Eye Restaurant. Our brief conversation in the kitchen was eclipsed by the arrival of a bucket on a piece of string from the restaurant above and inside was a yellow slip of paper, occasioning a polite, apologetic glance from Syed as he turned away to study the handwriting and order his team to work, making up the order.

At Cinnamon, Head Chef and veteran of twenty-five years in the business, Daras Miya was keen to introduce me to the two smiley, hardworking young Kitchen Porters under his care, skinny twenty-four year old Belal Ahmed who has been there three months and also works as a waiter, and nineteen year old Mizanor Rahman who started a week ago. Recently married and with little English, wide-eyed Mizanor was new in London, after marrying his wife who came from Britain to Bangladesh find a husband.

Finally, at the Aladin we met Brick Lane’s most senior Curry Chef, the distinguished Rana Miah who started work in 1980 as a kitchen porter when he arrived from Bangladesh, graduating to chef in 1988. “At that time we served only Bengalis, but by 1995 the customers were all Europeans,” he recalled, describing his tenure as chef at one of Brick Lane’s oldest curry houses, which opened in 1985 and is second only to the Clifton in age. Rana explained that he runs his kitchen upon the system of “Handy Cooking,” based around the use of large stock pots to cook the food. “That’s the way it’s done in Bangladesh,” he confirmed, “This is a traditional restaurant.” As the longest serving Curry Chef, Rana gets frequent consultations from the other chefs on Brick Lane and, remains passionate about his vocation, arriving before everyone each day and leaving after everyone else too.

We never asked the Curry Chefs to cross their arms, but they all assumed this stance, independently and without prompting. It is a posture that proposes professionalism, dignity and self-respect, yet it also indicates a certain reticence, a reserved nature that prefers to let the culinary creations speak for themselves. So I ask you to spare a thought for these proud Curry Chefs, working away like those engineers slaving below deck on the great steam ships of old, they are the unseen and unsung heroes of Brick Lane’s Curry Mile.

Abdul Ahad Forhad, Curry Chef at Monsoon, 78 Brick Lane – “I’m the master of curry!”

Head Chef Shaiz Uddin with his colleague Monul Uddin, Tandoori Chef at Masala, 88 Brick Lane

Nurul Alam, Head Chef at Preem & Prithi, 124/6 Brick Lane, cooks three hundred curries a night

Abdul Tahid, Head Chef at Papadoms, 94 Brick Lane

Jamal Uddin, Head Chef at Bengal Cuisine, 12 Brick Lane

Syed Jahan Mir, Head Chef at Chillies Restaurant, 76 Brick Lane

Mohammed Salik, Head Chef at Eastern Eye Balti House, 63a Brick Lane

Daras Miya, Head Chef at Cinnamon, 134 Brick Lane

Belal Ahmed & Mizanur Rahman, porters at Cinnamon 134, Brick Lane

Rana Miah, Brick Lane’s longest serving Curry Chef stands centre, flanked by Kholilur Rahman and Mizanur Khan in the kitchen of the Aladin, 132 Brick Lane

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 23, 2021

    Marvellous piece dignifying and glorifying this noble profession and photos they will treasure. I’ve only eaten the Balti at the Eastern Eye but it was so good!

  2. Kelly Holman permalink
    April 23, 2021

    I loved reading about the curry chefs (and other kitchen staff) of Brick Lane, thank you.

    It was a privilege to be allowed a glimpse into their precious and personal family stories and a wonderful insight into the hard work and professionalism of these ‘unsung and unseen heroes’.

    It’s too easy to forget what dedication is involved when as a customer we can have a curry within just a few minutes.

  3. Cherub permalink
    April 23, 2021

    Ah, Aladin – when I was at Queen Mary College at Mile End back in the early 90s, if some of us had tutorials that were finished by mid afternoon on Fridays we’d head there for something to eat. I remember they did a really good vegetarian mixed thali that was cheap for students and a very good lamb or chicken saag (my favourite). One of my mature student friends was a Jewish lady, after eating we’d go to the Beigel Bake for plain bagels to take home and she’d buy some cakes for her elderly mum. I spent some very happy times in the Brick Lane curry houses back then, also in the late 90s when I worked at Spital Square and Brick Lane was a stone’s throw away.
    I live in Switzerland now, spicy foods are not so popular here, but when you find a good curry house and they realise you’re British the waiter will ask how hot you’d like it ?

  4. April 23, 2021

    What an amazing legacy all these special people have created over the years, with respect to those who came before them too. An area rich in the true sense of the word, with a tribute to all those who made Brick Lane and its surrounding area culturally rich for generations before them too.

  5. Saba permalink
    April 24, 2021

    Such kind and sensitive faces!

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