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At Oitij-jo Kitchen

April 13, 2024
by the gentle author

‘We want to celebrate the work that the women do’


People often ask where they can find authentic Bengali food in Spitalfields and I have found the answer in Oitij-jo Kitchen, a women’s collective who run the catering operation at Rich Mix Arts Centre in the Bethnal Green Rd. This Sunday April 14th you can join the Eid celebrations there and experience a traditional Bhorta Bengali New Year lunch, served from 1pm – no booking required.

Last week, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie spent a morning recording the activity in the kitchen while I sat down with co-founder Maher Anjum who explained to me what it is all about, before we all reconvened for a taste test.

“Four of us set up the Oitij-jo collective in 2013 straight after the 2012 London Olympics. We had Akram Khan in the opening ceremony but nothing else. We were all creatives, so we asked ourselves ‘Where are we in this scenario?’

We set up Oitij-jo to be a platform for creative practitioners from the Bangladeshi disapora, representing them, supporting them, especially emerging artists, but also showcasing our rich cultural heritage and translating it into what is happening now. Oitij-jo in bangla means heritage. It was important to us to take it to the future, so that the next generation have an understanding and can interpret it in their own way, because it is only at that point that it is alive.

In 2016, we did a year’s residency at the Gram Bangla restaurant in Brick Lane displaying art works with a new exhibition every three months.  It was the first restaurant which served traditional Bengali food, and that was when food became part of our project. We had a lot of conversations with the restauranteurs about the nature of our food. And we realised that food was such an important part our cultural identity, it was something we wanted to work with. There was a visible lack of women in the restaurant sector and in catering in general, so we decided to focus on bringing in Bangladeshi women. It’s culture that people carry, even if may not pay attention to it, we simply say ‘Have some food.’

One of the things that women who work with us tell us is, ‘People say ‘thank you’ for the food I prepare for them. That’s really nice because at home it’s taken for granted. No-one’s going to thank you for the food you put on the table, it’s come-eat-go.’ For a lot of these women, the recognition of what they are doing is a recognition of themselves and food becomes an intrinsic part of who they are, part of their identity.

British Bangladeshi women are some of the least economically active of the population this country, three times less likely to be paid the same wages as anyone else. What are we doing about it? The creative sector is one of the most productive, but the involvement of black, Asian and people from other ethnic minorities is one of the least.

We see Otijo-jo kitchen as the means of giving women the pathway to self-discovery and self-esteem, while exploring the question of what is food for the British Bangladeshi community.

The so-called colonial curry – and what is seen to be ‘curry’ – has a complicated lineage, but there is a place for it and it has made a huge contribution to the community where employment was not available. It was a way for people to establish themselves and be their own bosses, rather than waiting for a job that might never come. We need to acknowledge that but it gets complicated when we ask, ‘What is the food? Who does it? And how does it happen?’

What we want to do is something quite different. We want to celebrate the work that the women do and the food which we consider is traditional Bengali food that people eat at home.

We could not get any funding, so we did a crowdfund in 2018 and raised a tiny amount of money, and started in 2019. Since then we have worked with about sixty women. We do not expect them to stay with us because we want them to gain the ability and self-confidence, get the skills and experience, and move on to do what they want to do.

Many women who come to us have never been in paid employment, they have very little experience of being outside the home or being in a working environment. We want them to build up the confidence to say ‘I can be here’ and be able to talk to people.

We have around a dozen women working with us at present. Once the women have finished their training period, they can stay on working with us and earn the London Living Wage. While they are training with us, they get a daily bursary.

We are a charity and a social enterprise, so we have to make sure we earn money to continue this work. Over the years, we have developed menus and recipes that are our style of cooking. The women who join us learn to cook our recipes the way we cook them.

We serve food at Rich Mix each Thursday to Sunday from 3pm to 9pm. The rest of the time, we use the kitchen here to do catering. We do conferences, seminars, weddings, any kind of occasion. We provide a hundred student lunches for a university twice a week, that’s a very different kind of catering. We did a conference for the Serpentine Gallery at Somerset House for one hundred and twenty people, breakfast, tea, lunch and something in the afternoon too.

Most of the women find us through word of mouth and we are having people contacting us all the time. We have a wide range of ages from around twenty to over sixty and we feel that’s really important because they brings different skills, experiences and abilities. Women come from across Tower Hamlets and the East End.

When we first started, someone asked, ‘If people want vegan food, what shall we give?’ If you have plain rice and dhal which is a standard Bengali meal, that is vegan. Bangladesh is a nation of rivers, so our heritage is that we eat vegetarian and vegan food all the time. You could say that we are going with the trend, except that is normal traditional food for us.”

Surma Khanom, Maher Anjum, Hajira Bibi & Rohema Begum

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Annie S permalink
    April 13, 2024

    What a great project, well done ladies!
    Wishing you continued success.

  2. Robert Parsons permalink
    April 13, 2024

    What a great idea, food looks beautiful. Surely one for R4 food programme or Womens Hour to visit and promote. Nice to see it open through afternoon and evening as often a rush around 5pm.

  3. April 13, 2024

    Mouth watering! I can see where my next meal is coming from and makes a huge change from the rubbish (so called Indian or the pizza, bubble tea and especially sushi) the Bangladeshi men are dishing out to tourists on brick lane.
    I’d definitely be interested to know their views on why they think “British Bangladeshi women are some of the least economically active of the population this country, three times less likely to be paid the same wages as anyone else”.

  4. April 13, 2024

    Bravo! What a great idea.

  5. Cherub permalink
    April 13, 2024

    The food looks delicious, especially the deep fried okra. What a great project for boosting confidence in women.

  6. April 13, 2024

    That food is gorgeous! I wish I could order carry-out from Concord, Massachusetts… !

  7. April 15, 2024

    Thank you all for your kind words and support. Much appreciated by us all at OITIJ-JO and OITIJ-JO Kitchen.

    Please do come and try our Cafe food at Rich Mix, 35 – 47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA, open every week from Thursday – Sunday, 3-9pm.

    Jennifer – as yet, we do not do delivery, to Concord, Massachusetts! But will keep it in mind.

    CR – The gender pay gap situation for British Bangladeshi women was reported on by the Fawcett Society on 8th January and the Guardian. Baroness Casey, in 2016, in her government commissioned report, ‘A Review into Opportunity & Integration’, had highlighted the economic inactivity amongst British Bangladeshi women.

    It was the Casey Report alongside the lack of visibility of the British Bangladeshi women in the creative industries sector, that made OITIJ-JO explore how to engage the cohort and provide routes to self-realisation and opportunities. We are doing this through OITIJ-JO Kitchen, OITIJ-JO Design Studio and much more. Work which we continue to do and with everyone’s help and support can do more.

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