For one night only: women challenge male rule of Brick Lane curry houses

Deshi Shad launch event lunch in October Pic: Deshi Shad

Among the Bangladeshi community in East London, it’s the skilled women who run the kitchens in their homes, buying and cooking traditional Bengali food for their family.  

But in the male dominated world of Brick Lanes curry house’s, Bangladeshi men are owning and running the restaurants. They cook and serve the food with no women in sight.  

Now a new enterprise has been set up to empower some of these marginalised Bengali women, allowing them to cook and show off their home cooked food, rarely served in restaurants that tend to cater for the more Westernised palette.  

The first women-led, pop-up curry house Deshi Shad or Taste of Bangladesh, will take place on December 5 at Kahaila Cafe in Brick Lane. The pop-up will show it is not a lack of skills, but a lack of opportunity that prevents marginalised women from fulfilling their potential.   Although the event is for one night only, there is hope it may lead to more opportunities for the women.

The launch lunch Pic: Deshi Shad

The curry house is an important and symbolic milestone for the enterprise and for Bengali women in the East End. Tower Hamlets is rife with inequality with 78% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani women economically inactive.  

Fini, a Tower Hamlets resident involved in the project, told Eastlondonlines: “Bangladeshi men never cook at home, but they own most of the Bangladeshi restaurants. They know their mothers, wives and sisters cook the best food, yet they wouldn’t give them the platform to go out there and show off their talent.”   

On December 5, a four-course meal of traditional Bengali recipes will be served by a group of women from Tower Hamlets who share a love of cooking and have no formal catering training. The menu for the night will be kept a surprise but will contain a mix of Bengali vegan, meat and pescatarian family recipes using typical vegetables found in Bangladesh, and also a few innovative twists on the classics. All proceeds will be invested into their Deshi Shad catering business.  

Brick Lanes first female-led curry house Pic: Deshi Shad

Fini told ELL: “These Bangladeshi women have been cooking for years, they’re so skilled but their skill has never been recognised. It gives us the chance to take our home cooked food out. We cook lots of healthy Bangla fish and vegetables at home that is not found in restaurants. For example, lota and prawns and kocha.”  

The pop-up is pioneered by the new food enterprise project by Stitches in Time, a community arts and education charity which aims to give a platform to Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets.   

Since September, the collaborative project has brought together 30 talented local chefs and female professionals working in the food industry. They have set up street food markets, catered private events and received free cooking lessons from established female chefs; to challenge stereotypes and support talented and marginalised female Bengali chefs in East London.   

Mex Ibrahim, co-founder of Women in the Food Industry told ELL: “It was important for us to help give the women from Deshi Shad valuable business skills and also the confidence to realise that with careful planning and training in menu development, food hygiene, allergy awareness and social media, they could do this.”   

The project hopes to create further business opportunities for aspiring chefs and food entrepreneurs from the marginalized female Bengali community.   

Mex Ibrahim said: “It’s good to see them breathing new life into an area that is male dominated from a South Asian restaurant perspective.” 

Fini said to ELL: “By starting this enterprise, we want the women to believe in themselves that they can do it and can change the opinions of our Bangladeshi men.”   

Dina Begum, author of Brick Lane Cookbook told ELL: “As a Bangladeshi food writer it has been my mission to champion the recipes I’ve grown up learning from my mother and grandmother, so I’m very proud to support the first women-led curry house pop up in Brick Lane. It’s important to recognize the women who have traditionally been behind the scenes and bring them and Bangladeshi cuisine to the forefront.” Dina is planning a workshop with the women of Deshi Shad next year.

The project has been partly funded by Tower Hamlets Council’s Tackling Poverty Fund, an initiative which supports innovative ideas to help unemployment in the borough.

Asma Khan’s workshop Pic: Deshi Shad

Asma Khan, an Indian-born British chef who starred in Netflix’s award-winning series Chef’s Table, hosted an evening workshop and motivational talk at her restaurant Darjeeling Express in Carnaby Street this week with the Bengali women who participate in the Stitches in Time project.   

Asma told ELL: “I have always said you cannot be what you cannot see and this pop-up will have a ripple effect in many communities where women have low rates of employment. Most of these women can cook! This is a great way for these women to celebrate their culture and build strong community bridges.”   

Thomas Blunt from Stitches in Time told ELL when project members were told about the pop-up curry house: “many grinned and laughed at the prospect, relishing the chance to appear alongside the exclusively male-run businesses.”   

The curry house will open for one evening on December 5 for an authentic Bangladeshi four-course meal. Tickets are £22 and all proceeds will go back into the Deshi Shad catering business.   

Buy tickets for the evening here:

Follow Deshi Shad on Twitter: @deshi_shad

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