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    Volume 9 Issue 2 | January 8, 2010|

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Straight Talk

Hot and Spicy in the UK

Nadia Kabir Barb

Bangladeshi restaurants nowadays are trying to change the food they serve to be more representative of the cuisine found in Bangladesh.

"Could I please put in a request?” asked my husband's colleague. “By all means,” I replied. I suppose I had not really thought through what this request might entail. “Could we please have lamb biryani, I absolutely love lamb biriyani?”

I could hear myself acquiescing and saying that it would be no trouble at all despite the other people at the table telling their companion that he was putting me out and it being very bad of him to specify the menu. This of course made me reiterate that I would be delighted to have biriyani on the day and that it really was no trouble whatsoever. After that everyone seemed to be quite pleased at the prospect of trying home cooked lamb biryani as they probably thought it would be an opportunity to sample some authentic Bangladeshi cuisine.

The conversation had taken place between my husband's colleagues and myself over a week ago and we had decided to have his team over for dinner sometime in January. Since then I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Of course the actual invitation is not even remotely the source of my consternation. In fact, had it not been for the biriyani request, I would be looking forward to the evening. This is where I have to confess that my culinary skill regarding biriyani only extends to eating it with much gusto and relish but not as far as cooking it! In fact, even my biriyani eating days have been growing fewer and far between as I never seem to be in Dhaka for the wedding season any more. Now I wish I had taken as much interest in the making of this dish as I do at the consumption of it!

For a while I thought about asking my aunt to make some for me as she is quite an expert but unfortunately for me she is now in Dhaka for an extended holiday and will not be back in time to save my reputation.

My backup plan was to head off to the nearest Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant and order some biriyani from the menu but realised that what I would be serving would definitely not be authentic in any way. I, for one, have never eaten biriyani at a wedding back in Dhaka where they put sliced tomatoes, hard boiled eggs or coriander leaves on top for garnish! To add to that, in most of the deshi restaurants in Britain, they even omit the 'aloo', which to me is one of the integral ingredients of the dish. The thought of biriyani without potatoes just makes me shudder.

So there appears only one option left to me --- admit to my guests that I have never cooked biriyani, and as my mother suggested, follow a recipe book and attempt to make it myself on the day! And if on the day by some stroke of luck it turns out well, then more kudos to me, I guess.

One would have thought that in a country where 'curry' has been voted the British people's favourite ethnic cuisine for a number of years, it would be possible to find a restaurant where some authentic Bangladeshi food would be available but in reality this is not the case at all. What we eat at home is definitely not what you find in restaurants in the UK. When these curry houses originally started, many dishes were created to suit the tastes of the customers frequenting these eating places, one famous example being “chicken tikka masala” and subsequently created a generation of Britons who grew up with curry as part of their regular diet but not authentic to the sub-continent.

Over the past forty years, people have referred to cuisine from the sub-continent as Indian food or deshi restaurants as Indian restaurants whereas in reality this is a misnomer as most of the restaurants were established by Bangladeshis. Even now if you happen to walk into an “Indian” restaurant, chances are it is run and owned by a fellow Bangladeshi. In the mid to late 20th century, especially during the seventies there was an influx of Bangladeshis migrating to the UK in search of work and this increase was partly due to the new, more lenient immigration laws in place at the time and partly due to people leaving Bangladesh during the war.

Many of these migrants settled in the UK and made a niche for themselves by taking the entrepreneurial initiative and opening up restaurants serving food from the subcontinent. Up until the late nineties, the vast majority of curry houses were owned by Bangladeshis, mostly Sylheti Bangladeshis to be precise.

As Bangladesh was still a relatively new country and not widely recognised, and the only images of Bangladesh in the media were either of a war torn nation or a famine ridden country it just seemed to make more commercial sense to allow these eateries to be known as Indian restaurants. I think this misconception has only recently been changed and many of the restaurants are actually calling themselves Bangladeshi restaurants nowadays are even trying to change the food they serve to be more representative of the cuisine found in Bangladesh (although personally I think they still have a long way to go before they achieve their goal).

I have to point out that it is wonderful to live in a city thousands of miles from home and be able to walk down any high street and be greeted by the familiar smells of the local deshi restaurant. Or even amble down the aisle of any supermarket to find an array of readymade “Indian” meals, spices, pickles etc. But then again Britain is changing and these days alongside our curry houses are countless Chinese restaurants vying for customers and the Thai restaurants are growing more and more popular by the day. I believe in 2009 chow mein knocked curry from the top spot as Britain's favourite food.

All I can say is once Britain gets a taste of our authentic Bangladeshi dishes, we might just take back the title of Britain's favourite food. For my contribution to this movement, I will try and start with serving up the lamb biriyani, with potatoes included and minus the garnish.


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