HOW BRITAIN GOT GOOD RESTAURANT FOOD
by Virginia Postrel • Mar 22, 2004 at 11:33 pm
Looking for something else, I stumbled on this interesting report on the Bangladeshi restaurant trade in London:
The restaurant business in Tower Hamlets (and elsewhere), in contrast to the garment industry, has been very much a growth sector. The 'Indian' restaurant sector has traditionally been dominated by Bangladeshis and this is still very much evident. For example, of the 9,500 Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants and takeaways in the UK, employing over 72,000 personnel (more than the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries combined) and with an annual turnover of some £2.3 billion, approximately 85% are exclusively owned by Bangladeshis. A recent Labour Force Survey conducted in 1997 discovered that over 60% of male Bangladeshi employees and self-employed worked in the restaurant trade compared to 40% of Chinese but only 2% of Indian and 1% of white males. The origins of the contemporary pattern of ownership and employment can be traced to the nineteenth century when Sylheti seamen recruited by shipping companies gained a virtual monopoly of work as cooks and galley hands aboard British ships. When they came ashore, some of these men established tea houses and cafes near the waterfront. These businesses slowly grew in size and popularity and provided the basis for the Indian restaurant trade in the UK.
The massive growth in the 'Indian'/Bangladeshi catering sector (and, indeed, in other forms of cuisine) can be directly linked to the inexorable rise in multiple and differentiated forms of consumption after the Second World War. As the anthropologist Jack Goody notes in his seminal book 'Love and Food'
The old homogeneous 'canteen culture' in the UK had been highly socialised form of feeding, carried out collectively whether in the army, in the factory or in communal restaurants (called British restaurants) which showed the restrictions of the limited restaurant culture, with its supplies being rationed and its prices being controlled. That system was highly egalitarian and began to disappear, under pressure of economic growth, expanded supplies, consumer choice and — it has to be said — boredom with uniformity, with egalitarianism (1998:165).
In Tower Hamlets, the number of cafes (mainly Bangladeshi but a few Pakistani-owned) as well as an infrastructure of retail outlets expanded considerably in the 1960s, especially in the west of the borough, on Brick Lane and surrounding streets, to meet the demands of single Bangladeshi men living and working in Spitalfields. In the 1980s with the change in household structures and domestic routines triggered by the reunion of males with their wives, children and other dependants, some of these cafes were transformed into restaurants where the décor, cuisine, availability of alcohol and prices were specifically aimed at members of the white middle-class who worked and studied at the nearby London Hospital and university and polytechnic colleges.
In 1989, there were 8 cafes and restaurants in the Brick Lane and Hanbury Street area. A few more outlets were added to this number of the early 1990s but the main expansion has taken place in the last five years, so that today the area has 44 cafes and restaurants (with 18 businesses opening since 2000 and 6 or 7 more due to open in the near future and with an annual turnover of about £20 million) which means that Brick Lane is home to the largest number of Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants anywhere in the UK — the Rusholme area of Manchester, for example, has 42 while the Southall Broadway area has 27 comparable outlets.