“It began as a joke. He stuck colourful broccoli on the wall and drunk people would bite into them thinking they were real. It made me wonder what would rainbow broccoli actually taste like? So I made some.”
Hajira is beaming as she presents me with a platter of what looks like greens; but not as you know them. Her vibrant ‘Brick Lane themed’ dish is inspired by artist Adrian Boswell’s ‘Broccoli Gallery’. His humorous street art-turned business is the type of success Hajira is hoping her Instagrammable homecooking will bring to Tati Café.
She’s one of over 25 Bangladeshi women who, since the start of 2019, have been training together to open a female run social enterprise café called Tati, serving up homestyle Bengali fare. It aims to be the first in the area and is supported by the not-for-profit Oitij-jo Collective who secured crowd-funding and backing from the Mayor of London and other partners to get the project started. Over the last few months the women have obtained hygiene certificates, worked in professional kitchens, chosen the café décor, developed front of house skills and served up their dream menu at a public tasting session, which is where I’m sampling the flavours.
“It’s always irritated me that the restaurants ran by Bengalis don't sell traditional Bengali food”
They aren’t serving the usual curries you’ll find on Brick Lane, which in its heyday was home to over 50 Bangladeshi restaurants all managed by men. For a start, there’s not a single vindaloo and nothing is swimming in a pool of oil — something that Marzia refers to as ‘raw nerve’ among the women. “It’s always irritated me that the restaurants ran by Bengalis for generations don't sell traditional Bengali food,” she says.
“Thick stodgy curries may have been introduced decades ago because they suited the mass palate and because there was a lack of authentic ingredients but there’s no excuse not to change these practises now. My mum always cooked with cold pressed organically grown oils and fresh local ingredients. It’s time the restaurants did the same.”
Marzia’s contribution to the tasting session is rooh afzah, a delicate milky rose beverage that aids digestion and a steaming pot of bright yellow turmeric drenched kitchuri, the Bengali equivalent of chicken soup, a cross between risotto and the origins of English kedgeree. Soothing and satisfying, the rice and lentil dish is the kind of meal you’ll find served up in a Bangladeshi household on a cold day, accompanied by sautéed spinach topped with dried red chillies, curried boiled eggs and fragrant fried fish; the types of dishes the women are keen to cook for Londoners.
But their motivation is more than to simply rectify the image Bangladeshi curry has: these women are reclaiming a part of east London they still feel excluded from.
“It’s called Bangla Town, but it’s never been a place that Bengali women go to.”
Hajira confesses: “When I first moved here I wasn’t allowed to go out. It’s called Bangla Town, but it’s never been a place that Bengali women go to.” Marzia agrees: “Brick Lane, at least for my generation, is perceived as a male dominated area, it’s not a place I feel comfortable visiting even with my girlfriends.”
Now the women are taking matters into their own hands. 53-year-old Rashida has spent her working life as a homemaker but the concept of a café run by women has given her the confidence to step out of her comfort zone. And though she claims she’s not confident at speaking English, a current internship at Hanbury Hall’s Café in the Crypt has already seen her become a star part of the team who is popular with staff and diners. “We are women, working together,” she explains. "We’ve never had our own café before but hopefully soon we’ll have a space that we can visit with our friends, family and children and work at too.”
“Bangladeshi women like a good gossip”
As well as a place for the public to sample the women’s cuisine, Tati will also be a place where the women are looking forward to hanging out and having a good gossip. Marzia explains: “Bangladeshi women like to have ‘adda’ or a ‘group rendezvous’ where you sit down with your friends and take joy in having a good old fashioned natter.
“Our café won’t be a place where you just come to eat, you’ll share food, make friends and take a break from life.”
Maher Anjum from Oitij-jo, who helped conceive the project, is keen that Tati shows a new and authentic side of Bangla culture that most people aren’t aware of. “The British Bangladeshi presence is still significant in Brick Lane,” she explains, “And though change is inevitable, it would be a shame if there was no traces of the Bangladeshi community left here.” She’s referring to some of the gentrification in the vicinity that has seen a new vegan food market appear, decadent chocolate and dessert shops and a certain cereal café, all in the place of where there was once curry houses.
Women, Maher believes, have the ability to make the changes to Brick Lane that are needed to help the Bangladeshi legacy live on. She explains: “All the decisions made about Tati from food presentation to lighting and ambience have all been decided by the women. They have a plan and a vision; they just need some finance to help execute it.”
So with the concept, atmosphere and décor, which will feature handcrafted soft furnishings, rickshaw art and traditional ornaments sorted; it’s back to the menu.
“It’s the masala that adds the magic”
Many of the dishes I sample are ones I’ve also grown up with. My personal favourite is handesh; deep fried and deeply moreish donut style snacks that are impossible to buy, as they’re a delicacy only served in homes or parties.
The women, who range from 27 to 62 years old, also have plans for fusion food to represent the fact that they don’t only eat curry at home. Dessertwise there are pineapple samosas and jaggery infused cupcakes while the basket of ‘half moon chicken pies’ coated in golden breadcrumbs resemble deluxe Findus crispy pancakes. I head straight for the smoked tilapia served with spiced radish. I’ve never understood while the British reserve radish only for salads when they make the perfect substitute to marrows and gourds in curries and are a lot cheaper.
Hawrun’s contribution to the feast which is being served to members of The Trampery co-working space in Republic East India, is ‘spinach prawn noodles.’ It may sound like a conventional chow mein, but the secret is in the seasoning. She says: “I pan fry the ingredients but it’s the masala that adds the magic. We make everything with masala, even Bangladeshi pizza.”
“I recently invented an alternative chicken kiev”
Hajira is particularly keen that the café serves up unexpected flavours. “I recently invented an alternative chicken kiev. Instead of chives and butter when you cut it open you get a coriander and garlic ghee sauce. I’d also like to show non-Bangladeshis how we make a roast dinner. It’s nothing like the bland meat you get at a pub carvery; we marinade it with spices, add a bit of turmeric for colour and it tastes so good.”
During the initial stages of the project the women were met with some hostility. Men in particular were keen to express that Bangladeshi women shouldn’t be working, especially in kitchens, but all the women are passionate about cooking and see it as an opportunity to do something they enjoy.
Marzia enthuses: “Women all around the world express their love through food. But in my humble opinion, Bengali women do this with a unique sense of pride and devotion. I’ve witnessed magistrates, heart surgeons, principals and ladies in stressful jobs coming home and proudly donning their apron. There may be help with the rest of the housework, but cooking is a reserved privilege and a right. We do it for ourselves and we want to do it for other people.”
“Why should only men cook in restaurants when women love to cook too?”
Hajira pipes up: “Why should only men cook in restaurants when women love to cook too? If we can open this café then women will finally feel like they have something of their own that they have achieved, a place that’s local where we can show people what Bangladeshi food and culture is really about while having a safe space that we can go to so we finally feel like we belong in Brick Lane.”
Now that the women are ‘work-ready’, Tati Café is seeking investors for the next stage of the project: hiring a space.
All images: Chloe Rosser