Monday, May 03, 2010

The gentrification of Brick Lane.

St. George's Day 2010  970

Last week I visited an eaterie that used to be a regular haunt of mine at least twice a week between 1996 and 2000, when I worked close to the East End of London. Brick Lane is a well known venue for tourists wanting to try an "authentic" curry experience whilst in London. In years gone past one could visit one of the plethora of restaurants in the road and get something not too bad to eat.  The area was extremely rough and ready, with a mix of sweat shop clothing factory workers, market stall owners, general labourers and a smattering of adventurous city types somewhat off their normal patch, all mixing together and getting along in a somewhat tense environment. Most of the curry houses in the road were of the general "high street" variety, but clothed in a smattering of the credibility the address gave them. The food was OK, but nothing like what you would get in a Bangladeshi home - more of what the English would expect from what increasingly year on year became a culinary theme park.

Since I changed jobs in 2000 and moved away from the area, I have not visited Brick Lane more than a couple of times, and I have only witnessed to the changes to the area as an obeserver. The road has become vastly more commercialised; most Brick Lane curry houses have "greeters" outside in the evenings, inviting passers by to try their establishment with extravagant claims and offers of eye watering discounts which border on the fraudulent, or at least fanciful, and claims about the quality of the cooking which would not bear close scrutiny; they aim to cram as many paying bodies through the  doors as possible, and to hell with the food and service. The road has been "cleaned up' to look far more respectable to the average tourist, to the extent of branding itself "Bangla Town", and the "edgy" nature of the area has been toned down markedly. Of all of the restaurants in Brick Lane, only one has throughout this transition stayed remarkably unchanged, and also the only one visited on a daily basis by the local East End Bangladeshi community. Even now, one can enter the building to see a group of initially slightly scary appearing asian blokes in turbans with impressive bushy beards sitting at tables and eating piles of hot parathas with great metal bowls of steaming, garlicky lentil dhall. To the uninitiated, it can look like the Taleban have taken over a small corner of London. Back in the mid 90's when I first visited this establishment, I was greeted with a similar scene. I nervously walked in, started to read the days' menu, chalked up on the wall, and a turbanned guy slapped me on the shoulder, gave me a toothless grin and handed me a metal mug of water. I soon realised that although we shared no language, it was his greeting, and we soon became aquaintances through food. The restaurant I am describing is the multi award winning Sweet & Spicy. It is pretty basic, even today when it too has suffered at the hands of those that would gentrify the place. It has a limited menu - one orders at the food counter (the place is basically a transport cafe serving excellent Indian and Bangladeshi home cooked food, rather than a Western palate pleasing restauarant, as in the rest of Brick Lane).  The place is definitely worth a visit - the food is cheap, hearty and plentiful, and light years away from that which you will get from your average high street curry house. You can see a couple of photos of their menu below.  Sweet & Spicy is one of the few eateries in the whole of Greater London where you can get a curry for breakfast - indeed they have a special curry breakfast menu which they have been serving daily since they first opened back in 1969, which is served from 7am until 11.30am. I know that this is a favourite of both locals and the licenced cab trade, many of whom get their evening meal in the place on their way home after a solid nights' work. Most of Brick Lane is a facade created to pander to the predudices and expectations of the visitor and tourist trade; Sweet and Spicy is a notable exception to this rule, and I would strongly recommend you try the place - it may look rough and ready, but it is friendly; the food is also great value and tastes fantastic. You can read a few reviews of the place here. Click on the photos below for a larger version of the menu.

Sweet & Spicy menu update  967

Sweet & Spicy menu 1  965

On a more local note, the Erith mosaic has finally been completed, adjacent to Blockbuster Video. I photographed it several months ago, whilst it was still being installed, and now the former panel attached to the old Erith Swimming Baths now has a life of its' own. Quite why it has taken the council nearly three months to erect a small metal sign with an explanation of the mural is quite beyond me. The mural itself got erected in three days, the sign has taken almost as many months.

I got accosted in Morrisons' in Erith yesterday; a young lady was asking me if I would sign the petition to get England as the destination for a World Cup in the future. I slowly and patiently explained to her,  that I would rather forfeit several key internal organs, rather than be compelled to watch twenty loutish, overpaid and under educated Chavs chase a piece of inflated pig's bladder around a lawn for ninety minutes, then all jump in a bath together.  In my mind, football is of utterly no interest whatsoever, but as I always say, if it works for you. This years' World Cup is being used quite cynically as a marketing ploy by most of the major electronics manufacturers. Have you noticed the sudden surge in the number of adverts for Hi Def televisons suddenly on our screens and on our newspapers "just in time" for the football? Surely if one wanted a TV, one would have already bought one? The worst offender in my mind is the current Tesco advert which show a husband and wife - contrary to the husband's expectations, the wife encourages him to buy a massive new television, get in lots of gassy lager and generally behave as a stereotypical boorish male when the football is on. The wife then takes advantage of the double points the purchases have racked up to buy stuff that she wants. This commercial makes me want to spit cinders - reinforcing archetypes and generally being very lazy indeed. The most ardent and dedicated football follower I know is a woman, whose knowledge of the game surpasses many males. A pity that Tesco's advertising agency don't come up with something a little more challenging and less stereotypical. No wonder the amount of time UK residents are spending watching television is now dropping, as instead they have begun to watch video online. The likes of YouTube and Vimeo, not to mention BBC iPlayer are starting to make inroads into people's viewing behaviour.

Top Gear car of the year 2009, the Caterham Seven is produced locally by Caterham Cars Ltd; not many people know the Caterham car factory is actually in Kennet Road, Crayford (see the photo below) not Caterham in Surrey - where the company offices and show room are based.  As you will see, the factory is pretty small and unremarkable. You do see cars on test on occasion in and around Thames Road and up and down University Way as far as the Dartford tunnel and back. I once saw a Caterham Seven overtaking a Porsche 911 Carrera on the outside of a roundabout half way along University Way! The Caterham R500 superlight was actually quicker around the Top Gear test track than the Bugatti Veyron - and cost less than £40,000, compared to around £1 million for the Veyron (which incidentally is not the fastest production car in the World, as is often claimed) - there are a hand full of other cars which have a more credible claim to that title, not least the unrestricted version of the Bristol Fighter T, which it is reputed can hit 270mph on a runway.

Caterham Cars factory.

On a somewhat different note, I see that a minor league rock band I followed during the early 1980's have suddenly been thrust into the limelight. Twelfth Night have made a welcome, though somewhat unexpected comeback. You can read all about them on the BBC News Website here. They are well worth seeing. 

Software company and philanthropists Canonical have just released version 10.04 of their award winning Ubuntu Linux operating system. It is available in Server, Desktop and Netbook versions, all of which are completely free to download and use as you see fit. All Ubuntu software is totally free and open source. I use the Ubuntu Netbook edition on my Asus EeePC 910, and it is fast, secure and reliable. And did I mention it is also free? Yes I did. You can read more about Ubuntu Linux and the amazing features it has by clicking here.

Also in computer news, Series 4 of the IT Crowd is currently in pre production - if you click here you can read about the attention to detail that goes into the set design and dressing. As anyone who works in IT support knows, the IT Crowd provides a gritty and realistic documentary insight into technology in the workplace. Not.  Actually it is a very funny sitcom by the same people who made the outstanding show Father Ted - one of my favourite comedies of all time.

The video this week is also of local content; it shows the annual exhibition by Erith Model Railway Society, held this year at Temple Hill Primary School in Dartford. Watch and feel free to comment below; as previously mentioned, comments are now moderated due to continual attacks by Chinese Spammers, even so, you should see your text up and running within 24 hours of posting.


  1. I'm pretty sure I've been in Sweet & Spicy. I had the Bengal Boal Curry. I was well impressed.

  2. Ah!
    Sweet & Spicy, I know it reasonably well.
    I remember going up with you a couple of times and once having a shish kebab so spicy (notice I differentiate between spicy and hot) I actually ended up licking the wall to try and remove the taste before I lost my tongue and lower jaw. My fault for wanting to try something that was "locals strength" I suppose! It was one of the strongest spiciest things I've ever eaten in my life and I'm not adverse to spicy food. It was like popping a lump of smouldering charcoal flavoured with burning oil, napalm and The Merciless Chilli Pepper of Quetzalacatenango* on your naked tongue. I was pulling tissues out of my pocket to wipe my tongue, it was liquid fire mixed with novocaine. Would love to try one again!

    Yeah I wondered why it's seemingly taken longer to put up the small metal sign that it Did to erect a 16 foot mural…Still say it's in the wrong place, it just sort of melts into the background there. Personally if it was possible I would have liked to see it on the side wall of Morrison's on the pier side along the wall where the disabled car parking is but can understand why that couldn't happen.
    Talking of Morrison's the reason you were accosted is they have a big corporate thing about trying to bring the NEXT world cup to these shores by getting 2? 5? Million signatures (the slogans something like "England United, The World Cup Decided" what aloada Rollicks). Like you I have no interest in the "bread & circus" that is Football although I do enter into the spirit of things when it comes to Euro' and World Cups. Or it could be just a chance to go to the pub and enjoy shouting at the TV. Mind you I do that when Graham Norton or Andrew "The Dark" Lord Webber appear on the tele! I just scream with incandescent RAGE! LOL!
    Caterham are lovely cars I'm sure but I like my car to have a roof and doors that aren't made of canvas. For some reason it just don't do it for me. You've converted me now, I want a Bristol!

    *- From The Simpsons: The Merciless Chilli Pepper of Quetzalacatenango is grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum and is considered to be the hottest thing in existence after the Sun. When Homer ate one he went on a hallucinogenic trip involving a Coyote, a Snapping Turtle and a faceless Marge...

  3. excellent points and the details are more specific than elsewhere, thanks.

    - Thomas