The Bangladeshi Curry House Malcolm X Visited In The UK
Image Credit: Malcolm X at Chamon, Selly Oak. Photos via Twitter/@profhuq and Facebook/Kieran Fitzgerald

IN November 1965, Civil Rights Movement icon Malcolm X embarked on a series of speeches and gatherings in Europe that left an indelible mark on the continent's socio-political landscape. Although his illustrious life and legacy is often associated with his work in America, there exists a lesser-known chapter in his life that unfolded during his final weeks in the UK, specifically, in Birmingham. During this period, Britain was grappling with the implications of becoming a formally multi-ethnic society, with an influx of African Caribbean and South Asian migrants in the previous 15 years. 

While much of his time was spent in London, he also accepted an invitation to address the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham. But the visit to Birmingham was not merely a social engagement opportunity with students. He arrived with a mission, particularly in relation to the town of Smethwick. Located to the west of central Birmingham, Smethwick was marked by high racial tensions and simmering hostility. Malcolm X sought to address these issues, galvanise support for equal rights, and shed light on the challenges faced by marginalised communities. His visit aimed to raise awareness, provoke dialogue, and inspire individuals to take action against racial discrimination.

After the event, Malcolm X's hosts treated him to a meal at Chamon, a curry house owned by Bangladeshis in the Selly Oak area. Photographs from the day capture him devouring a kebab starter in the company of his hosts.

Once a thriving curry house in the Bournbrook neighbourhood of Selly Oak, Chamon is among the innumerable Bangladeshi restaurants that emerged during the latter half of the 20th century. They not only satisfied the British upper crust’s craving for spices but also played a significant role in shaping the cultural landscape of the country. These establishments, that reared their heads in 1940s England with a meagre 20 eateries, were set up by the Bangladeshi community in the UK, primarily consisting of post-war migrants.

However, while the migration of the Bengali community is considered to be a recent affair, there is ample evidence of migration from Bengal to Britain dating back over 400 years. The move was driven by the spice trade between Britain and the Indian subcontinent, facilitated by the East India Company in the 17th century.

In the 18th century, following the Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company gained dominion over Bengal and enlisted Bengali seafarers, known as lascars, to work on their trade routes connecting Calcutta and East London. These voyages also brought Indian domestic workers, such as ayahs (nannies and nursemaids) and cooks, who accompanied British families returning from India. Lascars, predominantly recruited from Sylhet in northeastern Bengal, played a crucial role in facilitating trade between India, Burma, China, the Malay archipelago, East Africa, and Britain. However, as a result of the Navigation Acts, many Indian sailors arriving in London from India found it challenging to secure employment for their return journeys, leaving them stranded. 

Desperate to secure a livelihood, many of the Sylhetis secured jobs at London restaurants as early as 1873. In fact, the first standalone Bangladeshi eatery was set up in 1810, well over a 100 years before the industry’s unprecedented boom in the 1950s. Named Hindoostane Coffee House, this erstwhile curry house founded by Dean Mohamed laid the foundation for future Bangladeshi entrepreneurs to build upon.

The influx of Sylheti Bangladeshi migrants in the mid-20th century played a pivotal role in the development of the British curry houses. However, to understand the concept of curry houses, one must know what ‘curry’ stands for in the British culinary vocabulary. Although the origin of the term curry remains uncertain, it is believed to be a bastardised version of a Portuguese adaptation of the Tamil word "kari," which originally referred to spices or seasoning, and Europeans used it to denote any and every gravy-based dish.

 For the Bangladeshi populace in England, self-employment was the prevalent path out of unemployment for many. Thus, in the 1940s, many of these immigrants purchased rundown fish-and-chips outlets and began selling affordable rice and fish preparations alongside British favourites. 

Thus was born the Bangladeshi British curry house. These restaurants served as beacons of hope for new migrants, offering employment opportunities and support to pursue educational aspirations. Beyond cafes and diners, the community successfully revitalised the garment industry and established a vibrant commercial sector comprising small shops, taxi companies, and travel agencies. Restaurants like Chamon became spaces for community cohesion and preservation of identity. They also served as a bridge between the British and Asian communities. Britons were as intrigued by the explosion of flavours as by the exoticism of this newfangled cuisine; as a result, curry houses became a popular dining choice for both British locals and South Asian immigrants. A 2017 exhibition by a Bangladeshi mural painter attempted to chart the Bangladeshi curry industry during its inception, showcasing curry house photographs from birthday parties and interactions with British customers, underscoring their integration into British life.  

Like most of the once-thriving curry houses in Selly Oak, Chamon has disappeared, supplanted by modern Indian street food establishments. Its slow dissipation is attributed to lack of many factors — the unavailability of unskilled labour post Brexit, the changing palate preference of consumers towards a more authentic fare and ironically, oversaturation of the market. The only testament to Chamon’s rich legacy now is the washed out, discoloured white and green sign on the side of the building.