Biryani! What the dish means to London communities

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Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 12:49

As part of Alchemy, we have been exploring what the dish biryani means to the local community in London. A dish renowned in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, biryani has connected the diasporas of these two countries. 

As part of our youth programme, we sent a group of young filmmakers out to film individuals from these communities, asking them what biryani means to them. The result was a wonderful short film, directed by Nida Manzoor, that explores the power of food to bring people together.

The filming uncovered so many interesting stories, and here you can discover a little more about the people we interviewed.

Until Monday 29 May you can watch the film at Southbank Centre, whilst sitting around a special dining table in our installation booth.

Watch the film

Luftun Hussain – Coriander Club

In 2000, Luftun Hussain founded Coriander Club at Spitalfields City Farm. Her goal was to create a gardening and cooking club for Bengali women, so they could recreate the dishes of their homeland in a climate where many of the vegetables required were not usually grown. The project has since soared and the Coriander Club offers a safe haven for many women who have come to this country and feel isolated. The community offers them the chance to talk in their native language to women who have had similar life experiences. It is a precious chance to socialise in what is a foreign environment to them.

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In the short film, Lutfun expresses how hard it was to cook biryani when she first came to England. She remembers how difficult it was to acquire some of the ingredients and spices to make this much loved dish that was a such an important lasting connection to home. Her desire to make biryani motivated her to form the Coriander Club. On the day of the shoot, she took our group of Festival Makers to the local market to buy spices, picked fresh vegetables from her garden and took them through the process of making her chicken biryani. If you’re able to come down to Alchemy, you can pick up this recipe for free in the installation space.

Abdul Shahid – Gram Bangla

Amongst the numerous curry houses and authentic South Asian markets in Brick Lane is Gram Bangla, a small Bangladeshi restaurant that you might just miss in the hustle and bustle of the street. But this is one biryani you must eat. Owner Abdul Shahid was inspired to form the restaurant after his mother moved back to Bangladesh in 1978. ‘Gram’ means ‘village’ in Bengali and his restaurant has an authentic rustic vibe. This is not a curry house targeted at a Western market. This biryani harks back to the roots of Bangladesh, bringing more of the local Bangladeshi community through the doors than tourists.

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Again, biryani has connected the diaspora to their heritage and Abdul is very aware of the importance of this. Proud of his children’s achievements, he is adamant that he would be happy for them to pursue any career they wish. But through his restaurant, he has provided them with a lasting relationship to their culture, an invaluable experience many in the South Asian community struggle to create in this country.

Southall Black Sisters

Southall Black Sisters are an organisation that have brought together black and South Asian women who have been the victims of abuse. Established in 1979, this non-profit organisation has helped give sanctuary to those who have suffered from gender-related violence. The ethos of the organisation is to help women become independent and assert their human rights.

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We interviewed some of the women who have been helped by the organisation and asked them what biryani meant to them. For some, coming to Southall Black Sisters was their first time eating the dish and it reminded them of finding a community in which they were cared for. For others, it was a connection to home. Biryani had brought these women together. In the film, we see a number of these women sitting around a table discussing biryani. Their solidarity is clear and is a testament to the power of food to bring people together.

Nazma and Jannah

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In homes across the country, biryani continues to bring families together. We filmed Nazma, a young mother, cooking biryani with her daughter, Jannah, in their home kitchen. Food has created a special bond between them. Seeing Jannah carry in the plate of biryani, as mother and daughter sit on the floor of their apartment to eat, it is clear that in creating the dish together, the biryani they have made symbolises far more to them than just dinner. Jannah now wishes to go on to win Junior Masterchef and her mother couldn’t be more proud.

Numra Siddiqi – Empress Market

In the heart of Hackney, is new restaurant Empress Market. Chef and founder, Numra Siddiqi, talked to us about the memories she has of eating home-cooked food. She tells of how her grandmother used to tell her to place a napkin on her lap and ensure it never got dirty. This would be a sign of being able to eat gracefully with your hands. These traditions have stayed with Numra and although she doesn’t enforce these measures on the visitors in her restaurant, Empress Market is a wonderful fusion of her Western upbringing and South Asian heritage. The menu consists of Pakistani folk cuisine, Karachi street food and is accompanied by Louisiana cocktails from New Orleans.

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Her unique mixing of Eastern and Western flavours show how dishes like biryani will constantly evolve with each generation, as each try new ingredients and combinations that reflect the multicultural society we live in. We’ve asked the public to come down to the installation to share their own recipes of biryani. And Numra also has her own stall, Bun Kebab, at our KERB food market where she will be selling some of her creative fusion street food.

Alchemy runs until Monday 29 May 2017. Please come down and see Biryani! and the numerous other free installations and exhibitions in our foyer spaces.

Alchemy festival programme