Some of the earliest known origins of Birmingham’s curry house scene have been traced to Steelhouse Lane in the city centre.
An exhibition called Knights of the Raj – The Pioneers of Curry Culture celebrates the birth of the social movement with pictures of the road when it was home to John’s Restaurant.
City-born graffiti artist Mohammed Ali curated the exhibition as a tribute to his late father Watir Ali who came to Britain in the 1950s little guessing that one day there would be an estimated 35,000 Indian restaurants across the country.
Backed with Heritage Lottery Funding, the exhibition shows that most early ‘Indian’ restaurants in the city were created by people from a region known as East Bengal until 1947.
It then became East Pakistan until 1971 when independence from Pakistan led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Kings Heath-based Mohammed said a lack of confidence saw the Bangladeshis refer to their food as ‘Indian’.
“I now want the people of my father’s generation to be recognised because if I don’t know who he was, how do I know who I am?
“For British Bangladeshis to know this story is to know ourselves, our families, our community and our achievements.
“Food gives us more than just nourishment. Food brings us together.
“This is a story of struggle, determination and hardships, hope and aspiration in multicultural Britain and this is the community telling its own story.”
He said that exhibition at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery had been a profoundly moving one for many visitors, many of whom would thought they might have had no place in such in institution.
“But if you look at the photographs, though,” he adds, “you will see how smart so many of the pioneers were... the men had a way of carrying themselves.
“And I think someone, somewhere must know how the curry story goes back in Birmingham even earlier than John’s.”
Knights of the Raj shows how the birth of curry houses in Birmingham pioneered the trend for eating out and drinking lager – as well as a being a catalyst for mixed race relationships with many of the early pioneers going on to marry members of the indigenous population.
Many businesses started off as greasy-spoon cafes, which slowly began to add spicier ingredients to their post-war menus while often retaining the likes of scampi, gammon and omelettes.
The exhibition also looks at the unglamorous side of the business – from prejudice and racism to dealing with drunk customers who might either be sick in the toilets or who would try to do a runner without paying.
Mr Ali said he was hoping a similar exhibition could be staged in London as well as producing a spin-off in New York – with both versions likely to be much more performance art based.
In the meantime, he stressed that Knights of the Raj should not be confused with Birmingham’s so-called ‘Balti Triangle’.
“That was a marketing idea and the so-called triangle doesn’t really even exist any more,” he said.
“Knights of the Raj is about the real restaurants which began to develop and which created the trend for eating out.
“I hardly saw my father growing up – that generation worked so hard and were visionaries.
“Serving curries on trollies was popularised in Birmingham and in the early days staff would often live on the premises, too.
“Many were in the Bristol Street area, but Selly Oak took off in the 1970s and 80s following the IRA pub bombings.
“Today, too many restaurants now look like other restaurants so it’s difficult to tell them apart.
“In 15 years’ time I would be surprised if there was such a thing as a local curry house, certainly not how they used to be.
“There are closing down left, right and centre and there is a problem bringing in new staff from abroad with tighter regulations.
“The high street curry houses we are familiar with could soon be a thing of the past.”
+ To access extra elements from the exhibition during a visit, download an app called AURASMA (free on Apple and Android devices) – you will be able to watch “augmented reality content” on your phone.
Who is Mohammed Ali?
Married to Rukeya Begum, Mohammed's late father Watir Ali was an immigrant from Bangladesh who arrived in Britain in 1957 and then saved up working at BSA (Birmingham Small Arms).
He ran a takeaway and then restaurants in Wolverhampton, Sheldon and latterly Cotteridge – selling the Rajpoot (which is still there) around 2000.
Father of three Mohammed, who has a daughter, 11, and two sons aged five and eight, started working in Watir's restaurant when he was just 11 years old.
But he left the trade to pursue his career as an artist in a bid to empower communities.
Awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2016, Mohammed describes himself as an “artist, educator and curator” whose work features “art meets faith, identity and social change”.
He says he is “best known for melding together his passion for street-art from the early 80s and Islamic script and geometric design that speaks speaks to people of all faith in multicultural cities across the globe.”
In 2008, Mohammed founded Soul City Arts which operates a community arts venue called The Hubb in Sparkbrook and he has painted murals as far afield as London, New York, Chicago, Melbourne and Dubai.
In 2016 he painted some murals in Birmingham featuring his namesake boxer, Muhammad Ali. His website can be found here
For the Knights of The Raj exhibition, Mohammed persuaded builders renovating the Koh-I-Noor restaurant on Bristol Street to let him have some of its original partitions and unused rolls of wallpaper so that he could recreate one of its corners in the museum.
This part of the exhibition is set to find a permanent home at BMAG
What does the exhibition include?
Some of its stand-out features include wall-mounted images of John’s Restaurant at 122 Steelhouse Lane.
There is an enlarged, black and white image and a 1950s’ colour painting.
A caption says: “In 1945, John’s Restaurant opened at 122 Steelhouse Lane.
“In the late 1940s, a Bangladeshi migrant called Abdul Aziz acquired the businesses and introduced curry and rice to the menu.
“The culture of going for a curry began to take shape in Birmingham as early as the 1950s. Many Brummies began to taste the exotic food for the first time.”
His business partner was fellow countryman Mohammed Afroze Miah who went on to own The Rock in Saltley and the Taj Mahal in the city centre.
By 1954, John’s Cafe had become Birmingham’s first Indian restaurant proper, The Darjeeling.
Many of the restaurants were frequented and documented by Roger Gwynn, who had previously undertaken voluntary work in East Pakistan in the 1960s before it became Bangladesh in 1971.
Another key figure was Yousuf Choudhury (1928-2002).
After migrating to Britain in 1957 he later researched, interviewed and photographed Birmingham Bangladeshis for a book called The Roots of Indian Sub-Continental Catering in Britain.
The first “Indian” restaurant in the country
The country's first "Indian" restaurant is said to have been The Hindoostane Coffee House, which was opened in London in 1810 by Sake Dean Mohamed, a Bengali surgeon and entrepreneur from Calcutta.
During World War Two, labour shortages saw merchant sailors (lascars) who worked as ships’ cooks moving further inland to cities like Bradford and Birmingham where they became kitchen porters and chefs.
Birmingham’s Asian community saw a tenfold increase in wartime to 1,000, people with many starting work at places like the BSA (Birmingham Small Arms).
Today, three per cent (33,000) of the city’s population is of Bangladeshi origin, the largest community of its kind outside of London.
A Curry and a Pint
As well as recreating a typical “gaffer’s table”, staff living quarters and a kitchen with pots, pans and utensils, the exhibition details how the success of marrying spicy food with alcohol brought its own issues – from problem customers to restaurateurs trying to wrestle with their religious faith.
Some restaurants got round the problem by allowing customers to "bring their own".
By the 1970s, menu items included Chicken Tikka Masala (created for the British palate), Korma, Madras, Rogan Josh, Jalfrezi and Vindaloo.
Tandoori cuisine arrived in about 1970.
Early curry houses in Birmingham
These included The Darjeeling (out of John’s Restaurant) and The Shah Bagh (1954) at 26 Horsefair.
The Jinnah (1957), which was founded on the Moseley Road in Balsall Heath by Mozamil Kazi and his Geordie wife Rachel.
Others included The Shah Jahan (1954) founded by Morfoth Ullah, The Shalimar (1955), The Bombay (1959) and The Ajanta (1963).
Mofiqul Ambia Choudhury arrived in Britain in 1958 and eight years later opened his own restaurant called Eastern Moon on the first floor of Smallbrook Queensway (later the Royal Bengal).
Nuruzzaman Khan developed an expertise in fine dining at the Plough in Monkspath, before managing the Bombay Restaurant on Bristol Street.
A fellow key player was Rana Day, who went from being a bus conductor to opening The Ajanta (1963), with subsequent businesses including Anapurna and Omar Khayum.
Another popular name was the Dilshad International Restaurant at 618/620 Bristol Road, Selly Oak.
The exhibition is comprehensive by no means exhaustive.
Mohammed Ali says: “I’ve put my normal work and travelling about on hold for about two years to stage this exhibition.
“A great many stories are still unknown to us.
“Some of the earliest Bangladeshi-owned businesses in Birmingham, such as L’Orient, the British India Club and the New Moon Restaurant, remain shrouded in mystery.
“We are exploring the printing of a glossy coffee table book, as well as a documentary.
“If anyone has any information on the people or places mentioned, please contact the project via its website here or send an email to email@example.com
Where is Knights of the Raj?
The exhibition, which has links to KS2 and KS2 history, is in a gallery just up the steps from the Edmund Street entrance of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
It is open from 10am-5pm from Monday to Thursday, from 10.30am-5pm on Friday and from 10am-5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.
The exhibition has been extended from January 7 and will now close on Sunday, January 14.
At 1pm on the final day, Mohammed will be hosting a large number of invited visitors, including former MP George Galloway.