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November 2, 2016

Traditional ideas about curry, what it is and what it stands for were butter-nut squashed at Bengal Bites last Friday: the second in a series of innovative pop up supper clubs in East London. Community enthusiast and former school teacher Imad Ahmed challenged a diverse, eclectic crowd of diners to think beyond the Brick Lane confines of an ‘Indian,’ providing an intimate space for authentic Bengali cuisine to be the food of rich conversation and cross-cultural exchange.

Variety was very much the spice of this event, set in a hipster-esque pocket of Clapton, just above the infamous Palm 2. Greeted at the door by friends from Bar Bedoun, preparing a refreshing array of middle eastern mocktails, the aromatic rose and pineapple savours watered our palettes and opened our minds to a cosy, sensory filled evening.

Imad’s sister Shopna Nessa, whose name literally means ‘dream’ in Bengali, was very much the inspiration for the whole thing. She was born in the mountainous, tea-growing lands of North-East Bangladesh. Her skill at cooking became famed in her village and surrounding areas even as a young girl. Having moved to the UK over twenty years ago, she continued to cook and share her passion with others, and naturally assumed the lead as Head Chef for this.

As we took our seats at the long, candle lit dinner tables, Imad spoke of life as a ‘son of immigrants,’ and his desire to invite us into a space that felt like ‘home.’ But not necessarily the home cultural stereotypes might assume for a practising Muslim of Bengali heritage, living in East London. More home in a visceral sense: the home he has created for himself, drawing on the ingredients from the cultural melting pot within his reach.

He described exploration of his identity, growing up in a space very different to that of his parents, who were born in Bangladesh. An East Londoner himself, he displayed enthusiasm for the way the area has evolved over the years, drawing much inspiration for the evening from the diversity of inhabitants he has been exposed to along the way. Hackney has undergone a period of rapid development, expansion and gentrification over the past ten years and with that has evolved a diverse population, visibly evident as you roam the Clapton streets. The elements of the evening focused on fusion, encouraging the mind to break free from cultural classification and area stereotyping. To make use of the collective dining space to dig into things a bit more deeply.

It didn’t take long to recognize the breadth of experiences brought to the space that evening and the enjoyment gained from sharing perspectives alongside refreshing Bengali cuisine. He purposefully chose the Turkish run space to host the evening, on the basis of a shared love for food and community. The live jazz band, who were the soundtrack for the evening, were ex-colleagues from the local school. The floral details and eclectic wooden feel were distinctly hipster and Imad admitted to having drawn upon local inspiration for this. After working in Clapton for some years, he’s made connections with inhabitants and business owners all down Lower Clapton Road and the range of diners sat around the table reflected this.

The concept of ‘Shopna Nessa Supper Clubs’ helps us to think beyond the conventional. To look beyond the superficial definitions of curry culture that we are familiar with and past cultural experiences we might classify as distinctly ‘different’ from our own. It invites us to try out new flavours of thinking. To open our minds and our palettes to blend new definitions of the spaces we share, using food as the fuel to dream up meaning for the shared places in which we live.

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