LONDON, MAY 2016 [on Twitter]
⏩ Hi Shahnaz! Just booked your supperclub! Can’t wait! Aaron
⏩ Yay! Look forward to meeting you! 🙂 Shahnaz
⏩ Me too! Just a chance I might be late. I’m a doctor, so never know what the day will bring.
⏩ You’re a doctor? So, this is a bit of a random question – but did you have a relative who was also a doctor in Manchester in the 1970s? My mother has always spoken very fondly of a Doctor Vallance..
EASTERN EUROPE, 1890’s
Belarus in the late-19th century is not a good place for Jews. Anti-Jewish pogroms are raging across the land, and the air simmers with hatred. Against this backdrop, my father’s father’s father, Kivy, is driven to make a journey of a thousand miles. On foot.
I imagine him with a rough-hewn knapsack on his back, and an unforgiving blizzard biting at his cheeks, whilst he and his brother Joseph bid farewell to their home city of Gomel. Up ahead, the bleak landscape stretches like a snowy canvas: blank and with no certainties.
They walk northwards, avoiding people as much as they can. Until one day they come across a town and decide to split up to avoid detection; one brother goes one way, the other the other way, and the two brothers plan to meet up on the other side.
Except that Joseph doesn’t make it. He is captured and press-ganged into the White Russian army, as is commonplace at the time. And I can only imagine what it must be like for my great-grandfather Kivy, left bereft, cold and hungry. He has no choice but to soldier on alone.
He continues to trudge his way over the continental plains – always walking, even as his knees start to buckle and his back begins to bend. Days turn into weeks, and weeks into months, until he eventually manages to reach the Baltic Sea port of Danzig.
But he doesn’t stop there. He barters himself a sailor’s uniform and gets aboard a ship. Then, fearing capture, he chances upon a barrel and clambers in, and that’s where he stays for the rest of the voyage. And in this simple wooden receptacle, en route to Scotland, he conceals himself, his dreams and, in a manner of speaking, all his future descendants.
Meanwhile, his future wife and my great-grandmother Minnie lives in the Latvian city of Riga, where just beyond the city’s outskirts lie forests replete with wild mushrooms that she likes to forage. And whilst there, she sometimes finds herself attending illicit Bolshevik gatherings.
For her, this is nothing to do with any deep affinity for communism; instead she is drawn by the jovial singing and dancing that frequently interrupt the subversive chatter of revolution. But late one night the Tsar army arrive on horseback: they round people up, burn down some homes, and shoot a few suspected ringleaders. And now there are no more dances for Minnie to go to.
Meanwhile, her brother Morris, a ship’s stoker, gets caught in a storm one eventful night, and becomes shipwrecked off the Scottish coast at Grangemouth. There are only two survivors, of which he is one.
If he then staggers about the local streets, bedraggled, soaked to the bone and gibbering in Yiddish – as the family story goes – I don’t know. But I do know that he ends up settling in Glasgow, from where he writes home, encouraging the family to sail over and join him for a better life. And in this way, Minnie, too, bids farewell to her Latvian shtetl forever.
So that’s how my great-grandparents came to Britain, their broad shoulders carrying experiences of persecution and displacement, like so many Jewish families fleeing the pogroms of East Europe, arriving with lots of hope but little of anything else.
As the community come together in their new place, Kivy and Minnie meet: ‘Chvollin’ becomes ‘Volinsky’, and ‘Volinsky’ becomes ‘Vallance’. And they have five children, of which my Grandpa Reuben is the fourth. How the winds of fate blow. How our own stories begin generations ago.
SYLHET, EAST PAKISTAN, 1950’s
It is 1956, less than a decade after Partition had created the nascent states of India and Pakistan amid so much violence and turmoil. The ancient region of Bengal had been ripped into two, with West Bengal apportioned to India, and the rest becoming East Pakistan. It was a decision made by the departing colonialists, and it made little sense – politically, socially, or economically.
It is not long before cracks begin to show: the new regions of East and West Pakistan are unified only by the commonality of Islam, but in many other ways – language, food, and dress – they are quite different.
My grandfather, Habib, is just a young man of about 25, living in the hilly, northern region of Bengal known as Sylhet. It is a place where tea grows in abundance, lending the place its nickname – ‘The Land of Two Leaves and a Bud’. Sylhet now finds itself in East Pakistan, although my grandfather’s birth certificate – if he ever had one – would have deemed his birthplace as India. In his lifetime he will see this land be given yet another identity: Bangladesh. Three names – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – for just a single patch of land.
But, at this point in his life, another land is capturing Habib’s attention. The British government are asking – no, pleading – for workers to help with its post-war recovery. Labourers are needed for the dark satanic mills of the North and the belching smoking factories of the Midlands. Britain is presented as Jerusalem, the Promised Land, a place to seek one’s fortune before returning home in a few years: wealthy, successful and a hero. And so, in search of streets paved with hope, if not with gold, Habib arrives expectantly in Manchester, England.
MANCHESTER , UK, Second half of 20th Century
Habib becomes one of just a handful of young migrant men living in the city, early pioneers in this search for fortune. Out of necessity they stick together, helping each other find jobs in local factories, teaching each other snippets of English, and coaching one another on the essentials of British etiquette – effusive thanks and profuse apology being de rigeur when communicating with the natives.
The men live together in one of the few houses that are available for ‘coloured’ tenants. In the aching absence of womenfolk they share the cooking, taking turns to prepare huge vats of nourishing fayre that remind them of home: mutton curry with chunks of potato, steaming pots of lentils flavoured with onions, and whatever spices they can get their hands on.
In the winter they build fires in the grates, but nothing can prepare them for the pervading cold, the condensation that runs down the glass window panes in the morning. It gets in your bones, chilling you from the inside out. Flasks of hot tea are taken to the factory, providing warmth and nourishment and comfort in this cold climate. But there is beauty within it too: for Habib, the first sight of snow is breathtaking.
It is not an easy life. The labour is hard, hours are long, and any spare money is immediately sent back home to pay off the debt that his family incurred to fund his travel to Britain. But still, this is his life, the path he has chosen, and the one that his children and grandchildren are destined to continue on, forging ever onward.
It is only meant to be a temporary stay in England. But ten years pass by. High time to start a family, Habib decides. A brief return to Sylhet yields a marriage, and before long my grandparents return together to the grey skies and warm red brick of Manchester in 1965, where soon after my mother is born.
After a couple of years on the production line in a bread factory, Habib buys a small grocer’s shop, living in the small flat above the store with his wife and baby daughter. He runs the butcher’s counter while my grandmother, who is more fluent in English, looks after the till, chatting with customers and giving out change, while rocking her sleeping baby – my mother – in the crib which they keep perched on the counter.
Business is good, but like many Bangladeshis in the early Seventies, Habib finds himself on the cusp of a revolution where food and commerce present opportunity beyond wildest dreams: the chance to run one’s own restaurant. It suits him well, since it entails doing the things he loves best: cooking, feeding and hosting. He names the restaurant after my mother – ‘Selina’.
At this time, Indian restaurants are springing up all over Britain: archetypal ‘curry houses’ replete with flocked wallpaper, velvet-clad chairs, and red carnations in small porcelain pots.
Under the influence of these eateries, the British palate begins to shift – deep-fried onion bhajis, creamy kormas, and chicken tikka masala become coveted dishes when dining out. And in case this seems just too exotic for some, concessions are made in the form of British staples such as steak, omelettes, and chips being offered on the back pages of the menus.
In fact, Habib is a dab hand at chips – my mother still fondly talks about coming home from school to a snack of thick home-cut chips, doused in malt vinegar and sprinkled liberally with salt, sandwiched between slices of well-buttered white bread. But it is the classic Bengali dishes, the dishes of his upbringing, that he excels in. His signature dish – both in the restaurant and at home – is lamb bhuna, served on the bone, and rich with onions and fragrant whole spices.
It was perhaps due to Habib’s enthusiasm for the food, at the expense of the commercial aspect, that resulted in him eventually selling the business. But even then, his love for food would continue to infuse the family home for future generations.
It still remains a running family joke that even when he didn’t have two pennies to rub together, Habib (or Nanabhai, as I’d call him) would spend that last penny on something good to eat – and share it. His intrinsic desire to welcome people and put them at ease through sharing food is a family trait that would run deep.
MANCHESTER, UK, Second half of 20th century
Grandpa Reuben had simple tastes when it came to food. That’s my impression anyway, although it’s not to say that he didn’t appreciate his food.
My Grandma Beryl cooked the Ashkenazi-Jewish classics – gefilte fish, roast chicken, and of course her legendary chicken soup and kneidlach – which by dint of being lovingly created by his wife and served timelessly over decades of marriage, were of course considered the best.
He would invariably and liberally garnish his plate with chrein, that luridly-purple beetroot-horseradish chutney that we as kids just knew as ‘Grandpa’s jam’; its pungent vapours tickled our noses and made our eyes water so that we’d giggle about the table, goading each other on to sample the fiery concoction.
And after every meal, he’d reverently recite the respective Jewish blessings, singing the melodies with gusto, even when alone, rhythmically finger-tapping the table as he went. But, when all’s said and done, and partly out of the strict Judaic dietary demands of kashrut, I don’t think he’d ventured very far food-wise. I don’t think he’d ever had a curry.
By day, he worked long hours in his GP surgery, a doctor to the core. It was his calling. With a yarmulke-skullcap balanced precipitously atop his balding head, and a Scottish accent that was soft and melodic, I expect he stood out just a bit working in his inner-city Manchester surgery.
But he loved his medical practice. It was where he worked for much of his life, and he was deeply committed to the communities he served. For him, medicine was a true vocation, and he’d commonly stay out late in the evenings paying house calls to those in need.
I remember him retelling his experiences with such enthusiasm that he no doubt inspired me to follow a similar path years later. I still vividly recall his voice, graced with that mellifluous Glaswegian lilt, recounting the deep sense of privilege he felt when people welcomed him into their lives: “It’s just tremendous you know, ye cannae beat it…”
MANCHESTER, UK, Second half of 20th Century
My mother and her five siblings grew up on the council estates of inner-city Manchester. The stories they tell of their childhood have all the usual mischievous antics one would expect: climbing lampposts and spitting out berries on to passing cars below.
But it was the mid-Seventies and racism and the constant threat of violence was a painful reality of their everyday life. I have heard stories of how they were chased by skinheads on the way home from school, always aware that the colour of their skin marked them out.
But still, the strong sense of community is something my mother remembers vividly: from the neighbours she grew up with – she can still remember their names, pointing out where they lived on the estate when we went to visit once, many years later – and the teachers she had, encouraging her on at school.
Another significant aspect of her childhood that I grew up hearing about – in retrospect, somewhat unusually – was the relationship they had with their family doctor. He featured in stories of my family’s experiences as a sort of constant, kindly reassuring presence.
My grandmother especially came to value his care and empathy – raising six children away from the support of an extended family unit was not easy, but the unwavering assistance, both medically and emotionally, from the family doctor meant a great deal. He remained an influential figure in my family’s history, being there for them throughout, for happy or painful times alike.
In late 1986, a year before I was born, a devastating tragedy struck my family. Like any other morning, my mother’s middle brother left for school. But on that day, he never came back. He had been murdered in the school playground in a racist attack by another pupil.
The shock rang through the entire community, its epicentre of course at the heart of my family. The pain and grief took its toll on all of them, and Nanabhai suffered a major heart attack on hearing the news. My aunts told me years later that they remember the Doctor being there, at the hospital, providing comfort and care when it was needed the most. He remained by my family’s side – not only as a medical professional, but as someone who knew and genuinely cared for them all.
It was under the Doctor’s advice that Nanabhai began to keep pigeons, perhaps to give a sense of purpose through his grief. And it was the Doctor who arranged for my mother and two of her siblings to spend a holiday in Wales as part of a respite programme for children of disadvantaged backgrounds and their families. In fact, my mother recounts some of her happiest and most carefree memories as coming from that trip.
Our Doctor was present at happier times too. My aunt tells of a story whereby he, on meeting her new husband for the first time, kindly but firmly impressed upon the groom that he was to ‘look after this girl’ – otherwise he would have the doctor to answer to! And when he became the doctor of my older sister, the first grandchild of the family, that meant he’d tended to three generations of my family.
In the decades since, several members of my family have gone on to work in the NHS. I wonder if some of their fierce dedication to the health service stems from how much he’d supported them in their formative years. In fact, he’d come to mean so much to my family that even I – born a whole generation later in West Yorkshire, and never having had the pleasure of ever meeting him – came to know and remember his name so well: Dr Reuben Vallance.
Grandpa Reuben continued to work throughout his whole life. And then one day, aged 76, after a morning clinic tending to his patients, treating their ailments, and hearing their stories, he drove back home, walked through the door, and suddenly collapsed.
He died that day, doing what he loved. And I remember him with so much of my own love. I often feel his presence: when I picture him, his smile still warms my heart, and his sheer love of caring for people still inspires me.
Years later, when Manchester NHS Primary Care Trust built a new multi-purpose health centre, they decided to canvas the local community for names. One name topped the list of suggestions. And so it became The Vallance Centre.
Being such a gentle and sincerely humble soul, I suspect Grandpa Reuben would have blushed at the thought of this. But he would also have been very honoured, and we remain intensely proud. It continues to serve the local community to this very day.
As the granddaughter of a restaurateur, I come from a family of unapologetic foodies. Hosting, feeding and sharing with others is an inherited impulse that has coursed through my family’s veins for generations. And as a third generation Bangladeshi, now living and working in London, I felt that pull for some time but was not quite sure how to channel it.
Due to the educational opportunities that second and third generation children of migrant families have been exposed to, restaurateuring has declined in popularity as a career path. Instead, an emphasis has been placed on ‘the professions’ – medicine, engineering, teaching, law, and so on. On graduating from university, I built my career in higher education and as a writer for almost 7 years: cooking was a hobby, but not a viable life-choice – or so it seemed.
But in the end, I have learnt, you can’t fight your passions. In the years living away from my family who remained in the North, I searched the restaurants up and down the infamous Brick Lane for the familiar dishes of my childhood, but to no avail. It seemed that if I wanted to eat the food from my childhood, I would have to make it myself.
I started first by giving cookery lessons, catering private parties, and even running a market stall. It was one of the most exhilarating things I had ever done, but I never expected the rewards to be quite so personal, nor so immediate.
Meanwhile, ‘supperclub fever’ was gripping London. People were gathering in unorthodox spaces – warehouses, gardens, strangers’ front rooms – in order to share food, stories and experiences with one another. Here was an opportunity to try it out – cooking proper Bengali food for large groups of people, inviting them into a shared space, and swapping stories and experiences.
So one day in May 2016, out of this desire to unite people through food, my Tiger Kitchen supperclub was born.
I came across Tiger Kitchen by complete accident. Swiping through my Twitter feed, its name suddenly emerged through the rolling luminescent blur. A Twitter–pal was chatting with the cook behind this new supperclub venture. I stumbled into the discussion, and before long, I was invited to join. Great idea! – I thought.
First though I had to book my place. I contacted the cook, Shahnaz, to check a few things out. We messaged back and forth, working out the details. And then suddenly, out of the ether, through a portal that transcended time and space, came the most unexpected query:
“So, this is a bit of a random question – but did you have a relative who was also a doctor in Manchester in the 1970s?”
In an instant, and via the virtual world that so defines our 21st-Century age, our families’ paths suddenly and synchronistically collide two generations later. A chef and a doctor meet yet again. This time the place is London. And this time it’s the chef doing the cooking, rather than the doctor doing the tending.
It goes without saying that Shahnaz’s cooking was simply beautiful – delicately-spiced lentil fritters, rich murgh bhuna chicken and a magnificent pillowy dessert of ‘mishti aam’ mango cake, all made lovingly with such care and attention.
And at the end of the evening, Shahnaz thanked everyone for coming. And then related the incredible story of two families – one Ashkenazi Jewish, one Bangladeshi – who risked everything they had to flee the dark tides of history. And despite the grievous treatment they experienced and the terrible tragedies on both sides, they nevertheless stayed hopeful and determined, often energised by the love and kindness of others. And whilst both families remained true to their traditions, they also reached out to other communities and cultures, which is indeed how they had come to meet half a century ago.
And now, two generations on, the setting up of a supperclub – whose ethos is also very much about connecting people from different backgrounds – paired with a wonderful coincidence, has brought together these two families, their paths reunited once again.
One consequence of our mutual discovery is the friendship that has stemmed from it – something I’m sure would have absolutely amazed and warmed my Grandpa’s heart in equal measure. Ever since we met at Tiger Kitchen, three years ago now, we decided to write it all up, hence this piece. During this time, Shahnaz has embarked on her own writing career – her debut novel Hashim & Family is based on the experiences of her grandparents, and will be published on 2 April 2020 by John Murray Press. Please do check it out, I promise you it’ll be rather special.. Meanwhile, for more family recollections, here’s my piece on Grandma Beryl’s Chicken Soup.Many
thanks to Shahnaz Ahsan.