A contribution to Local & Community History Month 2020 by Sonbal Khokhar
Greater Manchester has a long-standing and – until now – thriving global café and restaurant scene, founded on the efforts of arrivals to the UK from the Commonwealth (and elsewhere). It is hard to think of a single local community, within Greater Manchester, that doesn’t have at least one “Curry House” or indeed “Chinese” takeaway. We use quotation marks here as these terms have been developed and used by indigenous populations and don’t accurately reflect the type of food actually on offer.
Lockdown forces us to spend time at home, and this confinement means food has moved to the forefront of our lives. As part of this year’s Local and Community History Month, we invite you to explore our archives and to take a look back at how eating has shaped our communities and continues to do so.
The Malik Bakht Collection:
This photograph of a restaurant interior is taken from our Malik Bakht Collection, an archive collection that encapsulates the history of Manchester’s South Asian community in the 1950s-1960s. The collection focuses on Abdul Malik Chaudhury Bakht and Yvonne Bakht. Collected and donated by Yvonne Bakht herself, it contains photographs, an oral history interview and biographical material relating to the couple and their business ventures into fashion retail and the restaurant sector.
Malik was born in 1921 in Shillong, Assam and moved to the UK in 1947 to work at the Pakistani High Commission. Yvonne was born in 1937 and grew up in Blackpool, and pursued a career in textile design in Blackpool and later London’s Royal College of Art. The couple met in 1956 at the opening of Malik’s first restaurant enterprise, ‘Shahi Restaurant’ in Blackpool. When Shahi Restaurant closed in the early 1960s, ‘Everest Restaurant’ was opened in Manchester in its stead.
Whilst the earliest Indian cafes and restaurants were set up to cater for migrants from the sub-continent, from the 1960s Indian restaurants became popular with white audiences offering anglicised menus as seen below. Everest Restaurant was part of this trend when it opened in Manchester during the 1960s. Though referred to as ‘Indian’ restaurants, many of these businesses were overseen by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and opened for local English customers.
Malik and Yvonne opened their business in the centre of Manchester. They had originally rented the ground floor of 63 Whitworth Street, but as the business grew the restaurant expanded to the basement of the building making room for a three-piece band and a small dance floor. In an oral history interview, Yvonne opens up about the difficulties of opening a restaurant in 1960s Manchester:
“We did everything ourselves. All the tablecloths and the donkey jackets and the - everything that needed washing from the restaurant. I didn’t have a washing machine, so we used to go with suitcases down to the laundrette in Reddish and do it there. And then the bathroom was constantly full of drying washing. And I used to iron it every week. It was jolly hard work starting the business in Manchester. But it paid off in the end.”Extract from Yvonne Bakht oral history interview (GB3228.76/2/9)
Whilst Malik ran the day-to-day activities for the Everest Restaurant, Yvonne worked behind the scenes and created murals that decorated the walls of the ground floor space.
The wall hanging pictured above was made from dried onion skins, fabric, lentils, seeds, an old string vest, shells and other materials that cost little money. We are now seeing this kind of resourcefulness – for many a part of daily life – being utilised more widely during lockdown.
Similarly, the above menu was also written and decorated by hand. It combines the tastes of Indian curry with local foods like ‘creamed or chipped potatoes’ and dessert ‘Jellabis’ with pineapple and ice cream. In her oral history interview, Yvonne mentions that both restaurant ventures in Blackpool and Manchester appealed to English people due to their altered menus that accommodated local tastes.
“…And in those days English people who went to an ‘Indian’ restaurant (as they called it) they wanted bread and butter with absolutely everything. So we had stacks of that very white bread and sliced loaves forever buttering them to go with anything they ordered [laughs]…What people called curry in those days…it was very stylised it was just curry powder and something else. The colour had to be right and it had to be hot whether it was supposed to be or not because people didn’t think it was right if it wasn’t hot.”Extract from Yvonne Bakht oral history interview (GB3228.76/2/9)
This combination of foods was popular amongst local and visiting customers in Manchester. Lending to the restaurant’s location near the Palace Theatre, many of the customers were associated with show business including the English entertainer, Roy Castle, who soon became a friend to the couple.
To discover more about the contents of our Malik Bakht Collection, take a look at the catalogue on our website: http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=48122
Time to Reflect:
Lockdown means we can’t visit our favourite cafes and restaurants, nor shop for ingredients in person. For some, this is nothing new – takeaways and eating out isn’t part of everyone’s cultural life. But for others it represents a major domestic change. Many of us are now creating our own restaurants inside our homes, which can be challenging but also creative. For the catering industry – much of it owned or staffed by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people – this brings significant challenges.
Some things to think about:
- What are some of the struggles that restaurants face today? How would Malik and Yvonne Bakht have responded to lockdown? How are modern-day restaurants changing the way they operate? Do you have any flyers or online adverts that capture how your favourite café or restaurant has responded to Coronavirus?
- How are you eating during lockdown? Have you changed your diet, and if so, why? Are you enjoying this aspect of lockdown (experimenting and creating new dishes) or is it a worry to you (working hard to get the foods you like on the table)? Are you seeking to re-create your favourite takeaway or restaurant dish? How are you getting hold of your groceries?
- Both Passover and Ramadan / Eid have fallen within lockdown. How has lockdown affected the way you practice and celebrate these significant occasions? How are you staying connected to your families and faith communities, whilst having to stay socially distant?
Time to Get Creative:
- Take inspiration from Yvonne Bakht’s hand-written menu and create your own! List the various dishes you would serve if you could set up your own café, restaurant or takeaway. What would you serve, and why? Use your creativity to make something really eye-catching and attractive.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual visit to one of our archive collections, and perhaps found it interesting to reflect on our unique current circumstances. We hope that Manchester’s cafés and restaurants are able to endure the lockdown, including social distancing measures, and hope you feel inspired to help us capture the impact of Coronavirus on our lives. Which brings us to…
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. We want to ensure this is captured for future researchers, educators and commentators and that our collective national history represents all of our communities.
To do this we are launching a campaign to collect stories from Greater Manchester’s BAME communities. You can read more about this project here.
We’d love to hear about your experiences, reflections and responses to eating during this time – and see your menus from the Get Creative section of this post!
Please send us any videos, photos, newspaper articles, blogs, screenshots, creative projects, journals, diaries… anything you think tells the story of you and your community during the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand that many of the donations will be sent digitally, but please keep hold of any physical creations to add to the archive once we reopen!
Digital submissions can be emailed to [email protected] (please include your full name and contact details). For more information and submission guidelines, please visit our website www.racearchive.org.uk/covid-19-collecting/ and follow us on social media @aiucentre.