Eating in One of Britain's Most Racially Divided Towns
Census data shows that white and Asian residents of Blackburn, Lancashire are increasingly divided. I visited restaurants in the town's “Asian quarter” to find out how a council regeneration scheme is forging links between the communities.
It's Wednesday evening and the Turtle Bay opposite Blackburn railway station is so busy that it takes half an hour to get a drink. Having visited branches of the Caribbean restaurant chain in nearby Manchester and Preston, I'm not surprised by its popularity, but taken aback by the demographic—the patrons here are all white.
According to a recent Guardian article, the Lancashire town of Blackburn is one of the most racially divided places in Britain. Whalley Range (a neighbourhood just ten-minute's walk from Turtle Bay) has reportedly 95 percent Pakistani and Indian residents; and is home to a number of halal butchers, curry houses, South Asian confectioners, and shops. Blackburn Council describes this "Asian quarter" as as a rival to Manchester's Curry Mile—the popular strip of eateries that runs through the city's Rusholme neighbourhood.
Ten years ago, Whalley Range was the subject of a major council regeneration project. As well as boosting the local economy, the scheme was hoped to foster relations between Blackburn's Asian community and prevent the "white flight" evident in some of the town's neighbourhoods. Blackburn and Darwen Council senior communications officer Kate tells me: "It was about improving physical links between town centre core and Whalley Range area through highways improvements, pedestrian links, signage, visibility, and marketing."
But did it work? According to a 2009 report produced by the council on the Whalley Range regeneration scheme, it was a success—largely thanks to "the innovative way of engaging with the community through the development of the Whalley Range Business Group" who "were directly involved in design details for the project, as well as the consultation and delivery."
Sultan Aslan wasn't part of this Business Group, which included members of the council as well as local business owners, but he agrees that the project was a success. His family-run restaurant, Sultan, has been open in Whalley Range since 1987, and he tells me that he serves a diverse customer base.
"We have people from the Sikh and Hindu community, we have customers who aren't Asian," he says. "Every day is different."
Aslan adds that unlike Manchester's Curry Mile, which has seen shisha cafes take over from long-established curry houses in recent years, Whalley Range Bazaar business owners want to uphold more conservative Pakistani values.
"We've got a duty to the youth, so we don't encourage it," he says, referring to the smoking and drinking culture of some shisha houses. "I wouldn't open a shisha bar, anyway."
It's possible that such attitudes discourage Blackburn's young people from visiting Whalley Range, but Aslan hopes that his commitment to tradition—including his recipes, which have been passed down through generations—benefits the quality of his restaurant's food, as well as diner experience.
"We make home-style cooking for people who are separated, people who are professional," he says. "These days not everybody cooks, not everybody can but they still long for the food of the good old days and that's what we recreate."
As well as serving a different curry each day, Sultan also offers hot sandwiches and pasta dishes. Aslan tells me that cultural sensitivity is woven into how the restaurant is run.
"Our lamb isn't mixed with beef and the quality is very high. We only use UK meat and we're concerned from the source right through to the consumption," he says.
This approach seems to be working, with Sultan's chef preparing between 400 and 500 chapatis an hour for eager diners. I'm given two to accompany a warming bowl of urad bean dhal. The bread tastes satisfyingly simple, but the texture owes something to a more indulgent naan bread. I wolf both of them down so quickly that Aslan's youngest employee, Mohammed Bagas, is instructed to bring me another portion.
Down the road is another Whalley Range Bazaar institution: Manchester Sweet Centre. Aside from selling a wide selection of Asian confectionery, the shop is famed for its samosas. In the 33 years that it has been open, the recipe hasn't changed once.
"Everything is made in-house, except the drinks, and we make the samosas fresh every day," chef Anwar Majid tells me. He has worked at the shop for the last 20 years and has regular customers from Accrington, Chorley, Rawtenstall, and Manchester—all coming for the famous samosas.
"They're very healthy," he says. "The batter is just plain flour, oil, and water. For the filling, we boil lamb and take out all the fat. Then we add peas, chili, and spices, and fry them."
I try a vegetable one. It's filled with fluffy potato, which Majid informs me is mashed by hand, and the outer shell has a satisfying crunch. At 60p per samosa, I'm not surprised to hear that some customers come into Manchester Sweet Centre six times a week.
But the council's efforts to boost Whalley Range businesses and improve integration between communities haven't been welcomed by everyone. When I pop into Meena Bakery in the town centre, owner Fatima Patel tells me that not enough funding is being directed to other areas of Blackburn.
"They're doing a lot in Whalley Range Bazaar but not here," she says.
Racial division is still a major problem across Blackburn—not just in its Asian quarter. But if council integration projects can champion the quality of the town's food offerings as well as assist local business owners, there will be many reasons for residents to come together.
All photos by Akash Khadka.