Birmingham’s curry heritage celebrated in new exhibition

A celebration of Birmingham's favourite dish - courtesy of Roger Gwynn

The history of the curry trade in Birmingham is being celebrated at a new exhibition in the city.

Birmingham’s favourite dish is the subject of a new display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

Birmingham is home to hundreds of Indian restaurants, but most diners are unaware it was the Bangladeshi community that pioneered the ‘curry culture’ in Britain.

Running until January 7, Knights of the Raj is part of a new project by Soul City Arts. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, its showcases the untold stories of those who pioneered the historic trade, tracing its origins back to the 1940s.

The exhibition includes furnished interiors, images, films and recorded histories. Augmented reality is being used to enhance the visitor experience through their mobile phones. One of the stand-out artefacts on display is a booth from the interior of the well-known Birmingham city centre curry restaurant, Koh-i-Noor, helping give visitors a truly authentic experience.

The restaurant opened on Horse Fair in the 1960s, making it one of the oldest curry houses in Birmingham, and one of the ‘first wave’ of curry houses to open in Britain.

The booth, along with associated items, including menus and a prayer hat belonging to the restaurant’s former owner, have also been acquired by Birmingham Museums Trust to become a permanent part of the city’s collection.

The items have been acquired through Collecting Birmingham, a three-year Birmingham Museums Trust project which was created to develop a collection of museum objects which tell stories of growing up, living and working in the city.

Initially formed of two adjacent restaurants, the Bengal Rooms and Star of India, Koh-i-Noor closed in 2016 for refurbishments. It has since reopened with a much more contemporary décor and a focus on modern dining.

Similar changes have been made by many other Indian restaurants as they attempt to attract new visitors and survive in a changing and competitive market. As a result, the classic interiors of the original curry houses of the 1960s, 70s and 80s are disappearing and so the objects were recognised as being of significant regional importance.

Rebecca Bridgman, Curator of Islamic & South Asian Art at Birmingham Museums Trust said: “The curry house institution and the Balti dish in particular, are profoundly rooted in Birmingham’s history. As the first wave of these restaurants are vanishing or being demolished, it is vitally important that their story is preserved. We are thrilled that Soul City Arts have brought this exhibition to BMAG and that the Koh-i-Noor restaurant booth will become a permanent part of the city’s history.”

As the first generation of post-war curry house owners are now reaching the end of their lives, this exhibition is intended to offer a vital insight into the people behind the industry, and how the trade grew and became integral to the life of Birmingham’s Bangladeshi community.