Ashoka: From Bengal to South Yorkshire
Sheffield, August 1967. A young Bengali man, backed by a local lawyer, opens his first restaurant on Ecclesall Road. He’s got no industry experience other than as a waiter and offers a largely unknown range of exotic dishes.
While many Eccy Road restaurants are here today, gone tomorrow, the curry house that Kamal Ahmed founded has been serving biriyanis, baltis and butter naans for 50 years. Ashoka is now the oldest independent business in the area.
“[Ahmed] came here from Bangladesh at the age of 18,” said current owner Rahul Amin. “He didn’t have any money and landed in London on a boat. He wanted to work in restaurants but he couldn’t afford an apron so he used to wear a rice sack around his waist.”
Kamal was obsessed with British service culture and would sit in the dining room of the Savoy Hotel with a cup of tea for hours, observing how the waiters worked the tables and what they wore.
Licensing laws at the time forced pubs to close at 11pm, even on a Saturday. But Indian restaurants would often stay open until 3am, offering weekend revellers hot food and more beer. This quickly saw them become ingrained in British culture and nightlife.
Ashoka wasn’t the first Indian restaurant in Sheffield but it’s the oldest one still open. It counts among its fans the Arctic Monkeys, who made a flying visit on the hometown date of a recent tour.
Back in the late sixties, Kamal brought the evocative flavours of Indian cooking to suburban Sheffield at a time when English food still consisted of overcooked veg and mashed potato. Long before the concept of multiculturalism entered the mainstream, he needed to win Sheffielders over to something radically different.
“It was seen as exotic,” said Amin. “He really went above and beyond in terms of the design of the place. Ashoka used to use silver cutlery made in Sheffield, which no one else did. The menus were written by hand in calligraphy.”
Hundreds of forward-thinking foodies have followed in Kamal’s footsteps, with the city’s culinary scene unrecognisable from that of the late 1960s and now a major contributor to the economy, as well as a key selling point for residents, visitors and start-up businesses.
International cuisine in Sheffield is flourishing, with Mexican, Kurdish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants all serving food on London Road alone.
Sheffield was the only whole city to make The Observer’s recent roundup of ’50 things we love in the world of food right now’, thanks to a food scene that “increasingly rivals anything in the rest of the UK.”
But the influence of other cultures on the city goes back further than the 1960s. First cooked up in 1885, the cherished delicacy Henderson’s Relish, which Ashoka have been using in their recipes for 30 years, is flavoured with cloves, African tamarinds and cayenne peppers as part of its unique South Yorkshire spice.
Current owner Amin, whose father came to the UK from India in the 1970s to finish his PhD, is keen to point out that the arrival of Indian food is more the result of a synthesis than a straightforward relocation.
“We want to celebrate the great British curry,” he said. “A lot of people get so caught up in authenticity, or they want this curry that they tasted on holiday in Kerala.
“But Britain’s taken the curry over the decades and made it its own. Chicken tikka masala or an onion bhaji, you won’t get in India. But there’s nothing wrong with those dishes – they’re delicious. It’s unashamedly a British curry but still authentic in its roots to India.”
The menu has evolved over the years, spawning dishes not just unknown in India but unknown outside Ecclesall Road. One of Ashoka’s bestsellers, and a favourite of Alex Turner’s crew, is the taxi driver curry.
According to Amin, it began when a cab driver came in asking for a dish that his late wife used to cook, remembering “roughly in his head” what it tasted like. After some adjustments to the recipe, the restaurant started getting requests for the dish and eventually added it to the menu.
Kamal, who ran the restaurant for nearly 40 years until he retired in 2004, died in 2017 at the age of 80. His favourite curry, the lamb methi, is still served by Ashoka today.
As well as our food, migration has transformed almost every aspect of British culture, making our music, art, literature and politics richer, more exciting and more diverse, as well as making a significant contribution to the UK economy.
The rebellious spirit of first generation arrivals like Kamal, who saw an opportunity to build something new from the cultures of the past, has left a legacy that is still unfolding.