“Ek chicken biriyani,” I tell Rizwan, the man behind the counter. He smiles, as if he knew this would be my order even before I placed it. My dost from Lahore and I seat ourselves at a table. There are very few spots in Bara Cafe from where you don’t sense the rhythms of what unfolds in the kitchen. The sizzle of the onions and the heavy, rhythmic chopping of meat are distinctly audible, as smoke rises up and smells waft towards us. On a Sunday, the ambience seems just perfect.
I can’t quite remember how I found Bara Cafe, written in striking red and green calligraphy imitating the Bengali letter. Perhaps it was that. Or, more likely, its food: cheap, fast and spicy creeping upon my Indian-student-in-foreign-land heart quickly. On the first few visits, I battled a heavy feeling of guilt. Before landing in Budapest, my friend gave me a long list of quaint European cafés I could spend my days at, reading about Bourdieu and Lefebvre and measuring out life in coffee spoons. After finding myself in enough Instagram frames, I rejected the pomposity for something truer to reality. I dipped my hands in biriyani, made do with greek yogurt on the side and quenched my spice-parched tongue. It was much more fulfilling, although not particularly poetic.
There were a few South-Asian restaurants/dine-ins in Budapest. And while most of them had a fancy air, Bara Cafe stood apart with its lack of pretence. Over my visits, I found that it is what drew many of us there. A limited menu, a makeshift casual arrangement of six tables, an informal setting where we had to go up to the counter to give our orders and take plates of steaming hot food off the counter. In a regular restaurant, we’re deliberately shielded from the mechanics of preparation. But Bara Cafe demanded us to be partisans. We built an intimacy with food from the moment we placed our order and Rizwan stepped into the kitchen. Instructions whizzed about in brazen tongue, and the clunks of the vessels — though not always pleasing — collapsed the boundaries of kitchen and restaurant, chef and customer, of social hierarchies that erected distances between us.
My initial love for Bara Cafe was visceral. The smells, sounds and the language in its hall were a balm for homesickness. But as I began to spend more time there, it demanded conscious engagement where I could objectively uncover more than what my own personal dynamic with it revealed. My friend from Lahore and me decided to make it a project for our ethnography class. Week after week, we immersed ourselves in its space to observe the interactions that took place within. Each week we sampled a different dish; aamras, veg curry with roti, my standard order of biriyani and sat, at times feeling like a privileged audience and, at others, like eavesdroppers.
One Sunday night, a group of four students seemed pretty excited about dining there. As we chatted them up, we found that on a trip to the subcontinent, they had learnt to cook South-Asian cuisine and continued practising it back home in Germany. Somehow, they said, coming to Bara Cafe had evoked the memory of that trip and the motivation to keep the cooking going. “It feels like home,” one of them said. I wondered what made everyone, irrespective of nationality or birthplace, reminisce about home when they were at Bara. Perhaps it was because at home, the charm of food didn’t rely on an artistic performance of either preparation or the process of consumption. It was always a rush, a chore that just needed to get done amidst other frustrations that boiled through the day. Rizwan’s antics in the kitchen reminded us of just that, his head glistening with sweat. As he came up to the counter, his manner transformed to a graceful monk, and the taste of the food was always, unsparingly, delicious.
As we got deeper into the story of Bara towards the last few weeks, we found that the owner, Shopan Shekhar, was originally from Bangladesh. When he migrated to Germany, he wanted to recreate the experience of the dhaba — hot and freshly prepared food that was available on the streets for travellers. Ask anyone who has dined at a dhaba in South Asia and they will tell you that the taste of the food at the dhaba is incomparable. And so, as he moved from Germany to Hungary and laid roots in Budapest, he began Bara Cafe — not quite a dhaba but a close European equivalent. In a way it was nostalgia that was at the heart of what Shopan began, and each time that customers walk in to the café, it triggers a similar longing in them — of home, of trips taken and the lingering memory of spice on their tongues. And hence, every time you place an order at Bara Cafe, you are always given the choice of “how spicy?” My answer, always, is very spicy.
The dine-in initially began in collaboration with Shopan’s nephew, but was able to expand beyond being a family business to employ workers like Rizwan who come to Europe in search of work and money to send back to their families in countries of South Asia. We met Rizwan at McDonald’s on his only day off, Friday. He’d been to the mosque in the morning, and came to meet us in the afternoon. As he told his story, we began to to shed the positive, even romantic notions we had built up about Bara Cafe until then. Rizwan worked six days a week for almost 13 hours a day. He lived in a hostel-like accommodation, sharing space with several other men. He himself didn’t make very much, but had to send money for his wife and kids in North Pakistan, which was stricken by frequent unrest. He barely ever went out, or had a social life in Budapest. The theory of employing South-Asian workers in a bid to give them employment soon shattered when we understood that it made more business sense that they were hired for being cheap labour resources. Even the aspects of the café that we found endearing, like its open kitchen, Rizwan found stressful because he was under scrutiny all the time.
After the last interview with Rizwan, we came out feeling a little disoriented. How were we to reconcile the experiences of all stakeholders? Suffice it to say that the view from behind the kitchen is very different from the front. And life, and every little perspective you get, depends on where you had found a seat.
(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the persons and entities involved)
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