All Aboard for Bangla Town

If you thought fish and chips was Britain's favourite dish, think again. A recent survey showed it is actually chicken tikka massala. And there's no better place to eat it than the famous curry houses of Brick Lane.

Brick Lane runs through the heart of Spitalfields, one of the liveliest pockets of London's East End. It lies east of Liverpool Street station, just north of the City of London. But its faces couldn't be more different from the besuited businessmen of the financial district. Here Cockney street traders rub shoulders with Muslim shopkeepers in long white robes and embroidered caps, and hip teens browse the market stalls for the latest in street cred clothes and body ornaments alongside Asian mothers pushing prams and looking for a new sari.

Like chicken tikka massala (a dish unknown on the sub-continent - the inauthentic massala sauce caters for the British desire to smother meat in gravy), Spitalfields is about blending cultures. It takes its name from St Mary Spital, a medieval priory hospital whose surrounding lands later became a haven for immigrants. In 1685, Huguenots flocked here to escape religious persecution in France and established themselves as silk weavers and furniture makers. Jewish refugees followed in the 19th century, setting up as tailors, leather workers and furriers. Today it is the centre of Britain's Bengali and Pakistani communities, home to the largest concentration of Bangladeshis outside Bangladesh. Their cultural influence is so strong that, a couple of years ago, the area around Brick Lane was officially renamed Bangla Town.

Like their predecessors, Spitalfields' latest community carried on the rag trade. Running off Brick Lane is Fashion Street, lined with narrow brick houses whose street-level windows advertise textile businesses. Increasingly, the Georgian terraces which once concealed small sweatshops are being renovated into desirable homes, and many of the old garment and leather factory warehouses have been converted into trendy loft apartments. But budding designers still find inspiration in the shops that sell bolts of rich, colourful fabric. And the legacy lives on not least in the area's boisterous street markets.

The most famous is Petticoat Lane (Sunday, from 9am to 2pm), which dates back as early as 1603. Located on and around Middlesex Street, its name comes from the ladies' undergarments once sold here. Jewish settlers developed the market in the 1800s. They were allowed to trade on Sunday, and Sunday remains Spitalfields' busiest market day. Though Petticoat Lane is known for its bargain clothing and leather jackets, these days it's a challenge to sort the wheat from the chaff. Tourists have swelled the local throngs, making it hard to browse, and many stalls now just sell tat. But with perseverance you can still ferret out designer over-runs and trendy clubwear.  Brick Lane's market (Sunday, from 8am to 1pm) sets up north of the railway bridge, proffering clothes and household goods, fruit and veg. More interesting is the indoor warren of stalls selling second-hand goods, books and collectibles, in a warehouse above Cheshire Street.

The covered Spitalfields Market, on Commercial Street, is the best of all. Established as a fruit and vegetable market in 1682, it operated as such until 1991. Today there's an organic produce market (Sunday and Friday, from 10am to 5pm), while a general market (Monday to Friday, from 11am to 3pm, and Sunday, from 10am to 5pm) sells unique crafts, jewellery, furniture, handmade soaps, candles and other items, as well as clothing. In one corner food stalls serve up everything from Thai noodles to falafel.

Opposite the market, Nicholas Hawksmoor's masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, soars above the traffic on Commercial Street. This is the grandest of the architect's London churches, built in 1714-29. Although long-term restoration work is underway, the church is open and it's worth a look inside to see the beautiful stained-glass window. The church is especially impressive at night when illuminated by floodlights.

On the opposite corner of Fournier Street, the Ten Bells pub is a reminder of Spitalfields' darker past. It was here that Jack the Ripper met many of his prostitute victims. The pub is a popular stop on Jack the Ripper walking tours of the area (given on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings; for information, tel: 0208-8558 9446). The neat houses of Fournier Street, with their distinctive shutters and porches, were once home to the Huguenot silk weavers. It leads back to Brick Lane where, on the corner, is a building that perfectly captures Spitalfields' character. Built as a Huguenot chapel in 1743, it subsequently became a Methodist church, then a synagogue, and is now the London Jamme Masjid mosque.

And if you are hungry at the end of your day exploring the area's markets, there are 40 or more curry restaurants to choose from in and around Brick Lane. Here you can try Bengali dishes that you won't find anywhere else in the UK, including Bangladeshi fish dishes with exotic names. Don't limit yourself to chicken tikka massala - go for the real spice in Bangla Town!

© Donna Dailey