At The Lahore One Kebab Restaurant
‘To the jaded eye, the Commercial Road in East London is little more than a conveyor belt for courier bikes and lorries to the east coast; an ancient thoroughfare for the flow of trade now flanked with glassily optimistic city flats, dusty baby-clothes suppliers, the odd haberdashery warehouse, wholesale fashion outlets and a permanently shut Lloyds Bank with only a sprouting of ragwort at its entrance to commemorate the death of business. But Harris noticed none of it as he sought out a suitable place to take the lady Shakespeare scholar on his arm for dinner. What he saw was a road studded with a string of brightly lit curry and kebab houses, each one almost a replica of the last, yet quietly boasting a subtle difference in sauce or cooking method or regional bias, visible only to the naked eye of a true native. The eateries were all Lahori, though they served what they termed Indian food.” - extract from Rosie Dastgir’s novel, “A Small Fortune.”
When I first lived in Whitechapel in the mid nineteen-nineties, the Lahore restaurants were some of the best eateries in the vicinity. I remember around that time that my father stopped off at the Lahore One Kebab Restaurant on a road trip to Mecca with a group of fellow pilgrims. Years later, when he was dying, I took him there again. He could never get rid of the memory of those kebabs, and he enjoyed one of his last meals at that restaurant on Commercial Rd.
Revisiting it, I find that little has changed – on the outside, at least. The dazzling neon sign sits above a modest frontage, displaying a couple of favourable press reviews and the menu. When I step inside, I see that the interior has been transformed. The Formica tables have gone, replaced with modern ply and steel ones, and matching chairs. The halogen lighting is bright, the plywood clad walls homely, yet sleek. No flock wallpaper in this establishment. Fragrant smells curl out from the kitchen. Ali, one of the waiters, from Sialkot, Pakistan, is getting ready for the lunchtime rush. He was not always a waiter, he confides, but a former newspaper man at the Jhang newspaper in Pakistan before coming to England. Clearly he is a seasoned multi-tasker, setting tables, attending to customers as they arrive, while stopping now and then to discuss the troubling situation in his home country, citing the resurgent Taliban and the lack of decent education for its burgeoning young population.
The lunchtime crowd are gathering. Nestled around a cosy booth sit four guys; two younger, two elder. They pore over the menu, joking and chatting. I ask them where they are from – meaning which neighbourhood of London.
Rahul, casually hip in baseball cap, bomber jacket, designer specs, pipes up, “He’s from Bangladesh, and I’m Indian.”
“You’re not from India, you’re from Essex,” says Andy White Patel, the elder man beside sitting him. Much laughter.
“Essex is my religion,” Rahul admits. “Nothing Indian about me.”
Rahul is lunching with his father, Rajesh, a newsagent in Watney Market. Rahul’s mate, Quyum, works in the rag trade. They are regulars here.
Andy White Patel tucks into chicken biryani. Normally they get kebabs, they tell me, or the famous chicken tikka roll, but today they have a bit more time. Hence the fancier choice.
The restaurant was established in 1984 by Mohammed Anjum. Smartly dressed in open necked checked shirt, Mr Anjum emanates confidence and authority as he oversees his highly successful business. He was born and educated in Lahore, Pakistan, and arrived in London in 1981 as an electrical engineer, with the intention of pursuing further study. But he ploughed another course instead; the food business.
“When I came to this country, I noticed that people are dying for this kind of food, and I thought to myself why don’t you something like this, and do it properly?”
Proper Lahore cooking, he explained, should be like home cooking. Cities like Lahore, Lucknow, Benares, Hyderabad, are all synonymous with great cooking, and that was what he saw he must tap into. This was the task and the challenge he set himself, helped by what he learnt from his mother-in-law who taught him the art of creating home cooking rather than traditional ‘Indian restaurant’ food popular with Brits: Madras and Vindaloo curries, chicken masala in bright orangey sauce.
“Lots of Asians come to my restaurants,” he explains. “About 90%. And the second generation, the younger crowd, still love coming back to the place they visited with their parents.”
Mr Anjum muses that many Asian people have moved out to Ilford, Chigwell and beyond. But he has stayed locally, living close to the Royal London Hospital. He implies that this is a more modest choice, he has chosen to spend his money on educating his children, a choice that sets him apart from some of his peers running similar eateries in the area.
“They prefer to open more and more branches,” he says, “and want their kids to go into the business.” Mr Anjum had other plans for his four children. His two sons were educated at City of London School for Boys, and St Pauls. His eldest daughter is at UCL, though considered Cambridge University, plumping to stay in London. Raj, one of his sons, is studying and working part time at the Lahore One.
“It isn’t easy to teach anyone,” he tells me, “specially when you’re handling a knife, and chopping an onion, Doing it at home is fine, but on a commercial basis – it’s something else. You have to learn the technique; I try to teach Ameer, my son. He’s only a twenty-one year old boy – young, good at learning, a very good learner, but my feeling is, you can’t learn it over night.”
Mr Anjum is clearly a dedicated and very hard worker himself. The restaurant is testimony to that. This autumn he took his youngest son up to Oxford, where he is now studying geography.
“I drove him up there, took him to his room,” he recalls, eyes shining,“My hard work has paid off, I can send you here.”
Mr Anjum was the son of a graduate stenographer, who worked at Grindlays Bank, during the days of British rule in India. He quickly realized, in that environment, that an education is all important. As did his son, years later, bringing up his children and running a business in the modern East End of London.
I wonder what he thinks about how the East End has changed. “The East End had a bad reputation back in nineteen-eighties,” he says. But he dwells on something positive he remembers: the mixed Jewish and Asian community. “I remember Jewish community helped our business at that time, as halal and kosher is similar and they ate our food. And that was good.”
I want to hear about the legendary menu. What is so special about it and how it is distinguished from traditional Brit Indian restaurant food?
“It is curry, fried chicken. Chicken Karahi is Pakistani. It is boneless, so you can eat it with a knife and fork, rather than holding a piece of bone in your hand, sitting opposite someone …” he says, implying as he does with a shake of the head that it is a little uncouth. “These days, that fashion for eating with the hands is almost over.”
The restaurant uses boneless chicken not minced up in a machine for ease of production, like so many restaurants in places like Manchester and Birmingham.
“The basic thing is always fresh ingredients, fresh meat and vegetables, nothing is frozen. And we don’t compromise on the spices, or on the quality, where we buy it. That is the main key to the success of the menu. You can get things on the cheap, but we’ve not done that. For the last twenty years, we’ve maintained the standard of the food we serve.”
Mr Anjum describes his food with passion and affection. He remembers how he catered a wedding party in Brighton, serving his signature Lahore chicken, which was recognized by one of the guests who used to frequent the Lahore One when he was younger with his father.
“He was shocked. I was flattered. It was a good compliment.”
The food is a creation rather than something precooked and reheated. “I don’t do take away. We don’t do home delivery. You want people to come to the restaurant – not serve fast food. Sometimes people call cabs and we send the food to them, but we don’t do the home delivery thing.”
I do not blame him. A great place for dinner or, if you are Harris, a first date.
Mohammed Anjum founded the Lahore One Kebab Restaurant in 1984.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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