The Lahori Chefs Of Whitechapel
“A string of neon-lit curry and kebab houses line the streets of Whitechapel around Commercial Rd. These eateries are hidden gems, serving authentic Pakistani cooking that draws those pining for the nostalgic flavours of home, as well as a mixed crowd from East London, the City, Essex and beyond.
When my father went on pilgrimage to Mecca, driving all the way from Scotland to Saudi Arabia, he insisted on stopping off at one of these Lahore restaurants and the memory of such exquisite food drew him back years later, when he was dying of cancer. His time was running out, but the food reminded him of home and happier days.
It is all about the cooking. You will not find flock wallpaper or sound-muffling carpet in these establishments. Bring your own beer or wine – if you like – or sample one of the mango, salty or sweet lassies on offer.”
Mohammed Azeem, Chef at The Original Lahore Kebab House, Umberston St, E1
“You name it, I’ll cook it,” says Mohammed Azeem, reeling off a cornucopia of dishes, and he is not exaggerating. The menu is extensive and hugely popular, packing in a dedicated lunchtime crowd and hundreds of diners every evening.
It is a short commute to work for Mohammed Azeem who lives in Poplar, but his journey to this point began years ago, thousands of miles away in Lahore, Pakistan. He left his home town in 1987 at the age of nineteen, leaving behind six sisters, four brothers and his parents who worked on the land. He came here knowing nobody, with neither friends nor relatives to soften the landing. On the flight to London, he got chatting to another young Pakistani, but the two parted ways upon arrival. Wandering the streets of East London, he trudged along Commercial Rd and spotted the young man from his flight through the windows of the Original Lahore Kebab House where he was working.
Mohammed Azeem eagerly knocked on the glass and the two were reunited. By a twist of fate, it turned out that the man’s uncle was the owner of the restaurant and when Mohammed Azeem explained his desperate situation – alone and without work in a foreign city – the nephew came to his rescue. They were looking for a dishwasher at his uncle’s restaurant and would he be interested in the job? Mohammed Azeem took on the position immediately – it was a foot in the door. Within two months, he was learning how to make Shish Kebabs. Soon he was eager to try his hand using the clay ovens for Roti, Naans and all manner of Pakistani breads.
Today, he is the head chef with a team of cooks that he oversees. He shows me around the large, open plan kitchen and it is an awesome sight. Clay ovens belt out heat. Rows of Tupperware containers are lined up with turmeric, cumin, crushed garlic and ginger. Long, slender lamb kebabs sizzle on open grills over glowing coals. Everything is cooked freshly, Mohammed explains, starting from scratch each day. Nothing is made using shop-bought curry powder. Perish the thought. Nowadays, Mohammed Azeem does not miss home as much as he once did, in the days when he was a new arrival. “Being inside the restaurant,” he says happily, “it’s like I’m in Lahore – the atmosphere and everything.” I can see exactly what he means.
The restaurant is family for Mohammed Azeem. His boss’s auntie arranged his marriage with a bride here. His wife works at a fashion college in the area and his fifteen-year-old daughter attends the Mulberry School nearby. He is pleased with the education she is receiving. “Inshallah, she’ll do more studying,” he says, quietly positive about her latest interest in becoming a solicitor. “It doesn’t matter what she does,” he explains modestly, “so long as she is doing something good with her life.”
Two years ago, Mohammed Azeem managed to build himself a house in Lahore. An achievement that would be unthinkable for him in London. The house represents the realisation of a long and hard-earned dream and, each year, he takes his daughter back to Pakistan. It might be the place where he will eventually retire, but he has no firm plans yet. The kitchen beckons. And for now, the house is for much-anticipated annual summer holidays. “You can go for a visit,” he muses, “but you can’t stay there forever.”
Mohammed Ashok Ali, Chef at Lahore One Kebab Restaurant, 218 Commercial Rd, E1
Going behind the scenes of the small yet productive kitchen at Lahore One, I find the chef, softly-spoken Mohammed Ashok Ali, labouring over cauldrons of aromatic dishes. Pausing from his culinary duties, he tells me how he ended up here in East London, working as a chef. Born in Bangladesh, he came to England in 1999 with the help of his uncles who were living here. In those days, he was able to procure the necessary working visa which allowed him to find employment and send money home to his family.
Back in Bangladesh, he ran his own cash-and-carry corner shop. The idea of becoming a chef never occurred to him until he arrived in London, where it just so happened that they were looking for a chef at Lahore One and it was here that he began his new career, learning the art of cooking Pakistani food. He has been working here ever since and explains it is a matter of great pride for him when customers compliment him. No complaints at all, he beams, not even one.
What is it that makes the food on offer at Lahore One so distinctive from, say, the restaurants you find on Brick Lane? Mohammed explains that there are differences in cooking methods and spice preferences – for example, red chillies prevail in Indian food, whereas the green variety are preferred in Pakistani food. Yet it is something more fundamental – in Indian restaurants here, you will find dishes such as Vindaloo or Chicken Tikka Masala, created and adapted for English tastes. But authentic Pakistani food is about deeply-layered home cooking, based upon recipes and methods passed down through generations. As Ameer Anjum, son of the owner and current manager, points out – the food at Lahore One is rooted firmly in the home cooking of his Pakistani grandparents, aunts and uncles.
What does Mohammed miss about home? The chef admits that when he was a new arrival here, he yearned for his country and family very much, but now he has a family of his own here, a wife and two children, he is happily settled. Trips back to Bangladesh are infrequent – he has returned only three times since he first came. Yet he is content with his life and emphatic that this is his home now, with his family here in London where he is the proud chef at Lahore One.
Zulen Ahmed, Head Chef at Saffron, 53 Brick Lane
Abdul Tahid, Head Chef at Papadoms, 94 Brick Lane
Abdul Ahad Forhad, Curry Chef at Monsoon, 78 Brick Lane
You may also like to read Rosie Dastgir’s feature At The Lahore One Kebab Restaurant