So Long, Pam Chawla (Mama Thai)
On the last day of the year, I remember Pam Chawla of Mama Thai who died in November. In recent years, Mama Thai had been a favourite destination for lunch where I was always greeted like one of the family by Pam & her husband Raj – and when the winter got cold, Pam fed me with spicy curry and Raj gave me special tea that never failed to alleviate any cold or flu. Mama Thai was a much-loved Spitalfields institution and Pam will be keenly missed.
Pam & Raj Chawla, proprietors of ‘Mama Thai,’ began selling noodles from a wooden hut in the Spitalfields Market on the very first day it reopened after the wholesale Fruit & Vegetable Market moved out in 1991. I used to go every Sunday and perch on a bench in the cavernous empty market to wolf a steaming plate of Mama Thai’s spicy noodles with chilli sauce. Before the renovations, there was a train that gave rides around the Market, there were football pitches and all kinds of community events, of which the dog show was most notable, and, sitting amongst all this chaotic life, Thai noodles were the perfect dish to warm my body and raise spirits after trudging around Columbia Rd and Brick Lane in the frost.
When the Market was renovated, Pam & Raj opened a shop at the corner of Toynbee St and Brune St, fifty yards down a side street from Christ Church, where hordes of office workers came every day to carry off dishes of their delicious and keenly-priced noodles and curry for lunch. A cooked meal for under five pounds is rare now – especially in Spitalfields – yet at Mama Thai you could buy good quality food prepared daily from fresh ingredients and get change from five pounds. There was a touching egalitarianism about this welcoming, brightly coloured restaurant, run with pride by Pam & Raj for a loyal coterie of regular customers, who kept coming back to show their appreciation.
Yet, although in the last quarter century, Mama Thai only moved a hundred yards from the Spitalfields Market to Toynbee St, the story began far away on another continent and it is a saga that involves both hard work and romance in equal measure.
Raj Chawla, our hero, was a restless spirit with perceptive dark eyes, who won a scholarship from India to study in Germany and, upon his return in 1971, decided to seek a life in Thailand. He learnt to cook in an American grill and managed a German restaurant in Bangkok, living above the shop. It was there that the demure Pam, our heroine, caught his attention when she came to sit in the restaurant, engendering a tender romance which continued for the rest of their lives. Together, the couple came to London in 1975 on a work permit to study hotel management, starting a stall at Camden Lock each weekend selling noodles cooked by Pam, who like many great cooks was self-taught, improvising her dishes and learning through experience.
On the first day trading in Spitalfields, Mama Thai took just twenty pounds but, over time, business grew to capacity. Then, in spite of Pam & Raj’s perseverance, Mama Thai had to leave the market when renovations replaced the wooden huts with steel and glass spaces now occupied by chain restaurants and commanding a rent beyond the turnover of a small independent. It took Pam & Raj a year to find their new premises, but it is a credit to their tenacity that while homogenous restaurants closed in their expensive central locations, Mama Thai deservedly thrived in this side street where discerning thrifty diners sought them out.
Five years ago, Raj took retirement after nineteen years at his job at the post office and Pam taught him to cook vegetarian dishes. “She’s the boss,” confirmed Raj, indicating Pam who glided around concealing her deep concentration with effortless poise and an easy smile. Possessing the immaculate hair, make-up and inscrutable grace of a forties’ screen goddess and ruling the kitchen with unspoken authority, Pam was capable of speaking volumes simply by raising a single eyebrow, which was exactly what she did at that moment, endorsing Raj’s statement.
I was putting away my notebook before lunch when a passing office worker, shovelling noodles into his mouth with clownish delight as he walked out the door, announced spontaneously to the world, “This is where I come when I’m hungry!” Pam & Raj laughed, because he proved their point – out of hard work and talent, they created a beautiful restaurant offering good food that everyone could afford and we all loved them for it.
The celebrated Pam Chawla, Mama Thai herself, stands holding Raj’s arm (standing second from left) when a new sign by Robson Cezar (front right) was installed last year
Pam & Raj portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Group portrait copyright © Sarah Ainslie