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Happy 75th Birthday Halal Restaurant!

September 11, 2014
by the gentle author

Asab Miah, Chef at the Halal Restaurant, has been cooking for forty-four years

This week, the Halal Restaurant - the East End’s oldest curry house – celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday and so Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I went along to share in the festivities.

We were summoned to the former Hostel for Indian Seaman, situated in an eighteenth century house on the corner of Alie St and St Mark St, at eleven thirty in the morning for a luncheon party attended by the Halal Restaurant’s most loyal customers. The early hour was because – such is the popularity of this beloved institution – there were to be two lunch sittings that day in order to fit in everyone who wanted to join the birthday celebrations.

In 1939, the Halal Restaurant was born when Mr Jafferi opened up the mess of the Indian Seamen’s Hostel to all and, even today, it is still distinguished by plain canteen decor and a small unpretentious menu of favourite dishes. Yet this has proved to be a winning combination, especially among diners from City who have made the Halal Restaurant their home from home.

We were greeted by proprietor Mahaboob Narangoli, all smiles and his eyes shining with excitement to introduce us to his father, Usman Abubacker, who began working here as a waiter back in 1970 before taking over in 1978. The whole family were gathered on this proud occasion to welcome a restaurant-full of customers, all of whom are known by their first names, twice.

Curry-hound Guy Morgan confessed he first ate here in 1965 and never looked back. He recalled those early days when customers walked through the kitchen to reach the tiny dining room. “You could see and smell the pots of curry cooking,” he told me, growing enraptured at the thought. As excited guests filled up the restaurant, all had similar stories to tell and were proud to declare how long they had been coming. For many of these workers, this has been the consistent element in their working lives as, over the decades, they have changed jobs, companies have amalgamated and the City has changed beyond recognition, yet the menu and the food at the Halal Restauarant have remained reassuringly constant.

Eager to set proceedings in motion, Mahaboob made a generous speech of welcome, greeted with affectionate applause from the hungry diners. Then the waiters leapt into action and everyone was tucking in to starters comprising samosas and chicken tikka with popadoms and chutney. Next, one of the long-term customers made a speech of appreciation which culminated in a “Hip-Hip-Hooray for the Halal Restaurant!”

A hush fell as Usman Abubacker stepped forward to give the main speech, recalling with a quiet dignity how he started there in that same room, forty-four years ago, earning thirteen pounds a week. Yet even his involvement was predated by the most senior customer, Maurice Courtnell, who has been dining there for sixty-six years. Usman Abubacker concluded his speech by inviting everyone to return for the hundredth anniversary in 2039 and I, for one, hope to be there.

In the restless city, where restaurants come and go, it is an inspiration to come upon this joyful exception where one family have cultivated an open-hearted relationship with their customers that is reciprocated and enduring – establishing the Halal Restaurant as one of London’s cherished culinary landmarks.

Usman Abubacker and his son Mahboob Narangali

Mahaboob and and his wife Shahina

Mahaboob and the waiters

Mahaboob and the cooks

Asab Miah cooks everything freshly every day

Usman Abubacker makes his speech to the assembly

Three cheers for the Halal Restaurant!

Usman Abubacker began working here as a waiter in 1970 and took over in 1978

Making naan bread

Extricating it from the clay oven

Diners tuck in

Asab Miah takes a moment to relax and enjoy a samosa before the second lunch sitting

Mahaboob and his mother, Aleema

The family behind the Halal Restaurant

Halal Restaurant, 2 St Mark St, E1 8DJ 020 7481 1700

You may also like to read my original feature

At the Halal Restaurant

and take a look at

The Curry Chefs of Brick Lane

Wonderful East End

September 10, 2014
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish these evocative pictures of the East End (with some occasionally facetious original captions) selected from the popular magazine Wonderful London edited by St John Adcock and produced by The Fleetway House in the nineteen-twenties. Most photographers were not credited – though many were distinguished talents of the day, including East End photographer William Whiffin (1879-1957).

Boys are often seen without boots or stockings, and football barefoot under such conditions has grave risks from glass or old tin cans, but there are many urchins who would rather run about barefoot.

When this narrow little dwelling in St John’s Hill, Shadwell, was first built in 1753, its inhabitants could walk in a few minutes to the meadows round Stepney or, venture further afield, to hear the cuckoo in the orchards of Poplar.

Middlesex St is still known by its old name of Petticoat Lane. Some of the goods on offer at amazingly low prices on a Sunday morning are not above suspicion of being stolen, and you may buy a watch at one end of the street and see it for sale again by the time you reach reach the other.

A vanished theatre on the borders of Hoxton, just before demolition, photographed by William Whiffin. In 1838, a tea garden by the name of ‘the Eagle Tavern’ was put up in Shepherdess Walk in the City Rd near the ‘Shepherd & Shepherdess,’ a similar establishment founded at the beginning of the same century. Melodramas such as ‘The Lights ‘O London’ and entertainments like ‘The Secrets of the Harem,’ were also given. In 1882, General Booth turned the place into a Meeting Hall for his Salvation Army. There is little suggestion of the pastoral about Shepherdess Walk now.

In the East End and all over the poorer parts of London, a strange kind of establishment, half booth, half shop, is common and particularly popular with greengrocers. Old packing cases are the foundation of a slope of fruit which begins unpleasantly near the level of the pavement and ends in the recess behind the dingy awning. At night, the buttresses of vegetables are withdrawn into shelter.

Old shop front in Bow photographed by William Whiffin. Pawnbroking, once as decorous as banking, has fallen from the high estate in the vicinity of Lombard St. Now, combined instead with the sale of secondhand jewellery, furniture and hundred other commodities, it is apt to seek the corners of the meaner streets.

A water tank covered by a plank in a backyard among the slums is an unlikely place for a stage, but an undaunted admirer of that great Cockney humorist, Charlie Chaplin, is holding his audience with an imitation of  the well-known  gestures with which the famous comic actor indicates the care-free-though-down-and-out view of life which he has immortalised.

Old shop front in Poplar photographed by William Whiffin

An old charity school for girl and boy down at Wapping founded in 1704. The present building dates from 1760 and the school is supported by voluntary subscriptions. The school provided for the ‘putting out of apprentices’ and for clothing the pupils.

The hunt for bargains in Shoreditch.  A glamour surrounds the rickety coster’s barrow which supports a few dozens of books. But, to tell the truth, the organisation of the big shops is now so efficient that the chances of finding anything good at these open air book markets may have long odds laid against it.

The landsman’s conception of a sailing vessel, with all its complex of standing and running rigging that serves mast and sail with ordered efficiency, is apt for a shock when he sees a Thames barge by a dockside. The endless coils and loops of rope of different thickness, the length of chain and the litter of brooms, buckets, fenders and pieces of canvas, seem to be in the most insuperable confusion.

Gloom and grime in Chinatown.  Pennyfields runs from West India Dock Rd to Poplar High St. A Chinese restaurant on the corner and a few Chinese and European clothes are all that is to be seen in the daytime.

The gem of Cornhill, Birches, where it stood for two hundred years. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the brothers Adam erected its beautiful shop front. Within were old bills of fare printed on satin, a silver tureen fashioned to the likeness of a turtle and many other curious odd-flavoured things. Birches have catered for the inspired feasting of the City Companies and Guilds for two centuries but now this shop has moved to Old Broad St and, instead of Adam, we are to have Art Nouveau ferro-concrete.

It is doubtful if the Borough Council of Poplar had any notion, when they supplied the district with water carts, that the supplementary use pictured in this photograph by William Whiffin would be made of them. Given a complacent driver, there is no reason why these children should not go on for miles.

Grime and gloom in St George’s St photographed by William Whiffin. St George’s St used to be the famous Ratcliff Highway and runs from East Smithfield to Shadwell High St. It is a maritime street and contains various establishments, religious and otherwise, which cater for the sailor.

River Lea at Bow Bridge photographed by William Whiffin. On the right are Bow flour mills, while to the left, beyond the bridge, a large brewery is seen.

A view of Curtain Rd photographed by William Whiffin, famed for its cabinet makers. It runs from Worship St – a turning to the left when walking along Norton Folgate towards Shoreditch High St – to Old St. Curtain Rd got its name from a curtain wall, once part of the outworks of the city’s fortifications.

Fish porters of Billingsgate gathered around consignments lately arrived from the coast. At one time, smacks brought all the fish sold in the market and were unloaded at Billingsgate Wharf, said to be the oldest in London.

Crosby Hall as it stood in Bishopsgate. Alderman Sir John Crosby, a wealthy grocer, got the lease of some ground off Bishopsgate in 1466 from Alice Ashfield, Prioress of St Helen’s, at a rent of eleven pounds, six shillings and eightpence per annum, and built Crosby Hall there. It came into the possession of Sir Thomas More around 1518 and by 1638 it was in the hands of the East India Company, but in 1910 it was taken down and re-erected in Cheyne Walk.

Whatever their relations with the Constable may come to be in later life, the children of the East End, in their early days, are quite willing to use his protection at wide street crossings.

There is no more important work in the great cities than the amelioration of the slum child’s lot. Many East End children have never been beyond their own disease-ridden courts and dingy streets that form their playground.

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

Wonderful London

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Aga Rais Mirza, Printer

September 9, 2014
by the gentle author

This remarkable interview and set of pictures of Aga Rais Mirza, who spent his first years in Britain living in Spitalfields, were supplied to me courtesy of the oral history research project currently being undertaken under the umbrella of Everyday Muslim

Aga Rais Mirza was born in 1938 in the Indian city of Jaipur and came to London at the age of twenty-two, on 24th of January 1960. He came to seek a better life and always intending to go back home, yet he never did. Like many of his generation, the date of his arrival was etched in his mind. Mr Mirza’s first landlord was in the print business and guided him towards a career in printing and helped him enroll at the London College of Printing in Kennington while, to earn a living, he worked evenings in a canteen at Victoria Station called Express Deli. Mr Mirza spent his working life as a printer.

“I finished my education in Pakistan and I thought, ‘I should go over there to acquire more knowledge, more education, and then I will come back to Pakistan again.’ So I came here basically for the education. I took a plane from Karachi and landed over at Heathrow. At that time every English face looked alike to me, I was very scared and I had limited money, and they charged me five guineas from the airport to Victoria Terminal. But when we came to Victoria Terminal, I saw his face – my friend’s face – then I felt quite relaxed.

He brought me to Shoreditch, where he was living in a small box room on the first floor. There were three bedrooms in the house and all the rooms were occupied by the tenants. I started living there – I was sleeping on the mattress and he would sleep on to the bed. Slowly and gradually, he started looking for a job for me.

I got my first job in Leyton E10 in a wire cable company. So I started working over there and then I looked for a house over there with more room. I got an unfurnished flat at 5 Princelet St, Aldgate.  I started living over there and it was quite big for me. I had a single bed. A friend of my friend contacted me who came from Punjab, he needed a place to live, so I invited to him to stay with me. He was in the tailoring business.

It was entirely different for me because before I was living with my parents and my family, here I was living on my own. I had to do everything that they used to do at home. Now I had to cook my food, I had to wash my clothes, and I had to do the shopping as well. So I did everything, while over there everything was shared by my sisters, by my brothers, by my parent. So it was very hard.

At that time, I used to write letters home. There was no telephone system and I did not have enough money to make telephone calls, so I used to write them letters – and letters used to take nearly two weeks. So, in a month’s time, I got a letter back.

When my wife came over, it was very difficult for her as well because the standard of living was very low and she was expecting something high in London. She was very pleased to tell her friends that she is going to London. When she came here, oh, it was a big big shock of her life! She was thinking I am living in Buckingham Palace but I was living in a very small house, in a very small flat, in Princelet St. It was a very low area then. There were not a lot of women living there and there were a lot of beggars, so whenever she used to walk on the street everyone was watching her, staring at her. So she got quite scared at the time.

I always kept the goal in my mind that in a few years of hard work we might be better off at home, in our own country.”

Aga Rais Mirza at the airport

Aga Rais Mirza at the laundrette

Aga Rais Mirza in Petticoat Lane in the sixties

Aga Rais Mirza’s friend in the churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields

Aga Rais Mirza worked nights at Victoria Station while studying printing

In the kitchen at Victoria Station

Aga Rais Mirza, squatting centre, with his class at London College of Printing in Kennington

Aga Rais Mirza at London College of Printing

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Joginder Singh, Shoe Maker

Adbul Mukthadir, Waiter

Captain Shiv Banerjeree, Justice of the Peace

Sanu Mia, Business Man

King Of The Bottletops At The City Farm

September 8, 2014
by the gentle author

Robson & Kellogg the Cockerell

In recent weeks, Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops has been enjoying a spell as artist-in-residence at Spitalfields City Farm, so while I was there picking hops with Master Brewer, Ben Ott, of Truman’s Beer last week, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I dropped in to see how he was getting along.

The mellow atmosphere of harvest-time prevails at the farm now and I discovered Robson at work in his studio between the vegetable patch, where lines of tomato plants hang heavy with fruit, and the pig sty under the apple trees, where Holmes & Watson snaffle up windfalls.

Inside the tiny converted portacabin, lined with weatherboarding and hung with Robson’s colourful pictures on the outside, you discover more bottlecaps than you ever saw, all piled up like loose coins in the king’s counting house. On a long shelf, lines of old tea tins serve as containers for each distinctive variety. All day, visitors to the farm - both young and old – come and go, dropping in to help sort bottletops into their respective colours or staying around longer to learn how to make their own pictures. And in the midst of all this, Robson sits placidly in his cardboard crown, glueing bottletops systematically onto a board – squeezing two drops of glue from a saucebottle onto each bottletop and pressing it carefully into place.

Diagrams on graph paper inside the cabin reveal his method, working out the structure of his design upon a grid. Then comes the arranging and shuffling, contemplating all the infinite permutations of colour and form to arrive at an ideal arrangement. Finally, he embarks upon the long process of attaching all the bottletops which can take several days and requires sustained concentration, like needlework or weaving. Happily, Robson can do this part while visitors come by asking questions or pursuing their own projects, but mostly just to wonder at his beautiful sparkling pictures conjured from such modest materials.

Drawing inspiration from the farm, Robson made a lively portrait of Kellogg the Cockerell, using two thousand bottletops, and then a glistening new sign for Lutfun Hussain’s Coriander Gardening Club for Bengali Women, in colours that match their ripening tomatoes. Taking an idea from the recent hop picking visit of Master Brewer, Ben Ott, he is currently at work creating a huge eagle of more than six thousand bottletops for the new Truman’s Brewery in Hackney Wick, to be completed for the Brewery’s First Anniversary Party next Sunday, 12th September. Next, he will set to work upon an enormous scarlet chilli in time for the London Chilli Festival at the Farm on Sunday 28th September.

In the meantime, if anyone fancies strolling over to admire the Farm in all its harvest glory and watching the master at work shuffling bottletops around a board, the King of the Bottletops is welcoming all to his court each day until the end of this month. And if anybody else decides they want a sign made of bottletops, please contact

The studio

New sign for the Coriander Gardening Club

Robson at work on his portrait of Kellogg the Cockerell, using two thousand bottletops

Robson with Rossana Leal and his new sign for the farm cafe

With friends in Allen Gardens

Work-in-progress on half of the eagle for the First Anniversary of the new Truman’s Brewery, using more than six thousand bottletops

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Visit the King of the Bottletops at the farm any weekday (except Mondays) between 10am and 4pm until 28th September. Introductory workshops take place every day and can be booked by email to

The Festival of Heat – the second London Chilli Festival is at Spitalfields City Farm on Sunday 28th September 12-6pm

You may also like to read about

Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops

King of the Bottletops in Spitalfields

Picking Hops For Truman’s Beer

September 7, 2014
by the gentle author

Ben Ott, Master Brewer, picking hops in Spitalfields

For years, hops have flourished at Spitalfields City Farm in Buxton St, next to Allen Gardens where dray horses from the old Truman’s Brewery once grazed. Thus it is assumed that these plants seeded themselves and owe their origin to Truman’s, which makes it especially appropriate that Ben Ott, Master Brewer at the new Truman’s Brewery should harvest them.

Naturally, I went along to lend a hand with hop picking and Ben regaled me with his enthusiasm for fresh hops, which permit him to brew a green hop ale – a rare elixir with a unique delicate flavour and aroma that can only be made once each year while the hops are in season. “We are going to put these fresh hops straight into the brew,” he promised me, “after picking, hops will deteriorate within twelve hours, so we need to use it at once.”

Commercially-grown hops are dried in a kiln shortly after picking to preserve their essential oils and Ben split one of the flowers open to show the delicate yellow pollen, known as ‘lupolin’ which contains its flavour and aroma.

Casting our eyes over the hop bines spread along the hedge at the City Farm, we had hopes of picking several sacks of flowers in a morning. “My babies,” declared Ben in anticipation, rubbing his hands excitedly to see the hop flowers hanging there. But, after a few hours, we had barely filled even a fraction of our bag, such is the insubstantial nature of hop flowers when compressed, and it increased my respect for those who once picked hops for weeks on end, filling one sack after another.

We climbed ladders to discover larger flowers up above and then enlisted assistance in the form of six eager young executives, who were at the farm on a day’s release from their City offices. By the end of the morning, we had stripped the bines of flowers and filled one sack. It was a modest haul, but we were proud to have gathered the first hop harvest in Spitalfields for many years.

Over in Hackney Wick, at the new Truman Brewery, the day’s brew that Ben had set in motion before he came over to Spitalfields was well underway. Already, the pungent aroma of wort filled the air – this is the liquid created by soaking the mash of malted grain in hot water. Ben added our sack of green Spitalfields hops to the end of the boil in a small copper and stirred them in for just a couple of minutes to allow the delicate fragrance to be absorbed. After letting it cool, he added the yeast and then the mixture would ferment for three days, before being put into kegs – and a fortnight later be ready to drink. We only made two kegs of beer with our sack of green hops and one will be given to the City Farm in return for the hops.

The other keg of our ‘Bethnal Green Hop Ale’ will be served  at the First Anniversary Party of the new Truman’s Brewery on Sunday 14th September from noon, when you are all invited to come and enjoy the rare opportunity to taste it for yourself. “A beer with a lovely story,” as Ben describes it.

Ben & his assistant arrive ready for hop picking

Ben splits one of the flowers to show the yellow pollen which gives hops its flavour

Ben discovers the larger flowers at the top of the hedge

Volunteers lend a hand with hop picking

Ben’s haul of hops grown in Spitalfields

Adding the green hops to the wort at the new Truman’s Brewery in Hackney Wick

All are welcome to attend the First Anniversary Party for the new Truman’s Brewery from noon on Sunday 14th September in Hackney Wick and taste the Bethnal Green Hop Ale brewed from the hops picked at the City Farm. There will also be brewery tours and brass bands, among other attractions.

You may also like to read my stories about Truman’s Beer

First Brew at the New Truman’s Brewery

The Return of Truman’s Yeast

The New Truman’s Brewery

Tony Jack, Chauffeur at Truman’s Brewery

Derek Prentice, Master Brewer

Truman’s Returns to Spitalfields

At Truman’s Brewery, 1931