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So Long, Pam Chawla (Mama Thai)

December 31, 2015
by the gentle author

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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Juley permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Wonderful! The perfect tribute.

  2. Robert permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Lovely but sad story about Mama Thai. Rip even though I’ve not known her personally.

  3. December 31, 2015

    A sad note to end the year on. Wishing you and Mr. Pussy a wonderful 2016!

  4. Shawdian permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Pam looks too young to die. May she live for ever through the food of Mama Thai. Godbless.

  5. December 31, 2015

    Pam looks as though she had a lovely laugh along with that smile. The story radiates steam, flavours, and love.
    Another loss to you and the neighbourhood. Sorry to read how cloudy November was for you.

    2016 will be a good year for you and Mr. Pussy.

  6. Peter Sinden permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Very nice, appreciative piece about this old Spitalfields favourite – full of warm, local colour.

    I used to walk past the shop in the mornings in the summer, when the side door was open to the street. A young man would be sat peeling and crushing garlic into a huge bowl held between his knees.

    The smell was wonderful and overpowering!

  7. December 31, 2015

    I think she will be cooking for the heavenly throngs now. Happy New Year, Valerie

  8. December 31, 2015

    The sense of loss to the community is clear and you write of it well.

    There has been something rather melancholy in Springfield’s Life of late that has chimed with my own mood, so here’s a toast that, despite the losses, disappointments and the inevitable troubles of life, there will be many joyful times in 2016.

    And may the world be a safer, kinder and more hospitable place.

    J x

  9. Ros permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Sad to read of another Spitalfields death. I only met Pam and Raj once but they were lovely. Nice tribute and I loved the last picture and Robson Cezar’s marvellous sign. Happy New Year Gentle Author!

  10. sprite permalink
    January 4, 2016

    I had wondered what had become of them. I was a regular of their wooden hut in the days before the ‘renovations’ of Spitalfield Market. Can taste those noodles right now.

  11. May 4, 2016

    My last abiding memory of Mama was a conversation with her last year when she told me “You’ve been coming here so long I remember you when you had hair!” A great character, a lovely person and a good cook. God bless her.

  12. Colin Locock permalink
    July 17, 2018

    I remember Mama Thai from the early days of their shed in the old Spitalfields Market when I was living in the not yet trendy Brick Lane – Chilli noodles off the hotplate and Beef curry & rice in a pot. I sometimes think of Mama Thai when I’m chopping coriander! Sorry to hear of Pam’s death and hope Raj is still cooking. I hope to pop in during one of my trips back to London.

  13. Hatchy permalink
    December 27, 2020

    Great tribute, she and her husband were lovely people. She made the greatest chicken curry and noodles. I haven’t been there in a few years as I don’t live or work in London anymore. may she rest in peace

  14. Sarvapala permalink
    March 8, 2022

    U remember Mama Thai and Raj from the market but never got to visit their restaurant. Beef curry with coconut rice and pad Thai noodles being flipped on a hot plate served with finely sliced fresh chilli.

  15. Joe permalink
    April 14, 2022

    Used to have amazing selection of food for the Soul on the menu.
    Spoilt for choice and never left hungry.

    I remember this eatery from its time at Spitialfields market.
    Awesome Team, Raj would walk down the queue taking orders and yelling to the counter.

    Having returned to London to work the Green Chicken curry made me look for Mama Thai at Toynbee Street.
    Sadly it is no longer there and even more sad to learn Mama passed away, RIP

    Lunch time queues stretched down the road

    Thank you Mama & Raj …||…

  16. Colin Osborne permalink
    August 25, 2023

    Really friendly people always smiling and always had time to speak to you even with a queue outside the door. Sad to hear Loved the Beef Massaman for Lunch

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