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The Kiosks Of Whitechapel

January 13, 2024
by the gentle author

Mr Roni in Vallance Rd

As the east wind whistles down the Whitechapel Rd spare a thought for the men in their kiosks, perhaps not quite as numb as the stallholders shivering out in the street but cold enough thank you very much. Yet in spite of the sub-zero temperatures, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I discovered a warm welcome when we spent an afternoon making the acquaintance of these brave souls, open for business in all weathers.

I have always marvelled at these pocket-sized emporia, intricate retail palaces in miniature which are seen to best effect at dusk, crammed with confections and novelties, all gleaming with colour and delight as the darkness enfolds them. It takes a certain strength of character as well as a hardiness in the face of the elements to present yourself in this way, your personality as your shopfront. In the manner of anchorites, bricked up in the wall yet with a window on the street and also taking a cue from fairground callers, eager to catch the attention of passersby, the kiosk men embrace the restrictions of their habitation by projecting their presence as a means to draw customers like moths to the light.

In Whitechapel, the kiosks are of two types, those offering snack food and others selling mobile phone accessories, although we did find one in Court St which sold both sweets and small electrical goods. For £1.50, Jokman Hussain will sell you a delicious hot samosa chaat and for £1 you can follow this with jelabi, produced in elaborate calligraphic curls before your eyes by Jahangir Kabir at the next kiosk. Then, if you have space left over, Mannan Molla is frying pakora in the window and selling it in paper bags through the hatch, fifty yards down the Whitechapel Rd.

Meanwhile if you have lost your charger, need batteries or a memory stick in a hurry, Mohammed Aslem and Raj Ahmed can help you out, while Mr Huld can sell you an international calling card and a strip of sachets of chutney, both essential commodities for those on-the-go.

Perhaps the most fascinating kiosks are those selling betel or paan, where customers gather in clusters enjoying the air of conspiracy and watching in fascination as the proprietor composes an elaborate mix of spices and other exotic ingredients upon a betel leaf, before folding it in precise custom and then wrapping the confection into a neat little parcel of newspaper for consumption later.

Once we had visited all the kiosks, I had consumed one samosa chaat, a jalebi, a packet of gummy worms and a bag of fresh pakora while Sarah had acquired a useful selection of batteries, a strip of chutney sachets and a new memory stick. We chewed betel, our mouths turning red as we set off from Whitechapel through the gathering dusk, delighted with our thrifty purchases and the encounters of the afternoon.

Jokman Hussain sells Samosa Chaat

Mohammed Aslem sells phone accessories and small electrical goods

Jahangir Kabir sells Jalebi

Raj Ahmed

Mannan Molla sell Pakora

Mr Duld sells sweets and phone accessories in Court St

Mr Peash

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. January 13, 2024

    A very good report! Kiosks are an amazing institution, even here in our country. I’ve often needed something at an unpleasant moment and then actually got it there. And at what a time! — It makes you wonder how these sales heroes can exist. But they do. And you have to be grateful for it and ideally buy something there from time to time to support them.

    Now I finally know what Pakora and Jalebi are — delicious!

    Love & Peace

  2. January 13, 2024

    This certainly is a cold profession at the moment with the biting wind and forecast snow! I walked along the Soho Road, in Handsworth, Birmingham, not long before Christmas, walking past beautiful, jewelled clothing of every colour, tempting sweet shops, purveyors of snack food and, my personal favourites, the grocery shops.
    As a young thing, I found myself living in Tooting, South West London. Determined to learn to cook, I asked some of the grocers for advice – ” How should I cook this?” What spices do I need for spicy, but not too hot?” This is how I learned. As cash-strapped, I would cook enormous pots of vegetable curries and sealed my reputation as an “alright cook”. Unfortunately, my local high street doesn’t meet my needs although, joy of joys, we do now have a corner shop.
    I hope the Whitechapel winds are not too cold for these industrious purveyors of all manner of things!

  3. January 13, 2024

    How wonderful. I wished something like this existed in Barcelona or Madrid.

  4. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    January 13, 2024

    I love these tiny shops. I like their independence and vision to own their own business.. its the American dream. Our own ancestors came way back and dud the same. created businesses and built their lives. I have alit of respect for these small business owners..Thank you for their stories.

  5. Jo Bacon permalink
    January 13, 2024

    Wonderful post. I am inspired to visit asap

  6. Gee Farrow permalink
    January 13, 2024

    I wouldn’t be able to walk past these little shops and not buy something to eat!

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