With the fate of East London’s oldest halal restaurant at stake, a desperate appeal has been made on Twitter. “Not the type to do that,” @mehnazmeh wrote, “but my dad owns the oldest Indian restaurant in east London and has issues with customers, so please show some love! If you’re in Aldgate come and have a curry, I’m biased, but it’s the best! ” Mehnaz Mahaboob has included parallel images of her father and grandfather sitting in the restaurant over the decades. The tweet went viral, gaining more than 40,000 interactions on Twitter, and for a few glorious weeks, the Halal restaurant was packed. “It worked. People were waiting outside the door because of the tweet. We had to turn people away for dinner, which we had never done before,” said Mahaboob Narangoli, Mehnaz’s father and current owner of the Halal restaurant, which serves a wide variety of South Asian dishes, with the meat found in his curries and biryanis slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. ___ This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP are joining forces on certain religious news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.
___ The brief boom brought in enough to keep the business afloat thanks to a second pandemic lockdown in the UK, when the restaurant had to close again for seven months, according to Narangoli. Halal Restaurant opened in 1939 to meet the needs of Muslims in the maritime industry.
In the decades that followed, the restaurant changed with East London and now relies on the crowds of bankers, shipping agents and insurance workers who work in the City of London.
But the pandemic has reduced much of that traffic, forcing the restaurant to rely on delivery and take-out orders as normally crowded London streets fell silent. “We have a lot of customers who come here before my dad even took over. We just had someone today who has been eating here since the 1960s,” Narangoli said. The restaurant was originally part of the London Inn for Indian sailors. At that time, the nearby Saint Katherine Docks, named after the church demolished in 1825 that once stood on the site, was an active part of London Docks. The region has attracted many South Asians who have worked as lads aboard various ships. By 1932, the Indian National Congress estimated that there were just over 7,000 South Asians living in the UK, many of whom were linked to the shipping industry. The Quays and the Tower of London, which is a five-minute walk away, were both heavily damaged during World War II. Even today, the sparse tables of the Halal restaurant seem to recall the establishment’s maritime heritage. A photo of the restaurant’s all-wood interior from the 1970s could easily be mistaken for a dining room on a ship. Narangoli’s father, Usman Abubakar, was no stranger to the sea. Abubakar first arrived in London as a member of the merchant navy. In 1970 he started working as a waiter at the Halal restaurant. In 1978, Abubakar was the owner, having bought the restaurant from its second owner. The 1970s may have been a turbulent time in Britain with union struggles and the monetary crisis of 1976 – but it was an important decade for the history of Indian cuisine in the country, and in the end, the South Asian cuisine had become a British staple.
In 1971, on a stormy night in Glasgow, Scotland, a British Bangladeshi chef by the name of Ali Ahmed Aslam improvised ‘Chicken tikka masala’, a dish now found on menus around the world, including at the Halal restaurant.
In five years, the UK had more than 2,000 “Indian” restaurants – the majority operated by Bangladeshis – some say the number would rise to 3,000 by the end of the decade. The building that houses the Halal Restaurant dates from the 17th century and has witnessed the changing religious demographics of East London.
On nearby Brick Lane, these changes may be best expressed in the fate of a single building. A church opened by French Huguenots in the 18th century became a synagogue at the end of the 19th century and, in 1978, a mosque.
The Brick Lane Mosque took over the space to serve the growing Bangladeshi community as many Jewish families made their way to the suburbs. These cultural influences are apparent on Brick Lane where a person can find everything from kosher bagel sandwiches to halal tomahawk steaks.
And it’s not uncommon to find Muslim worshipers during Ramadan lining up for “corned beef beigels” outside Jewish bakeries open 24 hours a day. Tower Hamlets, the district in east London where the halal restaurant is now located, is home to more than 40 Islamic institutions and dozens of halal restaurants.
Nearby is the East London Mosque, founded in 1985 and today one of the largest in Europe, accommodating 7,000 worshipers. Although estimates vary, today there are between 8,000 and 12,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, the majority being halal. London itself is home to a wide range of South Asian halal restaurants. Dishoom, a small restaurant chain that opened in 2010, pays homage to Parsi or (Zoroastrian) cafes, which are now disappearing across India. Meanwhile, Brigadiers, which opened in 2018, draws inspiration from Indian military refectories. Several new tourism-oriented hotels have sprung up near the Halal restaurant due to its proximity to the Tower of London. This added a few extra diners in the evening, Narangoli said. East London’s seedy history has even become an unlikely tourist attraction. The tours feature visits to sites associated with the Kray brothers, twin brothers, and east London gangsters, both played by Tom Hardy in the 2015 movie “Legend”. Another tour focuses on another famous criminal : Jack the Ripper.
This case was investigated in part by officers from the Leman Street Police Station, which opened in 1830. At the height of the twentieth century, many “bobbies” at Leman Street Station had filled the halal restaurant until the station closed in 1995. history and relatively low rents have attracted a growing hipster scene. A cafe near the restaurant does a quick business and offers CBD coffee.
Although hipster culture in the region is a relatively recent phenomenon, its demographics may change again. Narangoli said the number of customers from East Asian countries is slowly increasing. Campaign on social media or not, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on business, and there are stores nearby that have yet to reopen. Next door, a hairdressing salon named Ahmed Scissorhands, a reference to the 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands”, remains closed.
For a restaurant that survived the Blitz and the tumult of work of the 1970s, Narangoli is only cautiously optimistic about the restaurant’s long-term viability. “Let’s see if things start to improve soon. We hope workers start working in the city (of London) again; that’s when things can change,” Narangoli said.
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