Mahatma Gandhi ate in Notting Hill

Today, 36 Ledbury Road (illustrated) in London’s trendy Notting Hill district (made famous by the 1999 film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) gives nothing away about its colourful past. It was once the home of the Indian Catering Company, a restaurant run by Nizam-ud-Din, who also owned the Eastern Café near Chancery Lane.

The Indian Catering Company, which was serving customers during the reign of Edward VII (1901-10) was not the first Indian restaurant to have been opened in London. The first curry house in London was opened by Sake Dean Mahomet (born in India in the 18th century). An employee of the East India Company, which he joined in 1769, he arrived in London in 1807. Two years later, he opened his Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street near Portman Square. Although it was called a ‘coffee house’, it was actually a restaurant serving curries and other examples of Indian cuisine. The restaurant thrived until 1833, when it was closed. There is much more information about this establishment in Star of India, a book by Jo Monroe.

By the time that the restaurant at 36 Ledbury Road was serving customers, the Indian Catering Company was one of many Indian restaurants in early twentieth century London. The reason for my interest in this former eatery is that it was a meeting place for extremist Indian independence fighters in Edwardian London. I discovered this while researching my recently published book IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS.

Although he cannot be considered an ‘extremist’, the famous Mahatma Gandhi partook of a meal at the Indian Catering Company in Ledbury Road in October 1909. Here is an excerpt from my book:

In October, the festival of Dussehra was celebrated at Nizam-ud-Din’s restaurant, The Indian Catering Company, at 36 Ledbury Road in Bayswater. Gandhi had been invited to chair the proceedings. He had accepted the invitation on condition that the food would be pure vegetarian and that discussion of controversial politics was avoided. The food was served by Savarkar’s followers: VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and TSS Rajan, all sometime members of India House.”

Whereas Gandhi both preached and practised non-violence, the same cannot be said of VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ( a ‘father’ of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva), who also attended the meal.

Although there is no plaque recording the interesting history of 36 Ledbury Road so near to Portobello Road, whenever I pass this house I feel a tingle when I remember the famous Indian freedom fighters who once entered it and ate there.

A SMALL house cover

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” is by Adam YAMEY

ISBN: 9780244203870

The book is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, and lulu.com

It may also be ordered from bookshops

There is an e-book edition on Kindle

 

A candle on the plate

I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.

My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.

Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.

Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.

Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.

In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.

Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.

Table for two…

I lived and practised dentistry in the Medway Towns (Chatham, Gillingham, and Rochester) for eleven years beginning in 1982. These towns in north Kent coalesce with each other to form a straggling urban belt along the right bank of the River Medway. When I lived in the area, there were many restaurants serving what was described as “Indian food”. Before reaching the area, Indian friends had helped me to appreciate what good Indian food should taste like. None of the many restaurants I tried in the Medway Towns ever provided Indian food that could be described as good. However, as there was not much else to do in the area when I first arrived there, before making friends locally, I sampled many of the eateries that served Indian food.

 

curry

 

One autumn evening, I entered a small establishment in Gillingham. I was its only customer for the duration of my meal. The restaurant was literally freezing cold, unheated. It was so cold that I ate my meal without removing my fleece filled anorak. Before the food arrived, the waiter placed a candle-powered plate warmer in the middle of the table to keep my dishes warm and another one in front of me to keep my plate warm while I was eating. The items, which I ordered, had the names of Indian dishes that I had tasted before. Sadly, none of them had any taste at all.

In another Indian restaurant that I visited one evening, I was not the only customer. There was a couple at another table within earshot. While I was eating, I could listen to my neighbours’ conversation. I remember nothing of the food I ate, but I do recall one small snatch of the other customers’ chatting. One of them said:

“… well, of course, you know, Gillingham is the armpit of Kent…”

having recently moved to the town, I was not happy to hear that.

There was an Indian restaurant close to the synagogue in Rochester. This place was slightly superior to the other Indian eateries in the area. One evening, while I was eating there, I was intrigued by the music being played through the establishment’s speaker system. Although I knew nothing about it then, I now realise that they were playing a soundtrack from a Bollywood film. I asked the waiter about the music. He answered:

“It is Indian music”

“I like it,” I told him, “where can you buy it?”

“We borrow the records from the public library, sir.”

Some months later, on a cold winter’s evening, I visited the restaurant near the synagogue with a female cousin and a male friend. We ordered a large meal and were served by only one Asian (Indian or of another sub-continental origin) waiter throughout. We were the only diners that evening. No one else entered the restaurant, even for take-away food. At the end of the meal, my friend went to the toilet. My cousin and I put on our winter coats and waited for him by the entrance door. Within a few seconds of reaching the door, the waiter, who had been serving us all night, came up to us and said:

“Table for two, is it?”

Either the waiter had not looked at us all evening, or all Europeans looked the same to him.

Chicken 65

HAMPI 2a

The state-run Mayura Hotel at Hampi is conveniently located in the midst of the extensive, picturesque ruins of the once very prosperous city of Vijayanagara. The former city was once the world’s second largest metropolis, but it was destroyed in 1565. I have stayed at the hotel on at least three occasions despite its shortcomings, some of which I will describe below. It is only fair to point out that the last time I stayed at this hotel was at least nine years ago. Things might well have improved by then.

On one occasion, we were driving to Hampi from Bangalore, and were running late. We rang the hotel to tell them that we would be likely to turn up by 6 pm. They replied that it would not be a problem: our room was waiting. And, so it should have been because check-out time was 12 noon. Whoever had occupied the room on the previous day should have vacated their room by noon.

When we turned up at the hotel, we were told that the room we had booked was still occupied. We were not pleased. The receptionist explained that the occupants of our room, who should have vacated it by noon, were still using it. We remonstrated and asked for an explanation. We were told that the family that was overstaying in our promised room had also arrived late the day before, and the hotel was kindly letting them extend their stay at our expense.  We were tired and not amused.

The receptionist and another member of staff settled us temporarily in a small bedroom while we waited for our room to become vacant and cleaned up. After a couple of hours, we were shifted to our allotted family room. There were several workmen in the bathroom. They were trying to turn off a jet of water, like a geyser, that was shooting up from the floor. They managed after about an hour.

There were no towels in our accommodation. By now it was well after dark. We asked for towels and were told that we could not have them because the person with the (presumably only) key to the linen cupboard had gone home.

At the end of one of our stays at the Mayura, we asked to have breakfast at 7 am, when the dining area was supposed to open. When we arrived promptly at 7 am, there was no staff too be seen. Apart from us, the dining area was empty. After a few minutes, I walked into the kitchen: it was empty. All of the kitchen and serving staff were standing in a crowd in a nearby room, their eyes glued to a television screen. We learned the reason when, eventually, someone came to look after us. The television was showing the funeral of the much-loved Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan, who died on the 30th December 2009. Vishnuvardhan’s family were dismayed because his loss was not so greatly mourned as that of another star Rajkumar, who had died three years earlier. People had committed suicide on hearing of Rajkumar’s demise. Nevertheless, our driver thought it would be safer if we drove with a photo of Vishnuvardhan attached to the window as a mark of respect. Without it, we might have been attacked!

During one of our stays, we were curious to taste what appears on many South Indian restaurant menus. It is something called ‘Chicken 65’. What appeared resembled breaded chicken nuggets. They were bland and tasteless – very disappointing. 

Some days later, we had dinner with an elderly Dutch couple, who were back-packing around India. It was clear to us that they had had enough of spicy food. We suggested that they ordered French fries (finger chips in Indian English), which, like omelettes and tomato soup, are almost always available wherever you are in India. Their eyes lit up at this suggestion. Also, we recommended that they order Chicken 65, which we assured them was not at all spicy. 

After a while, the chips were served along with a plate of chicken pieces that did not resemble the Chicken 65, which we had ordered a couple of days earlier. Our new friends tasted this dish, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. What had been served to them as Chicken 65 was far from bland; it was fiery hot. It seemed to us that the chefs in the kitchen paid little attention to what was ordered by the customers. We later learned that Chicken 65 is supposed to be hot and spicy. What we had been served before we met the Dutch people, was definitely not that dish.

The spicy dish was originally created at Buhari’s Hotel in Madras in 1965, hence the 65 in the name (see: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-hows-whys-of-our-chicken-65/article5042658.ece).

While we were staying in the hotel one visit, a tour group of Italians had dinner one evening. One man, who had had enough of spicy food, shouted out in a hysterical voice: “I want chicken, plain chicken with salt, nothing else, just chicken and salt, no spices, just chicken and salt.” He kept repeatng this, and we thought: “He should be so lucky in this eatery”.

Despite its elements of “Fawlty Towers” hospitality, the Mayura is a lovely place to base a few days of exploration of the substantial  ruins of a once great city.

HAMPI 3

Chicken tikka in Tirana

This war written in mid-2016, following Adam Yamey’s visit to Albania

ALB 1

Tirana

Between 1944 and 1990, the tiny Balkan country Albania was governed by a Stalinist dictatorship. During that period, it was more isolated from the outside world than North Korea is today. My Indian wife, Lopa, and I visited the country in June 2016. We were open to surprises, but never imagined that we would discover what I am about to describe, namely some Indian connections.

The small town of Pukë is in the north of the country. Hardly visited by tourists, it is a pleasant place at a high altitude. During our visit there, we entered a small gift shop to buy a notebook. The shop-keeper looked at Lopa, and asked where she was from. When we said India, she pointed at a small television screen beneath the counter. We saw that she was watching something from Bollywood, but with Albanian sub-titles.

ALB 2 Vlora

Vlore museu,

Some days later, we were in the coastal city of Vlorë, visiting the house where on the 28th November 1912, the independence of Albania (after about 500 years of Ottoman domination) was declared. We were shown around the building, which is now a museum, by a lady who spoke only Albanian. An Albanian friend translated. As we moved from room to room, we noticed that the lady was becoming more interested in Lopa than the Independence of Albania. She kept touching Lopa and even hugged her from time to time. At the end of the tour, she asked Lopa why she was not wearing something like a sari as the actors in the Bollywood films do on the television shows that she loved.  A devotee of Bollywood soap operas, she was thrilled to have a real live Indian in her museum. She told us that Lopa was the first Indian women to visit her museum in the 11 years that she had been working there.

Later, we learnt that Bollywood television soap operas are extremely popular in Albania, especially amongst women viewers. The shows are usually broadcast in the afternoon, so a ‘savvy’ person knows better than to ring an Albanian woman during the hour that such shows are on-air.

ALB 3 Korce

Mosque in Korce

Love of Bollywood is not confined to Albanian women. In the southern city of Korçë, we were visiting an old (15th century) mosque, when an elderly man, who was just about to enter to do ‘namaaz’, saw Lopa, and asked if she was Indian. On hearing the answer, he exclaimed: “Rye Kapur”, which was his way of pronouncing Raj Kapoor.

Judging from the excitement that Lopa evoked when meeting Albanians, we guessed that there were probably few or even no Indians in Albania. Our guesswork ended when we met Vijay in the foyer of the National Museum in Albania’s capital Tirana. Vijay, who hails from southern India, lives and works in Albania with his family. He was waiting for his son to return from cricket practice. We were surprised to hear that cricket is being played in a country which has not ‘enjoyed’ the effects of British colonial influence. Vijay told us that not only were ‘ex-pats’ involved in cricket in Tirana, but also Albanians. There is an Englishman who has been training members of Tirana’s rugby club to play cricket. In late June this year, the Albanian team beat the ex-pat’s team by one run.

On the next day, we met Vijay, who teaches computing to Albanians in Albanian, with his family at a café. His wife had specially prepared some Indian snacks for us: chicken tikka and some aloo bhajjis. While we were sitting chatting, another Indian, Vicki, wandered past and joined us. Vicki was working for an Indian mining company, but has recently returned to India having spent a few years in Albania. When we had spent time with our new Indian friends, we got up but before saying farewell, they invited us for lunch the next day.

Apart from having been very fortunate to have ‘bumped’ into Vijay and his family and friends, we were very lucky to have met any Indians at all in Albania. This is because there are currently only about 50 Indians in Albania, and some of them are Mother Teresa nuns.

The following day, we met Vijay and Vicky in the centre of Tirana. A car pulled up, and we all piled in. The car was driven by yet another Indian, Father Oscar who runs Tirana’s large Roman Catholic Don Bosco establishment. He drove us out to Vijay’s flat on the edge of the city. There, we were confronted with a superb warm buffet prepared by Vijay’s wife. As I served myself with chicken biryani, dal, chappatis, channa, and so on, I had to pinch myself to believe that I was not imagining eating home-cooked Indian food in Albania.

PS: Finally, for those with Indian passports who wish to visit Albania, the nearest Albanian embassy to India, we were told by an Albanian diplomat, is in Beijing (China).