A Mask and a Bowl of Mince

In the 1990s, there were just two curry houses in our local drag of shops. The one nearest the park was a rather dusty, sleepy place called Lahoria that had had the same decor since it opened at some point in the seventies; and almost certainly the same menu. It was run by a plump, tired old bloke, with a rumpled face and rumpled tank top, who presided over the small groupings of tables from the sanctuary of a hatch; beyond which lay the mysteries of the kitchen. The food was similarly tired. It was usually empty. We went there occasionally because life can sometimes be too exciting, and we liked the old bloke; who was always friendly and a bit wistful. At the other end of the strip was the Lahore Kebab House of East London. A strange title for a restaurant in NW9. Part of a very small chain of two. This place was hopping. Spiced up to the pain threshold, sizzling on baltis, crowded out with the first generation of Asians who didn’t feel they’d be better off making it at home for nothing. It was a gold mine at the time.

As the Millennium turned, unviable small businesses – a plumbers emporium, a newsagent, an old established hairdressers (Lord Andre) that all seemed a bit like time capsules – gave up the ghost and were replaced by Lahore Kebab House clones. Lahore Spice busy and bustling on the corner, Sheikhan overextended and smart minimalist, stretching across two shop fronts in the middle, affecting an upmarket style but padding their dishes with chick peas quite a bit we thought. Lahoria was bought up by a bloke who renamed it Chili Masala, tore out the partition, set up outside tables, plugged in an ice cream fridge and sold it from the pavement outside; opened late, late, put in a big screen showing Bollywood films and ran lots of promotions to get bums on seats at the formica tables. Even the big old white pub opposite the Green, with its air of lonely desolation, was reborn as one of those upmarket places with fake marble floors and big screen TVs showing the football, or films with the sound down; and a Shisha bar for the smart young set at one end (migraine inducing milkshakes and strobe lights a speciality).

Lahore Kebab House was suddenly empty. About ten years ago, just before he sold it, we had a chat with the owner. He was managing to get by, but talked sadly about how he’d lost a huge part of the money he’d made by investing in a flat that hadn’t been built yet in Dubai. The sky was the limit. But, along came the 2008 crash and the company building the block went bust, taking the money he’d already paid with it.

Last night, after sunset but before it got properly dark, venturing out to get a take out on a Friday night I walked down the hill into into the delusions of the “post pandemic”, in which everyone seems to think that if they act like its all over, it will be all over; and the strip is as lively as it ever gets. What looks like a hen do queuing at the cash point. A steady trickle of shoppers in and out of Costcutter. Vans parking on mysterious business. Cars accelerating a little too urgently. A jumble of people at the bus stop. Passing buses are crowded. The passengers seem edgily lively in the orange light. Few masks. I venture into Lahore Spice for a variation on our usuals – if it has paneer in it, we’ll eat it – and I am the only person with a mask. I get looks. I feel like an unwelcome reminder that is probably bad for business.

As the restaurant is built on the side of a steep hill, what’s ground level at the front quite quickly becomes cellar like at the back. The kitchen is crowded with burly men in their forties, busily manhandling steaming woks and sizzling kebabs over hellish grills and flames, all clattering metal and hissing steam on one side and deftly and industriously wrapping food containers for the take outs with kitchen foil on the other. The skinny young lad who waits table and is definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, manoeuvres elegantly, if nervously, around them. He is the only one watching where he is going. The others move like they are in their own world and it is everyone else’s job to get out of their way. Beyond the kitchen there is a set of prolapsed stairs climbing up to a narrow nether region out the back lined with doors to unmentionable places. A worker carefully comes down them carrying a large plastic bowl of raw mince; which makes me very grateful to be a vegetarian.

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