Following the success of 'The Trap', I decided to write more about my exploits in East London and this was the second story based on real people and incidents. Who knows if I had continued down this line maybe I could have come up with my own version of Monica Ali's 'Brick Lane' (2003), a street not that far from where I lived, where I would go for delicious Bangladeshi fish meals. Anyway, in this story, the people and settings are genuine, I have just altered the names to avoid embarrassment. I lived in this rented room for two-and-a-half years and it gave me a certain pride, that no-one I knew lived in such squalor. I could not afford anything better. It did reveal to me that running alongside the better looking bits of London hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people in London live in conditions that fall well below decent standards. I am just glad that I was able to get out.
“You English, you cook so fast.” Robert observes suddenly. I grunt a reply.
Robert is sat at the table by the window. He is nibbling and sipping at his pre-dinner dinner. I am far from being an expert at West African cooking, but from sharing a kitchen with Robert, I have learnt that his particular brand consists of chopping up fish or red meat into hand-sized chunks. These are then dumped into an old pressure cooker, doubling as a cauldron, and fine curry powder is poured on top. The whole concoction takes hours to stew and to sustain him through the cooking time, Robert has to have another, simpler meal. This usually, as it does tonight, involves Guinness and bread.
My own efforts may be far quicker than Robert’s, but seem quite time consuming compared to Pete’s: simply remove a microwave meal from the freezer, put it in the microwave, heat. Do the same with some rice and then you are done. I suppose for Robert that does not even qualify as a meal. My own preparations, which involve chopping a range of meat and vegetables and using my own favourite cauldron, a well blackened wok, seem to involve sufficient effort to pass Robert’s criteria.
You might think that living above a fried chicken restaurant as renowned as City Fried Chicken on the Mile End Road, would mean residents had little interest in cooking. By simply walking to the foot of the heavy carpeted stairs and slapping on the cream, very sour cream, coloured door you can make a man appear to provide you with chips, or chicken, or chicken and chips at cost price. However, this service is rarely used, and certainly not by myself. Having been the slayer of three mice in my room, perched over the takeaway, I do worry whether the rest of the rodent family actually live among the fryers themselves.
In fact I am spoilt for choice of takeaways in the neighbourhood and with these other outlets at least I can tell myself that they are run to the highest standards of hygiene. Large tracts of the Mile End Road are given over to takeaways. Fried chicken is the prime food, followed by kebabs and there are always Chinese restaurants and curry houses with signs in the window ‘food available to take away’. The density is so high that they compete to grab your attention. One is famous for the two life-sized bronze-coloured statues of Asian women out the front and another though resembling a taxi office from the 1970s, allows you to surf the internet while waiting for your jalfrezi.
The greatest concentration of takeaways of all is where Burdett Road bisects the Mile End Road less than two minutes’ walk from my home. Neighbouring doors lead you into pizza joints, to Thai food, to fish and chips or to the best kebab house for miles. A1 Kebabs has the usual misshapen brown lump of meat revolving slowly in the window like a hundred thousand other places in Britain. However, like many fewer inside you can select from a whole range of kebabs, unknown to the usual consumer. Delights such as the halib or the adana kebabs take longer to make than simply shaving off slices of grey-brown lamb for a doner. Creating them is a chef’s art with chopped pitta bread forming a base in a tin foil trough on to which layer upon layer of meat and salad is piled. This is the connoisseur’s kind of kebab. The other outstanding feature of A1 feature are the burgers, not pressed down on a hot greasy sheet of metal, but grilled over charcoal. The slightly smoky flavour is so far removed from the usual takeaway fare that it guarantees many return customers. As a regular, added to that I only have to say ‘the usual’ for a fresh disc of beef to be slapped on to the charcoal and my particular tastes catered to with crisp chips, fresh salad and a chilled diet coke as accompaniment.
Man cannot live by takeaway alone, though many in Mile End do. The average b-and-b has no cooking facilities. Every evening in any of the larger outlets you see skinny, grey fleshed couples on the hard plastic seats huddled over their chips. Those of us who live upstairs at Mirza’s are blessed in comparison: we have our kitchen, the only communal area shared between the half dozen residents. I do not think it has ever seen better times. The fittings are of sticky dark brown wood with drawers that either slide open of their own accord of need a crowbar to access. The yellow window frames have warped so much that the windows themselves have to be lashed closed with carrier bags. If one of the residents burns something there is a rush to disentangle the Tescos, Sainsburys or unmarked corner shop bags to let some smoke out and some fresh air in.
Of course there is the extractor fan; or in fact, the place where an extractor fan once was. The previous owner took it with him leaving us a slanted circular hole to the outside. That is fine in summer, but come winter more carrier bags have to be pressed into use to prevent the rain running on to your head or into your frying pan as you cook. These are hazards Delia Smith has never had to face.
Cooking facilities consist of the gas hob and the microwave. Where the oven has gone we have never found out. For me the hob is ideal, for proper wok cooking you need flames that lap around the side, and with half of its metalwork missing there is nothing to stop this cooker’s fiery tendrils reaching for the ceiling. Occasionally I do turn to the microwave, positioned, as in so many East London houses, on top of the fridge-freezer. Like many of our neighbours, the residents upstairs at Mirza’s do not question why the freezer never needs defrosting, or in fact why water often runs out when you open its door. However, the microwave stays where it is and continues its job, providing a full meal for Pete, defrosting frozen items for me.
My thoughts return to the job in hand. I splash Chinese five spice over the chicken and beansprouts. Its slightly oil texture mixes with the copious quantity of oil I have used and sticks to everything as black greasy crumbs. The vapours invade my nose and eyes. I step back from the smell and the heat. On the hob diagonal from my wok Robert’s cauldron bubbles and stirs as it comes to the boil. A white steam with a familiar reek emits from beneath the loosely fitting lid. Robert has branched out, tonight the dish is tripe. These days the house probably has more tripe cooked in it, than when it was first built over a century ago. The smell is pervasive. It does not makes your eyes sting like the hand-powdered spices that Mirza’s nephews use, instead it seeps into you, into the walls and the carpet and then hangs there. It is a grey smell, a bitter, lonely smell, and now it overpowers anything more exotic I might pour out.
Robert stands slowly, taking a last sip of his Guinness as he walks to the cooker. I turn down the flames under my wok, the light engineer stepping back to give the heavy industrial worker free scope. He pulls the lid from the top of the pressure cooker. His dinner emerges, it literally emerges. It is a whole stomach of something, like a kind of grey bagpipes, bulging in the middle and tapering as fleshy tubes at either end. I am a man who has stomached andouilette sausages and smiled. They resemble industrial tubing shoved into a brown sausage skin. However, even I find it hard to face seeing a cast member of the next ‘Aliens’ movie appearing in my own kitchen.
I snatch at my wok and saucepan of rice. I pour out the former and rapidly drain the latter on to my large plate, careless of any fragments of food left behind. I have to get out of there, back to the security of my own room.
Robert pokes the large wooden spoon, as long as his forearm, through the steam to prod at the creature.
“It’s taking too long.” Robert mutters.
“I’m not surprised.” I say without sympathy. “It’ll never cook like that, it’s too big.” I explain as I back towards the door. “Chop it up, you’ve got to chop it up, or it’ll take until tomorrow.”
Robert hesitates, uncertain whether to take advice from the Englishman who hurries his cooking so much and will not put a fried egg on top of his spaghetti bolognaise. Then he sees the light: it will taste the same even if chopped. I watch as he heaves open one of the sticky drawers and pulls out the communal chopper. He grabs the stomach by its neck, or some other piece, my knowledge of sheep anatomy is poor. He slaps it down on the work service and proceeds to slice down with the chopper. He creates a series of rings of grey flesh, some narrow, some with the diameter of his palm. He gathers them up in threes or fours and throws them back into the pot. He puts the lid back on and returns to his beer, satisfied.
“That’s better.” I say. My relief is forced, the smell of tripe more pervasive since my own cooking has ended. The only consolation is that the smaller chunks mean that Robert’s dish will be ready in hours rather than days and the smell might be gone by the weekend.
“Yes. I never understand you English, you cook so quick.” He repeats, glances at his watch and then returns to gazing out the window.
I escape the kitchen pushing the heavy door behind me with my foot. I walk up the eight steps to my room, ducking my head to avoid the low ceiling and the pipe at the turn. With my elbows I lever down the door handle and push through into my room, my sanctuary. I put the plate down on the former white dressing table. It is no longer white and now acts as a combination of desk and dining table. I go in hunt of the television remote control. I am always surprised how easily things disappear in such a small room. Finding the remote, I return to my food, but it is too late. Carelessly I have positioned the plate on the wrong part of the table’s camber and I cannot reach it in time before it slides to the floor. Toast may occasionally land butter side up but a plate of food always shows its underside when it lands on the carpet. I scrape up the hot chicken, vegetables and rice, ensuring I get every grain so as not to feed the mice for free. I grab my jacket and carry the plate back to the kitchen. Robert watches in disbelief as I dump the still warm food into the dustbin. I pull on my jacket and head down the stairs. I think this evening is a good evening for ‘the usual’ at A1 Kebabs.