During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, two stretches of road tucked deep within the East and West London suburbs pulse with activity as the city’s South Asian Muslims look towards home comforts for Iftar (the meal eaten at sunset to break the fast).
Both Southall Broadway and Green Street are notable in the city for their strong South Asian presence, with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi-owned shops having been opened in both areas as early as the 1950s.
Walking through Green Street on a Friday evening, one can sense the excitement as preparations are underway for Eid. Stalls line the street selling henna cones, hijab accessories and trinkets for gifting, whilst boutiques are filled with clients making last-minute orders for Eid outfits and celebration cakes.
Minutes before sunset, crowds begin to throng outside snack stalls hoping to get served before the official Iftar time whilst food delivery drivers honk impatiently, striving to get orders out on time for clientele that has been fasting all day. With an established Bengali population, owing to a wave of immigration to east London in the 1970s, stalls and restaurants sell a plethora of Bengali delicacies, from beguni and aloo chop to puchkas and fish cutlets, in addition to more ubiquitous pakoras and seekh kebabs.
Outside the 25-year-old Himalaya Restaurant, a stall has been set up selling fried and baked goods. Shoppers swarm at the counter whilst hopeful diners huddle inside, hoping to score a table.
Babar Chaudhary, 46, who is sometimes in charge of the restaurant, notices the spike in footfall during the holy month each year. “During Ramzan, we create special items like fish pakora, aloo chop, and chapli kebab, which you don't usually get. We are very popular and usually get a lot of footfall at the restaurant, but the crowd is something else during Ramzan. Most people coming here are Asians who come here to buy clothes and jewellery, and our numbers double during Ramzan.”
No feast is complete without a sweet ending, and this seems to ring true on Green Street, where Tariq Choudhary, 44, of the Nirala sweet shop, also notices a rise in footfall just before Iftar. “During Ramzan, we prepare samosa, jalebis, and pakoras which a lot of people buy for Iftar. Most of our clients are local as the neighbourhood has a lot of South Asians, but we even get people from far-off places of London and beyond as well.”
The diversity of Green Street’s shoppers and diners is particularly striking, as teenagers rub shoulders with groups of older women and smartly dressed business people.
Salma Rahman, 62, who moved to London from her native Bangladesh just over 40 years ago, finds that having Iftar on Green Street is a way of passing on culture to subsequent generations.
“Home is home, but this place has its special feel during Ramzan. The way we can get snacks on the street and speak our language with the stall owners reminds me a lot of home. I brought my children here when they were growing up, and now I bring my young grandchildren for Iftar. They can soak up the atmosphere and learn a lot about their roots.”Salma Rahman, 62
Whilst Varun Andhare, 23, hails from Ahmedabad, India, as a non-Muslim, this trip to Green Street was one of only a handful of times he has had the chance to partake in Iftar. According to Varun, who came to the UK for his postgraduate studies in 2021, “The ghettoised nature of my hometown and society, in general, meant that I’d hardly had the chance to observe the festival before. I’d not been to Green Street, but I did visit East Ham before, and it amazed me how much both stretches contained in terms of their culinary diversity. The bustle smells and everyday simplicity of dining there really brought me back home. I loved it!”
Iftar offerings on Southall Broadway are more reflective of the Indian Punjabi and Pakistani communities that have populated the surrounding area since the 1950s. One will stumble upon numerous chaat, jalebi, pheni and Kashmiri tea stalls that wouldn’t be amiss on the streets of Delhi or Lahore.
As snack stall owner Haneef Ahmed, 41, notes, it is not just the Muslim population that makes the most of the late closing times. “My stall sells papdi chaat, sweet corn and Kashmiri Pink Tea at all times on Southall Broadway. Usually, I and others shut our stalls at around 8 pm, but since it's Ramzan, we stay open till around 10 or sometimes 11 at weekends. This is because families stay out late; some go for the Taraweeh prayers and prefer to have some light snacks after the prayers as there is a gap between Iftar and Sehri. We not only get post-Iftar clients, but others also enjoy that they can get snacks late at night.”
Like Green Street, Southall offers, for many Muslim South Asians, a familiar haven when they feel incredibly homesick for their families, food and cultural activities. For Saria Nazneen, 32, from Bangaluru, who works for Meta and arrived in London earlier last year with her husband and two kids, this is the first time she will celebrate Ramadan in the UK since leaving home.
"My kids have their Easter break right now, but instead of spending time outside the UK, we decided to stay home during Ramzan and enjoy Iftar here. Since Eid is coming, we decided to come to Southall and see how it is. I was surprised by how familiar it is to home. It is like India – the food stalls, the long queues for samosas and jalebis and the shopping spree. If we miss home, then Southall is the best place to feel at ease during Ramzan."
(The author is a freelance writer and Odissi dancer based in London. She is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where she studied South Asian Area Studies, focusing on the politics of culture in India and the diaspora.)