How a Granddaughter Saved East London’s Oldest Indian Restaurant From Shutting Down

The oldest Indian eatery in East London, Halal Restaurant was struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic — until a granddaughter put out a plea for people to go and eat there.

Amidst all the [mostly credible] backlash against the ills of social media, I have to acknowledge that the positive power that social media yields never ceases to amaze me.

This feature, for example, was inspired by a tweet put out by a young girl in London requesting patrons to return to dining at ‘The Halal’ that her grandfather; Usman Abubacker has owned for decades.

The tweet went viral; the responses were quite heart-warming and genuine. The Halal, arguably the oldest Indian restaurant in East London, established in 1939, got much love and support from its patrons.

The story today, however, is not so much about The Halal, as it is about Usman Abubacker, and his inspiring story of how with limited formal education, an immigrant from Kerala came to London in 1970, and his journey to becoming the owner of The Halal.

The Better India tracks the journey of Usman, the third owner of this very popular restaurant, who started working in The Halal as a waiter and kitchen help, became the manager, before eventually buying the restaurant from its then owner – Chandru.

To where it all began

In the mood for some curry and bread?

Born in 1933 in Kerala, Usman was one of those children who had to shoulder responsibilities at an age when he should have been carefree.

When he was all of fifteen years of age, he migrated to Chennai (then Madras) looking for work and started working at a stationary shop. Subsequently, he decided to move to Bombay (now Mumbai) where his eldest brother resided. There he was introduced to someone who worked in the Merchant Navy and got a chance to work onboard ships, doing odd jobs.

Usman’s eldest son, Mahaboob, who currently manages the restaurant, says, “He got the chance to travel the world and made several trips to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even the United Kingdom.”

At this point, as I am speaking to Mahaboob, Usman asks to speak to me, saying, “It is my story after all, I will say it the best.”

Usman Abubacker at The Halal.

He tells me that he spent a good part of his life on the ship, from 1952 until 1966.

“I returned to Kerala in 1966 and started a business, which did not do as well as I expected it to, and so my search for something better took over,” he tells me. It was because of a friend in Cochin, that Usman went back to London and landed up at the doorstep of The Halal.

In search of better opportunities

Usman and his wife in London.

While it is a full-fledged restaurant today, The Halal was originally the mess of the hostel for Indian merchant seamen, with boarding in the ground floor and lodgings in the rooms up above.

The day Usman went to The Halal seeking a job, it was a busy lunch afternoon and the owner had asked Usman to wait until he could finish up and speak to him. Usman waited outside and saw that the owner’s car was rather dirty. Not one to just stand around, he decided to clean the car during the time he was waiting around.

It was this quality in him that got him his job at The Halal. From there, as they say, there was no looking back for Usman. “Whatever work there is to do at the restaurant I have done,” says Usman.

Climbing the ladder

Mahboob at The Halal.

Having started his journey at The Halal as a kitchen staff and making his way to being a waiter, Usman spent considerable time learning the work. It was perhaps his discipline and desire to be successful that pushed him to put in long hours of work. It was a trip back to India that the then owner of The Halal had to take, which put Usman in the manager’s position.

The fact that Usman did not know much of English when he came to London, and how he learnt the language is also a testament to the kind of person that he is. “The first few words I learnt of English was when I was on the ship and then on the job at The Halal,” Usman reminisces.

“It was during the time I spent taking orders at the restaurant that my English started getting better. It was tough but I wasn’t one to shy away from any challenge,” he says with years of wisdom and experience in his voice.

Another key aspect of Usman was that he was a natural people’s person. He could read people instantly, and grew his goodwill among his customers, the extended diaspora in London and built a strong network of relationships. For many of his friends, The Halal was the first port of call whenever they went to London.

“One of the most admirable things about Usman[ika] is how he grew his network of friends and worked towards establishing himself in a place so far away from home,” says V Raja, a friend of the family from India who has known Usman for many years now.

V Raja and his family at The Halal.

Diligent and resilient are the two terms that Lina, Usman’s granddaughter, uses to describe him. For Lina, what’s fascinating about her grandfather is the story of his migration. “He arrived in a new country without knowing anyone, having hardly anything to his name and, made so many compromises and sacrifices for us to be living the lives that we live today,” she tells me.

“It’s beyond business; it’s about relationships that were built then and flourish now because of my family. It’s about having customers that have been coming for years on end, travelling across the globe to our little restaurant because of what my granddad has built,” she continues.

How special is The Halal?

At The Halal, London, with Usman’ son, Mahaboob, daughter, Aysha and granddaughter, Lina.

When your oldest visiting customer has been eating at the restaurant for more than six decades and continues to be a patron, you know the restaurant is doing something right. Mahaboob, Usman’s eldest son, who has been running the restaurant since 1988 says, “Mr Maurice, one of our oldest customers started coming here when he was all of twelve years of age and has even held me as a new-born. He infact continues to remind us about how much he enjoys it every time he visists.”

The Internet is filled with testimonials and lavish praises for The Halal. Mark Patterson, who has been a customer for over two decades writes, “I’ve been eating at The Halal for over twenty years (my dad over forty years). The decor may be dated but the staff is very friendly and the food is awesome. Every dish has a very distinct, authentic flavour and these flavours are never drowned out regardless of the ‘heat’ of the dish. I would recommend the plain mutton curry as a great place to start. The Karahi chicken and Tikka dishes are also very good but to be honest there are so many excellent dishes on the menu.”

“It is the food you serve people that will bring them back to us again and again, not the décor and the ambience you create, is what dad has always maintained,” says Mahaboob.

A look at the menu at The Halal.

For eight decades, what makes The Halal stand apart is the food. Whether it is the biryanis or the meat/chicken vindaloo, or the chicken tikka masala, there’s something for everyone here.

If you happen to be visiting London or have friends and family there, do ask them to visit The Halal at Aldgate East and savour the food and hospitality here.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)