It’s 10:30 in the morning, and I’m standing inside Sweet Centre, the first Asian restaurant to satiate the appetites of south Asian men who flocked to Bradford from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 60s, to work in the textiles mills.
I’ve had enough of bland Weetabix breakfasts laced with honey drizzled from a plastic bottle that looks more appetising than the Weetabix itself. I want some real food, some greasy Desi kaana to oil up my throbbing joints aching from vitamin d deficiency. So I’ve decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, abide by the hedonistic mantra of YOLO (you only live once), and give a calorific, flavoursome Desi breakfast a go.
The Sweet Centre is located in the infamous Lumb Lane. By day, the road is an artery for cars and buses driving into the city centre. The ghost of Drummond Mills which used to stand across the road behind metal gates guarded by a security guard with a moustache that bristled like a toothbrush, hovers like dust from the debris. The faintest smell of charred concrete and paint still lingers after the raging fire that brought it down. The only shadow the mills casts now is from the chimney which escaped unscathed, a giant overturned cigar standing alone on a flat desert expanse of brown coloured soil speckled with neat mountains of rubble. By night, the red light district kicks its nocturnal sleeping habits and readies itself for the men who come scavenging with an appetite for more than just food.
The astronomical choices available on the menu, typical of any south Asian restaurant, splurge out infinitely like a never-ending Bollywood script. Thankfully, there are only a handful of things to choose from for breakfast:
Seekh kebabs. Samosas. Channa. Pakoras.
But what Sweet Centre serves up best for breakfast is their fabled halwa-puri. Halwa is a sweet dish made from carrots or semolina cooked with a copious amount of butter and sugar. The puri served with it is basically a deep fried roti. If you want to be really unorthodox, you can order a side dish of channa, a chickpea curry, to give it that savoury kick (and some protein) to balance out the grease and sugar.
There’s more than just the smell of fried samosas wafting through the air right now. The taste of cardamom and pistachio swirling in large hundis, steel drums filled with pink Kashmiri chai, is almost palpable on my tongue, taking me back to summer holidays in my grandparent’s home in Girlington where my grandmother used to boil milk in the mornings for breakfast.
On visits to Bradford from London as a child, I always heard about Sweet Centre’s halwa-puri from the elders in my family, only ever managing to gobble a few precious bites on special occasions like Eid. For me, halwa-puri has almost a mythological status as the Kohi-noor of south Asian breakfasts. But considering how legendary the halwa-puri is here, the small font on the menu is a modest tribute to its popularity. There are no huge shiny pictures manspreading themselves over the menu, declaring the superiority of halwa-puri over the samosas photoshopped to look like magnificent fried pyramids. The modesty of the halwa-puri is endearing.
It doesn’t take long before the heavy odour of fried food simmering away in steel pans filled with oil starts to sit on my shalwar kameez. My choice of traditional clothing was intentional. Instead of pre-emptively unbuttoning my jeans, the rubber in my shalwar allows room for my stomach to expand three times over. My mouth involuntarily opens like a goldfish to take in the taste of familiarity, the taste of nostalgia. Everything is sparkling with the glossy veneer of a Coca Cola advertisement.
There are two queues: One for takeaways, one for customers eating in. Luckily for me, I’m standing in the eat-in queue with only one person ahead of me. The takeaway cue trails all the way to the back of the restaurant. Regulars nod their heads at each other in acknowledgement, muttering “Theek hai?” Everyone appears to be half asleep, but there is a discernible gleam in their eyes as they, like me, wait expectantly to order their food. You see, the halwa-puri is served in a frighteningly short time window between 8am-12pm. I say frighteningly short because, well, Asian Standard Timing (AST.) We couldn’t make it on time anywhere if our lives depended on it, that is, unless we’re talking about halwa-puri.
I’m up. I suddenly feel like Charlie when he discovers the golden ticket wrapped around a bar of Wonka’s chocolate, except my Willy Wonka is an Asian man with a six-inch beard, a bogey-green polo top, and small square glasses which give him the air of a businessman. I order one portion of halwa-puri and channa, enough to feed two. All for a bargain buy of £5.00.
Whilst I wait for my food (there’s no table service in this restaurant), my eyes scale the blocks of sweet barfi assembled like lego bricks behind a glass counter, neon pink, brown and nude blocks piled beside a mountain of gulab jaaman. It momentarily distracts me from the yells of protest coming from my empty stomach. A young guy working in the back wraps seekh kebabs, samosas and pakoras in grease-proof paper with lightning speed. His hands move fluidly, wrap on, wrap off, Miyagi-style. He hands me my breakfast in plastic bowls placed on a matching plastic tray printed with those common floral designs you see on china, the kind of fancy cutlery my grandmother stores away for guests. I order a cup of Kashmiri chai, “without sugar!” I tell him emphatically. “How can you have Kashmiri chai without sugar?” he says in awe. It’s penance for eating breakfast loaded with a holy trinity of butter, oil, and sugar. Every little less sugar helps, I think…
Here, there’s no Michelin star presentation, no pretense, no pomp in the food. The devil is not in the detail, it’s in the time taken to knead and set the dough for the puri, the time taken to boil and drain fresh chickpeas for the channa curry and for the semolina of the halwa to soak in the yellow of melting butter, all prepared from 5am in the morning.
The puri, a vehicle for the channa and halwa, is round but not flat unlike normal roti. It starts off thin in the centre, thickening slightly on the edges in slight bulges because it has been hand stretched. I eagerly tear a piece off. It doesn’t look like it’s dripping with oil, but just the slightest touch of the puri, and my hands are shimmering like a belly-dancer.
An elderly Bengali man sat in front of me, channeling his inner Jinnah-Nehru with the karakul hat on his head embroidered with magnolia coloured vines and flowers, expertly rips a piece of puri, spoons channa on top of it, and pops it into his mouth with the concise movements of a conductor. Unlike this seasoned old-timer, I have the manual dexterity of a four-year old. I’m momentarily tempted to surrender using my fingers and use a knife and fork instead. But no. “They’re colonial instruments seeking to civilise your fingers” my naani-jee once scolded me about using knives and forks. Eating with my fingers is the proper way to do it, so I toss my spoon aside. There’s a decolonial culinary and cutlery rebellion going down today. Puri in hand, I jump straight into the channa, fingers first.
My fingers wade in the murkiness, skinny-dip in the warm ocean of brown, trying to land some of the chickpeas and cumin seeds bobbing on the surface. Captain Ahab went hunting for Moby Dick. I’m hunting me some chickpeas. I manage to catch two, and the skin off some potato. I shovel some of the halwa on top, and in it goes inside my mouth.
The subtle taste of masaala and chilli washes over my tongue. The channa is not sinfully bland, so much so it’s worthy of a Goodness Gravious Me sketch. It’s perfectly seasoned, a balance struck only by recipes that have been tried and tested for decades. Fearful for our stomach linings, my health-conscious mother brought my siblings and I up on a diet of the occasional, mildly spiced curry. So the mild spice agrees with my Pakistani stomach, diluted by the British sensibilities of my mother.
The sweet butteriness of the halwa is almost sinful. It beautifully balances the savoury flavour of the channa. I’ve never been one to have sweet and savoury at the same time. But all of a sudden my senses are tingling, my tastebuds are roaring like raucious football hooligans in approval at the soft texture of the halwa and the perfect marriage between spice and sugar. Suddenly there’s a High School Musical erupting in my tastebuds. They’re soaring, they’re flying. My fillings and cavities of course, are not.
It’s time for some chai to dislodge the grease accumulating in my throat. I take one sip and place the cup down; it needs sugar. I capitulate, stir a little in, and as my eyes follow the train of ground pistachios floating in a boat of milky froth, swirling round and round, ripples begin to erupt on the surface of my chai, a result of the Tyrannosaur footfall of customers leaving the restaurant considerably heavier than when they first arrived. I can already feel a double chin emerging under my hijab, peeping out like one half of a builder’s bum. I might have to forgo eating for an entire week.
Illuminated under the summer sunlight, I can almost imagine the flowers on the Bengali uncle’s karakul hat blooming with satisfaction as he feasts on his halwa-puri, a serene look set on his face as his taste-buds are flooded with the flavours of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the past and the present, with a helpful dash of nostalgia, all in one bite of halwa, channa, and puri. The golden, messianic glow of my puri reminds me that if ever there was a culinary Jannah (heaven), this must be it, right here, right now. It’s Sunday breakfast hedonism at its very finest.