How This Town Became a South Asian Sweet Shop Paradise
South Asian food

How This Town Became a South Asian Sweet Shop Paradise

Bradford’s first mithai shop was opened in 1964 by Abdul Rehman, a Pakistani migrant working in the city's textiles mills. Other shops soon followed and today, Bradford is a sugary haven of laddu and gulab jamun.
21 June 2018, 9:00am

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2018.

It’s a bitterly cold morning and I’ve just ordered breakfast at Sweet Centre, the first Asian restaurant to open in Bradford in 1964. Foregoing my usual morning Weetabix, I have prepared my taste buds (and waistline) for halwa puri.

Halwa puri is the magnum opus of South Asian breakfasts. It consists of a sweet semolina cooked in ghee (the halwa) and a deep-fried, golden flatbread (the puri). If you want to go the extra mile, you can ask for a side of channa, chickpea and potato curry. I’m feeling adventurous today, so I order the lot along with a cup of Kashmiri chai to wash it all down. It comes to the grand total of £6.50.

Halwa puri with channa and a Kasmiri chai tea, served at Sweet Centre in Bradford. All photos by the author.

Walking into Sweet Centre feels like stopping at a street vendor on the side of a bustling road in India or Pakistan. The clatter of steel pans in the kitchen merges with customers’ conversations in a multilingual symphony of English, Punjabi, Pashto, and Urdu. I watch as young lads, parents with their children, and a group of elderly men who have come from the nearby mosque following afternoon prayers stream in for samosas, seekh kebabs, and of course, halwa puri.

Liaqat Habib, Sweet Centre’s CEO and son of its founder, the late Abdul Rehman, tells me that his father had the idea to open a South Asian food business shortly after arriving here in 1957 to work at a textiles mill.

“My father first got the idea of serving morning breakfast, the channa and halwa puri, from the men who used to work the morning shift in the mills which stood opposite the Sweet Centre,” Habib says. “These men came mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They came alone, leaving their families behind.” The mill Habib is referring to is Drummond Mills. Built in 1861, it burned down two years ago and now all that remains of it is the mill tower.

Sweet Centre stands opposite the remains of Drummond Mills, a 19th century mill destroyed in a fire two years ago.

Sweet Centre serves halwa puri in a strict time window between 8 AM and midday. Staff arrive at 6 AM every morning to begin kneading the dough for the puri and rolling it into small balls by hand. Fresh batches of channa and halwa are prepared daily.

“Halwa puri is heavy,” says Habib. “Once you have it, you don't need to have lunch. It will keep you going all through the day until dinner. That’s why we don’t serve it after 12 PM. To this day, we still use the same recipe, and our halwa puri is as popular now as it was over 50 years ago.”

As its name suggests, Sweet Centre also specialises in South Asian confectionery. During my talk with Habib, I’m distracted by a glistening tray of gulab jamun, deep-fried balls of dough made with with milk powder and semolina soaked in sugar syrup, and sprinkled with desiccated coconut. My eyes also scale the blocks of barfi stacked behind the counter. The soft sweet is made from milk powder and flavoured with pistachio, cherry, or coconut; assembled into a brickwork of neon pink, green, brown, and nude. This place must have been an Aladdin’s cave of wonders for the first generation South Asian migrants in Bradford who visited in search of a taste of home.

Puri, the deep-fried unleavened flatbread served with halwa and channa.

My order is up. Steaming tray in hand, I eagerly take my seat. The halwa and channa are served in a plastic bowl decorated with a dainty flower print—the same kind my grandmother buys from Pakistan for weddings and Eid celebrations. I tear a piece of the puri—crisp on the inside and thick around the edges—and use it to scoop a chickpea or two before going in for the halwa. It’s an unconventional marriage of flavours: the sweet halwa, fragrant coriander seeds in the channa, and doughy puri.

The South Asian migrants who were the lifeblood of Sweet Centre in the 1960s and '70s continue to visit, but a new generation of young customers beyond the South Asian community have also found a home here.

Gulab jamun sprinkled with desiccated coconut.

A Sweet Centre employee arranges stacks of barfi flavoured with cherry, pistachio, and coconut.

“Sweet Centre is a quintessential Bradford curry house and sweet shop,” 25-year-old regular Kate Henry tells me. “When I go round to my friend Esther’s house, we order the proper Pakistani halwa puri breakfast and gulab jamun. I can still remember having a gulab jamun from Sweet Centre for the first time. It was so sweet, so syrupy, so delicious and gorgeous; it would just melt in your mouth. I’d never tasted anything like it. It was nothing like traditional English desserts.”

Just a stone’s throw from Sweet Centre on the corner of White Abbey road is a branch of Nafees, another popular Bradford Asian sweet shop that opened in 1979. Now with 20 stores across the country offering over 400 products, some of their best-selling delicacies are mithai like gulab jamun and laddu, a soft, grainy yellow ball of gram flour and sugar topped with pistachios, cashews, or almonds.

Asif Saleem, the managing director at Nafees, recalls the days when its founder, his late father Mohammed Saleem, noticed a growing demand for Asian sweets, biscuits, and cakes after arriving in the city from Azad Kashmir.

“When my father first started out, he didn't have any knowledge of food manufacturing,” Saleem tells me. “But my grandfather was a cook, so he knew all about Pakistani cuisine. In those days in the 1970s there was no internet or emails, so my father recorded a cassette and sent it back to Pakistan, asking my grandfather how to make the mithai. My grandfather recorded some of the recipes in a cassette which he sent back to Bradford, and that’s how it all started.”

These cassette letters were a cheap and common form of communication for first generation migrant families living in Bradford.

Initially, the ingredients for traditional mithai were hard to come by in a city that only recently became home to a burgeoning South Asian population. But once Saleem’s father was able to source ghee and flour, it was simply a process of trial and error until he mastered the recipes.

“My father used to laugh when he told me the story of how he first made laddu,” remembers Saleem. “They’re supposed to be soft, but the first batches he made were rock hard yet people still used to buy them, because mithai just wasn't available in the UK back then.”

Asif Saleem, managing director of Nafees, holds a tray of freshly baked cake rusk.

Nafees is perhaps best known for its cake rusk. Cake rusk has a God-like status in British Asian households. The rectangular, double-baked golden biscuit doesn’t look like much in comparison to a McVitie’s chocolate digestive, but when dipped in a steaming cup of tea (English breakfast, of course), the sweet, buttery, egg-custard flavours are enough to entice child and adult alike to consume them by the boxload. I can vividly recall the mouth-watering scent of freshly baked rusk from my trips to Bradford as a child during school holidays. The smell would waft along White Abbey road from Nafees as my younger brother and I walked into the city centre, passionately debating whether rusk was best dipped in tea or water.

Saleem laughs as I recall my memories of cake rusk. After all, it was his father who invented it.

“My mother played a very important role developing our recipes with my father, because she used to motivate him and give him different ideas. It was thanks to her that my father became the pioneer of cake rusk. To this day, cake rusk is one of our best selling lines,” he adds proudly.

Cake rusk, a speciality of Nafees.

For 47-year-old health care assistant, Raheena Akbar, the scent of freshly-baked cake rusk evokes nostalgic memories of the Bradford of her childhood.

"In the 1970s, my dad was a bus conductor. He used to work 14- to 16-hour shifts when I was a girl," she tells me. "Most of the small jobs fell on me and my sisters because we were a big family, and picking up cake rusk was one of them. Every Saturday morning at 8 o’clock, Mum would literally rush us out of the door because there was always a queue. Before we even got into the bakery, the sweet, buttery smell of the cake rusk would float across the road and up our noses, invading our thoughts. The bitter Yorkshire cold and the tiredness we felt getting up early in the morning, all of that disappeared the moment that smell of rusk hit us. My favourite was their aniseed-flavoured rusks. It used to remind me of the liquorice I got from the corner shop. Every time I smell that smell, it takes me back to my childhood.”

Bradford locals Mehmoona and Iram feed each other laddu.

Back in Sweet Centre, I’m still attempting to finish my halwa puri. An elderly man sitting at the table next to me with a long white beard and netted skull cap exclaims “Bismillah!”, Arabic for “in the name of God!”, before tearing hungrily into his halwa puri. At the same time, the clouds hanging over the mill ruins that stand opposite the shop start to part, making my puri glow a celestial gold.

I am eating the same meal my grandfather ate as a young man when he came from Pakistan to Bradford in the 1960s. The early Asian restaurants and sweet shops like Sweet Centre and Nafees weren’t simply feeding their hungry customers, they were providing a nostalgic trip back to the streets of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh; to the warmth of a grandmother’s kitchen; to the chaos and joy of family gatherings during Eid and Ramadan.

Sweet Centre is a culinary home away from home. I can get a taste of the past whenever I need it, all I have to do is take a bite of halwa puri.