I don't know about you, but I like my festival of lights to come with a healthy side serving of coconut chutney. And a dosa the length of my arm. And, what the hell, throw a little condensed milk in, while you're there.
This Sunday is Diwali—a twinkling, sugar-stiff festival celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and many other gulab jamun fans, with cards, candles, and candies. Where better to stock up for the occasion than Southall, that satellite wonderland to the west of Ealing that boasts the largest Asian population in London?
It's been a fair old while since my sister and I went Southall, hunting down Vicco toothpaste, Chandrika soap, fresh curry leaves, mustard oil, and chaat puri—the small slices of South Asia that could be hard to find in the rest of town. And so, it is with a strange sense of disjointed nostalgia that I walk out of the station, with my companion-cum-guide Will Bowlby, the chef at London's famous Indian restaurant Kricket.
Unlike me, Bowlby has spent one Diwali in Mumbai, during his two-year stint working as a chef in the city—an experience that spawned a subsequent eating tour of India that took in Lucknow, Darjeeling, Ladakh, Goa, and elsewhere besides.
"I remember going up on to the roof of this huge house on Marine Drive and watching the fireworks over the sky and reflected in the water," says Bowlby, laughing over the somewhat lackadaisical approach to health and safety in the city. "People were just throwing lit fireworks straight into the air—firing off into taxis, across pavements—I was amazed there weren't more accidents."
For my part, most memories I have of Diwali in India involve quite a lot of housework (please Lakshmi, I've done the washing up) and those rice flour patterns rolled out onto the pavement outside.
The first stop on our food tour is Brilliant, the modestly named restaurant apparently favoured by Gordon Ramsay, Prince Charles, and at least one large man with white hair, who I assume from the blurb on the menu is one of the customers hailed as a "notable industrialist." The aim is to get a taste of typical north Indian food: the buttery breads, the tandoor-cooked meats, and, most strikingly, a kebab so soft that it can apparently be enjoyed by the toothless.
Bowlby orders a kulcha—one of the dishes he makes at Kricket—and when the puffed-up bread arrives, it's all I can do not to tear it grain from grain. The best thing about Brilliant (apart from the wall of water at the entrance that brings to mind a glass-plated plumbing emergency) is the fresh carrot pickle served up from a small stainless steel tray.
Like so many before him, Bowlby was bitten by India after travelling there in his early twenties. But his isn't simply a post-adolescent story of bhang lassi and finding yourself on Kovalam Beach—it's a love affair that has now translated into a new Kricket restaurant due to open in Soho in December, serving up more of Bowlby's trademark modern Indian food.
As I stare out at the Golden Scissors hairdressers over the road, a man with a beard the approximate size of a bath mat wanders past the window, laden down with blue plastic shopping bags. Somebody's stocking up for the weekend, I think, before biting into a piece of cauliflower.
With our first course done, we wander down the road into one of the many small shops selling everything from Diwali cards and glass bangles to small painted figurines of baby Krishna and stainless steel ghee pots.
"Where are you from?" asks the proprietor, her eyebrow pencil as heavy as a slice of barfi.
"London," we reply.
"Central London?" she insists.
"Um yes, Central London," says Bowlby, smiling shyly. It's rather nice to think of ourselves as Central Londoners, out for a jaunt.
"Ah, well, welcome to Southall. Make sure you go to the Roxy for papdi chaat," she says. You don't need to tell me twice.
The shining steel and blue laminate counter of Roxy is everything I look for in a canteen cafe aesthetic. For reasons best known to himself, Bowlby orders a box of papdi chaat to take away, which is how we find ourselves, sitting on a bench outside the Dominion Centre and Library, spooning chickpeas into the hard puri shells, before dunking them in the delicious, pond-coloured tamarind sauce held in a polystyrene cup.
They are delicious. So delicious that the first time I ever had one, in a cafe in Tooting back in the late 90s, I insisted on going all the way back the very next day for more, before breaking 80 percent of them in my rucksack home. I can't pretend I didn't spill quite a lot of this course down my shoe, but it was thoroughly worth it.
Give me a stainless steel tray plate, a plank-sized dosa, and a cup of masala tea and I'll probably give you my bank details. And so, it was with some joy that we walked past the roadworks outside the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha (a huge Sikh temple replete with orange flags) to Saravana Bhavan, a cornerside south Indian restaurant that—this being half term—is packed with families enjoying their lunch.
Strictly speaking, this is my third lunch of the day, but I'm going to let that slow me down. We order train breakfast favourites of vada (small, doughnut-like snacks served with green and coconut chutney) and masala dosas all round.
Sweet mother of potato, I love a dosa. Broken down into their constituent parts—a crepe-like jacket of chickpea and rice flour, turmeric potato, and onion filling, chutney and spicy soup-like sambal for dipping—they may not sound much. But put it all together and, like London itself, they are far greater than the sum of their parts. I eat mine from the middle out. Bowlby, I notice, dives in fingers first. Liz, our gluten-intolerant star photographer, is the only one to finish the whole thing. What a champ.
By this time, my mouth is writing cheques my stomach can't cash. So, as I stare at the shelves of Indian sweets—barfi, halwa, gulab jamun—my fingers begin to twitch around my purse. I'd really like a piece of pistachio barfi. I'd really like a slice of that silver leaf. And, after all, giving sweets is part of most Diwali celebrations. But then, I think, who would I give them to? Me, myself, and I, most probably. So, it is with a heavy heart and only-slightly compromised arteries, that I walk back to the station empty handed.
At a time when the British government seems intent on souring the nation to immigration and when lists of foreign workers and passport checks at labour wards are being seriously suggested, it seems more important than ever for us to stand together. To respect and celebrate the diversity of Britain, to respect our different communities, and to embrace our differences and honour our similarities.
A festival of light, family meals, greeting cards, butter, potatoes, sugar, and kindness—there's more to Diwali than food, of course. But it's a very good place to start.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.