Visitors to Pakistan’s second city, Lahore, can sense the weight of history. It is a melting pot of culture, great architecture, and delicious food. The city is filled with street food stalls that serve mouth-watering bites inspired by recipes passed down over generations since the 18th-century Mughal period. But you don’t have to travel thousands of miles to taste an authentic Hyderabadi Haleem, because in Dalston Junction one family carries the distinctive aroma right to your doorstep. The smooth mutterings of Urdu and the sweet smell of freshly-prepared Paratha engage all the senses. Your stomach quickly realises it is about to be rewarded for stumbling across Maza Takeaway.
Tucked away in a cul-de-sac between a butcher and a hair products shop, Imran Sabir, 51, speaks with great conviction and belief that he and his wife, Kiran’s new Pakistani fresh food outlet will be a Ridley Road market hit.
While Kiran works away on today’s dish of the day – Palak Gohst (spinach and lamb curry), Imran explains that his big inspiration for the business was while he was cooking with his five-year-old (he has four daughters aged between three and nine) and he realised she had a special liking for lentils. “When she went to school, they asked her if she wanted chicken,” says Imran. “She only wants Daal and not very spicy but with flavour. When she told me this, I thought we must make fresh food available, but well-cooked with only a small number of green chillies – this is our aim.”
Imran identifies strongly with food and its ability to leave an indelible mark on both your psyche and your stomach. But the family doesn’t just eat South Asian food. “You have food you eat at home but when you leave the house, you need to experiment,” says Imran. Lamb Pacha is an Iraqi dish where the head of a sheep is boiled, with a lemon-garlic broth served to be slurped with delight. His eldest loves it because they try to branch out when they go to restaurants. He says: “We love to eat different things; it starts early with food.”
When asked what he ate growing up in Lahore Imran proceeds to reel off a few breakfast favourites: Lahoori Chanay, a flavourful chickpea curry; Paya, a traditional mutton leg dish, and comfort food; Halwa Puri. “It is more difficult to eat at this age,” says Imran. “When I was younger and I was playing cricket, I ate a lot of Lamb Karahi, it’s a special dish back home.”
A year removed from the election of the late Benazhir Bhutto as Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister in 1989, Imran was playing and eating Karahi with the legendary bowler, Wasim Akram.
A new life in the UK beckoned when Imran was in his mid-20s, and the foodie describes his near-nomadic existence when he first arrived. “I lived all over North London, Holloway, Camden, St John’s Wood,” says Imran. “Nothing is like Clapton or Dalston, we like stability and there is a good community here.”
Imran started Maza Takeaway six months ago, after working as a department supervisor at various Sainsbury’s branches. He saw Lahore’s street food markets as his main inspiration.
“You only have to Google ‘street food Lahore’ then you will see how historic the place is,” says Imran. “There is a speciality in the street food, especially for people of Baháʼí faith, a religious minority. They go and sit on the beautiful rooftops of Lahore while they enjoy their food. If we can create this small feeling, it would be good.”
So, what can people expect if they visit Maza Takeaway? Kiran operates a dish-of-the-day system so choice is always varied. Go on a Thursday and Lamb Nihari, a rich slow cooked lamb shank stew thickened with whole-wheat flour, is freshly prepared in front of you.
Take a trip on Saturday, one of the busiest days on the market, and you are fed Masala Kelaji, fried liver seasoned with garam, fenugreek and other spices, cooked into a gravy to be eaten with Naan. The dish is immensely popular with loyal customers. Expect to pay around £5 for a lamb-based dish. Chicken dishes are £4, while a Daal/vegetable dish is £3.50.
“Me and my wife work hard, this is a family business,” says Imran. “We try to set a good price for the people, It’s not just dish of the day. We can do breakfast. Paratha, omelettes, and eggs with keema inside. My wife and I did take cooking courses at the world-famous Faletti’s hotel. People want you to work hard and keep your prices affordable.”
Eid is fast approaching, and as a Muslim himself who has been fasting during Ramadan, Imran wants to ensure that his prices and deals help everyone. He says they are doing a Ramadan special where they sell packages of food with pakoras, Samosa Chaat and Dahi Baray, lentil fritters soaked in yoghurt. When asked if business is affected during Ramadan, he said: “There are quite a few people that don’t fast because of medical conditions or other issues. We are here to serve them.”
Imran expects business to pick up around Eid. He says he’s looking forward to having Sheer Khurma, a vermicelli pudding eaten during the festival.
Imran relies on his experience to shore up the success of Maza Takeaway. Experience is key, he says. “Your brain might forget to write, but your fingers don’t.”
Imran remembers reading a book when he was younger in which the eagle was scared to fly above the sea. “His brothers and sisters had all done it. Only he was left,” says Imran. “Mother eagle dangles some food and suddenly baby eagle can fly. To grow you must be out of your comfort zone.”
If this is anything to go by, it’s clear Imran is ready to help Maza Takeaway spread its wings and soar.
This article is part of our series, Food Without Borders: Taste of East London, check out more stories here.