Regular visits to Southall in West London usually centre on taking my son (who has special needs) for a cheap haircut (£6.00) at the same barbers on South Road, where Indian devotional music plays on a loop, perhaps to drown out the buses and cars thundering past outside in a regular, unending stream.
A barbershop visit always means a meal afterwards to my son, no arguments, and a short walk away is “Saravanabhavan” – a vegetarian restaurant. However, due to the fact that I had forgotten the change to British Summer Time, we arrived there at 1.00 instead of 12.00 and the place was packed, with a queue near the door, added to which I suspect that it was full of families celebrating Mothers Day that just happened to coincide.
Southall is not short of dining options, as you might imagine for a place with a large mostly North Indian immigrant community, but a combination of the weather (cold and windy) and the prospect of pushing my sons’ wheelchair through the busy Broadway all the way from South Road to find some of the better & more familiar restaurants – mainly because my son enjoys “fine dining” and not “hole in the wall” type places that serve great food but are lacking in basic amenities – didn’t appeal.
I decided on a different tack and turned right on the junction of South Rd and The Broadway to investigate a rumour that there was a new branch of “Shahi Nan Kebab” opposite the old police station. “Shahi Nan Kebab” enjoyed the reputation, featured proudly on its fascia, of being the first kebab shop in the U.K and its’ most well-known location, perched precariously on top of the railway bridge directly opposite Southall BR Station, was an iconic local landmark for several decades – “was” because comprehensive development of the area resulted in it finally being demolished in 2019.
The flagship outlet re-opened in brand new premises at the foot of the bridge, in South Road – I say flagship because I wasn’t aware that any other branches existed, that is, until a visit from my sister from the U.S revealed a small outlet in Northcote Avenue, off The Broadway, following a nostalgic walk around the area where we lived until the late 70’s – we agreed to disagree that this was in fact the original “Shahi Nan Kebab” – I’m convinced it was.
Sure enough the new “Shahi Nan Kebab” is located opposite the police station – a smaller outlet and, to be honest, not particularly inviting when compared to the other new outlet at the foot of the railway bridge, though by now we were both too hungry to care very much – it did have the same dark green banquette seating and fascia graphics. I ordered a chicken tandoori naan for myself and a paneer kebab naan for my son, with freshly made naans from the tandoori oven, and a plate of excellent thick-cut chips.
Once again, like the barbershop, you can’t avoid Southall’s road traffic, this time on the Uxbridge Road, coupled with the rash of building works going on in the area – flats are being built in several locations and the local police station has closed and relocated to far-off Acton. As I ate, something caught my eye – the unusual sight of a vintage car – this provoked a flurry of interest amongst the mostly young guys serving behind the counter, perhaps more used to seeing contemporary luxury performance vehicles being paraded up and down the Broadway at weekends & the default vehicles of choice for most Asian immigrants – Mercedes, BMW and Audi.
I piped up “is the driver Asian?”, which was confirmed by one of the staff who went out to look since the cars’ progress had been halted by traffic lights at the junction of South Road and The Broadway. It appeared that the driver was local and known for having a fleet of cars that included some vintage models and so was obviously not short of cash, and what followed was a brief conversation about the costs involved in restoration and changing tastes in second, third and fourth generation immigrants.
By now I felt it would be opportune to mention that the original “Shahi Nan Kebab” was a subject of a personal illustration project and that a print was available at my website : www.thenakedswami.com, something that I had intended to do at some point but which, to be honest, was not my agenda when we decided on it for lunch – I showed one of the staff my website on my phone.
Seeing that the illustration (above) was of the original outlet provoked a conversation about the changing face of Southall and also the interesting fact that originally the business was set up by two partners who went their separate ways at some point due to a falling out – I tried to dig deeper into this kebab intrigue but got no further than this tidbit – the result is that far from being a single outlet there are now 3 “Shahi Nan Kebabs” in Southall that all share the same fascia identity and also the same basic recipe of kebab and chilli sauce, within minutes of each other, which may lead to some confusion in those looking for the authentic “Shahi Nan Kebab” experience – the good news is that across at least 2 outlets, the food is just as good as it has always been.
Ruminating about the changes in the area, the staff member talked about the fact that the atmosphere in Southall had changed, mainly due to the influx of people from Somalia and the EU, leading to tensions and the relocation of the police station – once a source of tension in the community during the 70’s and 80’s – meant that response time to crime is affected – the place was not safe anymore and younger residents with families were moving out to safer areas for the sake of their children.
All this reminded me of the cyclical nature of towns and cities that have transient communities – in the 70’s “White Flight” was a term a coined for the host community moving out of the Southall area as the immigrant population grew when in fact many of those residents were originally from other parts of the U.K, like Wales.
In 2019 we’re seeing long-standing Asian residents moving out of the area for the same reasons and a general feeling that the character of the area is under threat from extensive redevelopment that may result in an influx of a mixture of young professionals taking advantage of the new Crossrail link at Southall, but also people on benefits in social housing and the implications of that.
I guess, as with “Shahi Nan Kebab”, the true picture is not as straightforward as it would seem or as we would like to see it, but ultimately, the kebab is still as good as it has always been.
Visit www.thenakedswami.com for original illustrations documenting iconic, vanished and vanishing architectural landmarks of West London, available in a range of scales and applications, suitable for framing.