From a recent visit to my old stomping ground in the east end of London emerged deeply fond memories of my favourite local haunt for simple, fresh, quality food. I re-walked the streets a couple of years ago and was devastated to find that the Gulistan Kebab House, New Road, Whitechapel was no more. Hoping to find its reincarnation at a different address I made local enquiries, none of which led to good news.
A humble shop front a few doors from the corner of Whitechapel Road, I affectionately named it the Fire Shop. Flickering flames from the grill behind steamed up glass acted as a beacon on dark London winter days and nights. There is a wide footpath in front of the London Hospital and as I walked it towards my east end flat from Whitechapel station (or from the London Hospital Tavern) the Fire Shop flickered away in the distance, luring me to treat myself to one of my treasured little snacks. I had to walk past the door, so I really had no choice.
For one pound fifty, two friendly men would work in perfect unison, one rolling and baking the naan bread in the tandoor oven, the other grilling two spicy lamb kebabs over the charcoal grill. Imagine the smell. The spicy minced lamb kebabs were pressed over fairly thick square steel bars, so the resulting kebab ended out hollow in the middle and not too thick on the outside. This also made them quite quick to cook. Two kebabs were then removed from the skewers and rolled in the naan with a little yogurt and fresh coriander leaves. Amazing smell, spiciness, freshness, and just the right amount for a moreish snack. Sometimes I’d be back for seconds within just a few minutes.
I haven’t been able to find any photos, reviews or advertisements to immortalise the memory of the Fire Shop. I’ve had to rely on my own memory and in doing so I made these two sketches, one showing where it was, and one more detailed sketch describing the layout. You couldn’t get more basic than this, a tiny shop with room for maybe 6 people to eat at stools and a small table, and another room upstairs. I remember dark plywood panels on the walls that must have been there since it opened in the sixties.
(1 Charcoal grill - 2 Tandoor - 3 Woks - 4 Large curry pots - 5 Fridge - 6 Chair for the naan man - 7 Bar and stools - 8 Table and bench - 9 Stairs to dining room - 10 Front door - 11 Shop front window - 12 Sneeze guard - 13 Door to back room - 14 Bread prep - 15 Kebab prep)
A range of other curry dishes were also on offer. Four or five large aluminium pots sat on the counter containing chicken, lamb and vegetable curries. These would be ladled into hot woks and finished with a bit of fresh chilli, yoghurt and coriander leaves before serving with hot naan bread.
I moved from the east end in 1993 to another part of London, and made frequent visits back to the Fire Shop for a taste of a treat I haven’t been able to find anywhere else since. On one visit I was greeted by my friendly one time neighbours and noticed a new addition to the fit-out: A glass sneeze guard between the customers and the large pots of curry. A health inspector had obviously made his or her mark. Before the days of the glass screen I know of at least one one pound coin that settled to the bottom of one of those deep pots. The knowing smile and gentle ‘not to worry’ head gesture I received from the naan man told me that it wasn’t the first time! The depletion of the contents of each curry pot must have resulted in a trove of loose change.
I am hoping this article will be the beginnings of a shrine for this wonderful east end institution. I know there are others out there who will share my passion and I really hope that this leads to the creation of a new archive to truly immortalise the Gullistan Kebab House. Please, if you know of anything, or anyone that has connections with the Fire Shop, do the right thing and send it my way.
*Gulistan is a town of about 75,000 people in the Balochistan region of Pakistan, about 8km from the Afghan border. Elevation: 1,480m