The Biryani ‘King’ of London

Originally from Lahore, Ustad Zafar Pahalwan moved to London in the 90s and put his cooking skills to use.

by Atiqa Rehman at Dawn: On any given evening in the past month, a line of customers steadily grows at the beginning of Ilford Lane, just a short walk from the train station.

Families, the elderly and students queue up to get their hands on the now famous ‘iftar box’ at Pahalwan Biryani — a less than one-year-old biryani joint that has become a local sensation in east London. They all know that, come iftar, it’s time for the signature Pahalwan box: a decent serving of part biryani, part pulao and part zarda.

Since the beginning of Ramadan, the owner, Ustad Zafar Pahalwan, and his small team have been handing out 600 biryani boxes for free to anyone who shows up, an offer that has drawn crowds at a time when the cost of living crisis has made the holy month and upcoming festive period a difficult time.

Research by Asda last month showed the shocking impact that soaring costs have on communities, as over 89 per cent of British Muslims say it will impact their Ramazan and Eid plans this year. Nearly one in five (18pc) plan to spend between £20-£30 less on food per week than in 2023, and 17pc will have to change cooking techniques due to energy prices.

“Around 5pm, we lay out long buffet-style tables on the pavement across from our shop and put fruit platters and dates there for passing rozaydars,” says Pahalwan, acknowledging that the practice is technically not allowed by the local council without a license. “But the authorities don’t stop us. They know we are doing something good for the community. If we don’t feed these people, someone else will have to.”

Originally from Lahore, Pahalwan moved to London in the 90s and put his cooking skills to use. There isn’t a Pakistani restaurant in London where he hasn’t worked, he says, adding that he has a love for cooking and is always thinking of new items on the menu. But life hasn’t been easy, and his business is far from secure, even despite the hordes of paying customers.

“My account was in overdraft when I started this business last year, and it still is in overdraft,” Pahalwan says with a chuckle. After all, of the 600 kilo-worth of chicken biryani he cooks in a day, at least half is distributed for free.

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