Khushi’s legacy curries favour

Khushi's owner Islam Mohammed at the restaurant's new Abercromby Place home
Khushi's owner Islam Mohammed at the restaurant's new Abercromby Place home
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HOME was a patch of farmland in Jalandhar. Lush and green from tropical summers, cool fresh winters and monsoons which pummelled the dusty earth and nurtured fields of wheat and towering crops of sugar cane.

As Khushi Mohammed toiled there, he knew his hard labour would bring little reward – and there was certainly never much to spare when there were seven sisters, parents, grandparents and an extended family to feed.

The fire at Khushi's

The fire at Khushi's

Edinburgh, if Khushi could even begin to imagine it, wasn’t just another country away. It was another world. Yet it was one that, thanks to him, was about to experience a taste of the exotic, piquant and spicy Punjab that would help transform Scots eating habits.

For soon, the young Indian with the carefully trimmed pencil moustache who arrived in Britain with all his worldly goods stuffed into his trouser pockets, would become Edinburgh’s, if not Scotland’s, first curry king.

It’s nearly 65 years since Khushi opened Edinburgh’s first Indian restaurant. Now, three years after a blaze gutted its Victoria Street premises and threatened to end his legacy, Khushi’s restaurant is to be relaunched at a new location.

His remarkable journey from immigrant to respected city businessman is not only a story of amazing determination, but also a reminder of the contribution Asian immigrants have made to Scottish life.

Khushi arrived in Britain in the mid-1930s, lured here by the Commonwealth promise of work and a better life.

Certainly, the journey from Punjab farm to Scotland’s capital city must have been a daunting one for a generation of immigrants like him, agrees his son, Islam, who now runs the restaurant and is overseeing its relaunch at Antigua Street.

“My father was uneducated, illiterate, he couldn’t speak English,” he explains. “He came from a village in another country to a major city with no language, no money. I know it’s a cliché, but he came with just the shirt on his back. I don’t even think he had a suitcase.”

When he did get one, he filled it with dish mops, haberdashery items and odds and ends which he then hauled door-to-door. The income was just enough to send some home, save some and to live off what was left.

Islam added: “The Asian community was growing, a lot of people were coming to study here, mostly engineering and medicine. They needed somewhere to go and eat.

“I think my father was the only one not studying, not educated and not here for a specific reason. He realised that these people wanted to eat food they were familiar with, and that he could cook it for them.”

By 1947, Khushi had used the money he’d saved to open a tiny restaurant in Potterrow, near the university. He called it the Lothian Restaurant, but the food – typically chicken and lamb curry – was as far removed from the cuisine locals expected.

To them, he brought tastes never before experienced: aromatic coriander and fiery chillies, warming ginger, vibrantly coloured turmeric and powerful garlic, much of it carried to Scotland at Khushi’s polite request in bulging suitcases by travelling students.

When some locals found the exotic tastes too demanding, he devised dishes aimed at tempting them through the door.

“Mince curry,” says Islam, standing amid the builders’ debris as work goes on to create a new Khushi’s opposite the Playhouse. “He couldn’t get locals to come. They said ‘we are mince-and-tatties folk’. So he said, ‘I’ll give you mince and potatoes’ and made curried mince and curried potatoes.”

However, being the pioneer of Scottish curry cuisine had its drawbacks. Post-war Edinburgh was gripped by rationing and hardly awash with the exotic ingredients required by Punjab cooking, never mind basics like rice and lentils or halal meat.

So Khushi put his young student clientele to work, organising for anyone returning home to India or newly-established Pakistan to take a long shopping list of spices, herbs and essentials to bring back.

“They were spice mules,” recalls Islam. “He’d get them to bring back bags of coriander or turmeric, ginger, chilli. Sometimes people would go to London or Birmingham and could bring ingredients back from there. Or he’d get a van and travel south himself to get the rice and the flour for chapattis.”

Halal meat wasn’t available, but Khushi found kosher meat from a Jewish butcher was a suitable compromise. And for years the problem of sourcing fresh chicken was solved in a manner which would hardly be appropriate today.

“My dad used to go to a chicken farm in Loanhead and slaughter the chickens himself on a Sunday morning. I had to hold the wings, while my dad did the deed. That’s where I first discovered what the phrase ‘running about like a headless chicken’ means,” explains Islam.

“But sometimes he didn’t have enough time to kill them, so he’d bring them back to the restaurant where he kept them in the basement until they were needed. We still have customers who remember the chickens in the basement.”

Khushi’s restaurant in Potterrow gave way to various locations until, in 1974, it opened in Lothian Street, with Khushi’s wife, Hamida – now 75 – replacing him in the kitchen.

While the couple were warmly welcomed by most, there were those who were less willing to embrace foreigners with their unusual food.

“It was a challenging time,” says Islam. “Luckily my parents were the type whereby if someone said something offensive, they’d just shrug it off.”

Eventually dozens of Indian restaurants were dotted around the city and Khushi, then in his mid-60s, decided it was time to make his pilgrimage to Mecca. “But he had dementia by that time,” recalls Islam sadly. “He never came back.”

Confused, Khushi wandered off into the crowd, seemingly on his way to a mosque. Whether he fell and was injured or simply got lost, no-one knows. “He went off with no papers on him, nothing,” says Islam. “My mother was frantic. He couldn’t be found. Of course, because of the heat, if someone dies they must be buried right away, so it’s possible that is what happened.”

Islam, 13 at the time and one of seven children, helped his mother with the business, taking over in 1989 and then overseeing the 2006 move to Victoria Street. But just before Christmas 2008, disaster struck as fire ripped through the restaurant, setting off a long insurance wrangle. That dispute is still rumbling on. However, next week, the doors to the newest, but oldest, curry house in Edinburgh will open in Antigua Street.

It is, says Islam, a fitting rebirth for a restaurant rooted in the Southside.

“It’s taken us more than 60 years to leave the Southside, no-one can accuse us of doing things too quickly,” he says with a grin. “The fire was a mishap. But now we’re just glad to be back.”

* Khushi’s is due to open next Friday.