I WAS in one of my favourite cafés in Great Junction Street when I started to tune in to the conversation about politics going on at the table across from mine.
It was a pretty familiar grumble about the way we’re governed, then it took a darker turn: “Aye, the government’s made a right a*** of it but that’s no’ the real problem, what bothers me is these ****ing immigrants, coming over here, taking our jobs, claiming our benefits, getting our houses.”
I don’t expect to hear this ignorant garbage in Leith. We’ve got the most ethnically mixed community in Edinburgh. The staff who serve behind the counter in my local Tesco come from seven different countries but they have one thing in common – they’re unfailingly cheerful, hard-working and helpful. They haven’t “taken our jobs”, they’re doing the jobs some of my fellow-Scots don’t want to do, and doing them better. They’re paying their taxes and helping to provide benefits for folk in genuine need.
The food and drink in our Leith Lidl is international and so are the customers. The wee post office is run by a Sikh family with broad Edinburgh accents. The martial arts school teaches six different Far Eastern styles of self-defence. If you’re a regular at Easter Road, you’ll hear the Hibs fans cheering Dominique Malonga from the Congo, Franck Dja Djedje from Ivory Coast and Farid El-Alagui from Morocco.
Leith is a port. We extend a welcome to you wherever you’re from: wealthy French tourists off the cruise liners, Russians gambling in the casino and Italians sipping espressos in the sunshine outside the Turkish cafe.
Those same tourists stepping on to the Royal Yacht and looking up at the Union flags and Royal Ensigns rippling in the cold breeze are often surprised when the guide tells them that the Windsor family who had the pleasure of sailing it round the world were originally from Germany. That’s right, the Royal family is an immigrant family.
“We should send them all back where they ****ing came from,” said our friendly local racist in the café, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Yeah right, I thought, let’s kiss goodbye to our Swedish pubs, our Spanish barbers, our Italian chippies and pizza palaces, our African hair salons, our Polish beers, our Guinness, our pasta, our French fries, our chicken jalfrezi and our aromatic crispy duck. I paid and started to walk out but I stopped in front of the Nigel Farage impersonator. “I’m an immigrant,” I said. “My four children are immigrants . . . fourth generation, County Donegal, Ireland.”
Ukip, the English anti-immigration party, says it’s going to contest every seat in Scotland in May. Let’s send them all back where they came from.
The life of Ryan
I hope Ryan Adams rediscovered his sense of humour at his Usher Hall gig last night. A few years ago, he stormed off stage because a punter asked him to play Summer of ’69. Not quite as bad as vegetarian rocker Morrissey who once quit mid-song at a midsummer festival because he smelt barbecue smoke!
Curry is the food of love in Leith
If I step out on to the balcony of my flat in Leith on the right night, sacred songs and chants come wavering up through the still night air from the local Sikh Temple. The Sikhs arrived in Leith in 1957, the year I was born. So it’s fitting that on my birthday last week, I’m invited to have a curry and beers in the company of Scotland’s best-kent Sikh, the multi-talented raconteur-turned-restaurateur Hardeep Singh Kohli at his new craft beer and curry tapas bar, VDeep in Henderson Street.
It’s VDeep’s opening night and the place is jumping. Up on the cinema screen, Newcastle United are getting pumped by Man City, there’s quality Northern Soul on the stereo and only one table free. The waiter ushers me, my other half and our mate into a romantically-lit, scarlet-draped love-booth. “We call this Hardeep’s Harem,” he says.
There’s Mumbai street art on the walls and all the bar staff and waitresses are wearing retro Adidas tracky tops. We’re having a giggle at the menu – Bangras and Mash, Cheesy Pea Pakoras and Pork Cheek Vindaloo – when a lavender turban weaves its way through the crowd towards us. Underneath it is the Heid of the Harem himself. He squidges up next to my pal Shayne and starts giving her weapons-grade patter as well as menu suggestions. In seconds her heart’s melting and her mouth’s watering.
When the food comes, it’s light and delicious and you can wash it down with any one of a bewildering number of craft beers, including Vindabrew, specially concocted by the Williams Brothers, Hardeep and his head chef Ruaridh Skinner. Scotland’s first craft beer and curry bar! You can hear them gnashing their teeth with jealousy up the other end of the M8, where they like to think they invented curry and lager.
Hardeep’s inspiration is the Sikh temple’s “langar” (pronounced lung-gar), a free meal cooked every day in the Temple’s communal kitchen by a never-ending stream of volunteers he calls his “aunties”. “They don’t count the hours,” he tells us. “They come to the Temple kitchen every day and cook for their community because it makes them happy.”
This is the Sikh religion’s central doctrine of “seva” or “selfless service”. “Even Heart of Midlothian supporters are welcome,” he says, the grin hidden inside his extravagant beard.
“This is a small Sikh community in Leith but down in Southall on the edge of London, you’ll find the biggest Sikh temple outside of India. They cook a four-course meal 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Every weekday they literally feed 5000 people. On Saturdays and Sundays it’s closer to 10,000.”
At a Sikh meal, everybody is equal and everybody is entitled to eat from the communal pot. Just as Hardeep is reinventing curry and beer, so the Southall Sikh temple is reinventing Sikhism by taking it out into the streets. They have a Help The Southall Homeless Facebook page and a SWAT unit, the Sikh Welfare And Awareness Team, which takes a van into central London to feed the homeless.
Hardeep gets a wee bit of something in his eye as he tells us about their work. “What place does food have in faith if it doesn’t have a place on the street with vulnerable people at rock bottom in their lives? This makes me proud to be a Sikh.”
He’s on a mission in Leith. “We’re really excited about the ideas of creating a food community here in Leith and eventually we’re aiming to work with homeless charities to feed the less fortunate and create training opportunities for folk who can’t find work.”
It warms your cockles to hear charismatic individuals like this making plans to help Edinburgh’s disadvantaged. There’s a lot of generosity and social concern in this city. Chaska, the Sikh-run restaurant in Leith Walk, already offers free food every day to anyone who needs it. Social Bite, the not-for-profit sandwich shop in Rose Street asks all its customers to “pay forward” an extra meal or drink for people who have nothing and the Bethany Christian Trust takes its van out into the city from Leith every day to feed anybody they find living rough on the streets.
It’s the done thing these days to blame religion for all the evil in the world, but there are plenty of people out there doing good in the name of their god.
VDeep: Hardeep Singh Kohli launches his restaurant