An Interview with Manjit Kaur

Words, photo and interview by Penny Andrews

If you’re wondering why you’re receiving this on a Sunday and you haven’t got a paid subscription, don’t worry, it’s not a mistake. This one’s a freebie. My own interview with Faye Gomes of Kaieteur Kitchen was delayed but will be coming next week, and rather than conjure up an instant hot take for you about why something you love is bad, I thought I’d give this slot over to Penny Andrews.

Penny - keeping in with Vittles’s cities remit - has interviewed Manjit Kaur in Leeds, a city not given much attention by the food press. Not to say I’m any better. In my day job I supply a Leeds cafe ─ every time I speak to them I say ‘I’m going to have to come up and see you this year’ and every time they say ‘sure, you’ll love it’ and every time I end up not going. And I’ve been doing this non-stop for eight years. But this year, surely, will be the year I say ─ with nowhere on the continent to escape to instead. Plus I’ve been inbibing the Leeds scene through osmosis, talking to and reading Leeds food writer Thom Archer, listening to Penny (the only time I met Penny we went to Ananthapuram in East Ham to have chicken fry and they immediately started talking about Manjit’s Kitchen), plus of course the fact that one of Partition’s stranger legacies is Yorkshire’s rich Punjabi Indian and Pakistani restaurant ecosystem, started to satiate the appetites of those lured to Blake’s Satanic mills in search of work, and continued by their sons and daughters.

This hasn’t been without its own tensions. A few years ago, a homeless woman asked Manjit for some hot water only for it to be flung back in her face and told to go back to her own country, an incident which led Manjit to raise £7000 for rough sleepers - which I think tells you all you need to know about her character. Meanwhile Bradford in West Yorkshire has one of the biggest British-Pakistani communities in the country, yet that community’s public face ─ it’s restaurants ─ are barely given space in the UK’s media (this Vice piece is a welcome exception). Instead the narrative is one of silos, of ‘no go areas’ where the far right can film a street of people going about their lives to convince people of an invasion, where Morrissey can say “I don’t hate Pakistanis, I just dislike them immensely” and not face any consequences for another 20-30 years.

I’m not saying food writing has the ability to solve this, but what might we learn if some of those stories were told without this false narrative? Which is to say, if anyone from Bradford wishes to write it ─ pitches are open to you at vittleslondon@gmail.com


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An Interview with Manjit Kaur, by Penny Andrews

Manjit Kaur is a Leeds legend without a filter. I don’t mean that she’s rude, overly loud or full on (that’s me you’re thinking of, or Ira Silverman of Ira B’s, another fabulous local character with great food). I mean every so often she tweets rueing the fact that she’s meant to be keeping the social media for her vegetarian Punjabi streetfood business, Manjit’s Kitchen, “professional”. She’s only meant to be promoting the opening hours and the menu, and then goes off on one about football, the government, or anything else that’s on her mind in her own inimitable style. Everyone knows Manjit. Everyone follows Manjit. Nobody minds the swearing, because she’s lovely and her food is great. And whether it’s her Kirkstall restaurant, her Kirkgate Market stall or her horsebox, she makes you feel like home. I’ve got a pair of pink camo trousers stained yellow from one of her thalis. Her house dal tastes like the most perfect umami expression of home, comfort with oomph, and her onion bhajis remind me of the stamens of stargazer lilies.

Manjit is the spirit of the real Leeds, wonky and daft and full of heart – and always grafting. Because she wants to look after me, I want to look after her. I wanted her to tell her own story, because she’s a unique part of this weird city, so often seen as retail and finance heavy, that’s always had a fierce independent streak and been much more than the city centre, the students and the goths. I want her, and Leeds, to survive this pandemic.


Editors note: The Leeds-ness of this interview has been partially, but not totally, edited for clarity.

Tell us about how you got started, right from the beginning

Yeah, there was five kids plus Granny, Mum and Dad. Mum or Dad used to go to work, Granny used to look after all the kids and do all the heavy cooking. And what we used to do is mess around! There was eight mouths to feed, and I’m like ‘grandma’s left on her own’. So I got into helping Granny all the time. That's how it all started. I was probably about five, six, maybe seven, when I started, rolling out chapatis. And then obviously we've come from a big community and family. We used to go to the temple every Sunday where everyone gets together, and we'd cook for hundreds and hundreds!

That's how I grew into cooking. I don't know it was just a thing about helping out and feeding the community, but yeah that's how I got my passion for it. Then later on, I got into work. Just a normal nine to five job. And then, I think ‘this is not for me’. I got made redundant. I'm thinking ‘why don't I just start cooking again?’ You know, this is what I love doing and it's like a passion, so I thought ‘okay let's try this’. Let's try home cooking! That's what I've always been taught - and vegetarian because growing up my mum and dad and us were all strict vegetarians. 

I started home cooking in 2009, in my own small kitchen ─  it was probably about, I don't know, maybe half the size of this little space. And I did that with no money, and nothing whatsoever, no advertisements except emails and social media. It used to be a couple of curries. a couple of starters, and desserts. So it was just like house dal, aloo gobi, chana masala. With rice, homemade chapatis, onion bhajis, samosas. It was 3 to 4 months into home deliveries, I think we got contacted by our local Oakwood farmers market. I was absolutely amazed that I got this response, asking if I'd like to bring my home cooking to on the street at the Oakwood farmers market, and it was, I was like, oh my lord Jesus it's absolutely amazing to have actually have somebody ask me to actually bring this out onto the street. That's how it grew into Indian street food - from home cooking to Indian street food. It was mad.

What did your parents do?

Oh my mum was a machinist. And then she used to work at Leeds Kirkgate market, a clothes shop. My dad used to be a pipe inspector in a big pipe company. It was nothing to do with my parents being in a restaurant trade, nothing. Yeah, I think it was a passion of growing up with my granny and helping out and it made me how I am who I am today, because of growing up with granny and, you know, the whole Sikh community.

Did the food start to change when you went out?

No, it was the same home cooking. We did the dal bowls we did the chana bowls, we did the chilli paneer. We did the bhajis and the samosas - so nothing. Nothing changed at that point. Obviously I've been to India a few times and I bring a few different dishes in because my granny didn't used to cook South Indian food. And I wanted  South Indian dishes like dosas – though not at the moment because we haven’t got the staff and they’re a lot of work. And then it slowly grew bigger and bigger and better and I was thinking about maybe wanting to get myself a bigger kitchen. 

When I started the festivals in 2010 all I had was a gazebo and you know the British weather, we used to hold down the gazebo with one hand and cook with the other hand! It must have been about three years in when I got contacted by Land Securities about going to Trinity (a big shopping centre with a rotating lineup of street food vans in a food court) and I'm like, no way, how am I going to do Trinity, how am I going to cook seven days a week in the shopping centre? It was kind of  scary and exciting at the same time that I was asked to do my food, but I thought yeah let's just, just do it. 

I called my family, my sisters, my family and friends just to join in, just to help out for the first couple of weeks and it was absolutely crazy because we did it for six weeks, non-stop. Six whole weeks and then when I came out of it I was broken. But I’d achieved the feeling I had that if I can do this, I can do anything. That's the feeling that I got because I'd been cooking all my life but only doing food on weekends for big, big groups or crowds for festivals. I had never thought of myself cooking for seven days a week non-stop. 

You’ve made the steps from home cooking to a street food pitch, to a food truck, to market stall to restaurant. At what point did you decide you needed a permanent base?

I think after when we came out of Trinity it was a time that I decided to get myself something solid. So we got a food truck. We managed to put a few pennies together and got a food truck and within the first week of trying to get up and running, we got vandalised. I think from social media and my network of friends someone had the idea and tweeted out why don't you do Kickstarter? It was amazing the response we got that we managed to fund some money to get a new food truck ─  we decided to get a yellow horsebox because Michael is like six foot tall!

And then the workload was getting too much and we decided we need somewhere where we can actually have a base because when we were out in Manchester, or in Halifax or in Sheffield people wanted to know where we were so they can come and enjoy our food. And then I'm thinking, well, why don't we have, because I'm born and bred here in Leeds, why don't we just bring ourselves to the market because the market was renovating at the time with the new food hall, and our thinking was ‘why not the market?’.

Everybody would say ‘why do you want to go to the market, it’s a bit rough and ready?’. I mean, well, we've been born and bred here in Yorkshire and our parents have been taking us small kids to the market since forever. So why not bring our, our, you know, Indian vegetarian food into the market? We bring people together so why not make our Leeds market bigger and better? I think we decided to go in there for our reasons, thinking ‘yes we want to bring people to the market’ because everybody's just avoiding it. Our generation now just want to go into town. 

And then recently you made the step up to a restaurant, how had the pandemic affected that?

It’s nice to have a unit so people know that we are central rather than sending me messages “so where are you next?” “We're in Sheffield, we're in Halifax” It's kind of nice to have that centre. But then I think I wanted to do something in the evening. We stop at the market at 5pm and it's just lunchtime trade there for a couple of hours. So we thought we'd have a nice small little place and found one place here in Kirkstall. My dream was finally here! And then obviously, the whole pandemic started and it's just gone downhill. I think that's when it really hit me that my dream is gonna get crushed and I was actually tearful, I'm tearful now, because it was at the point where I had to close. 

We didn't know what we was gonna do, you know, because we only opened up in October. So you just have to have your thinking cap on. We closed the Leeds Kirkgate market because we couldn't open that and then we had to close Kirkstall for a couple of weeks and then we decided to do home deliveries just to keep our landlords happy. To actually pay for the space that we've closed down, we decided to do home delivery. In a way it’s been a big circle ─ that we started off with home deliveries and we came back to home deliveries here at Kirkstall. We decided to do chilled food for people to pick up and collect or we deliver and it's just been brilliant just to keep us on our toes and just to keep us out of so much debt that we got ourselves into because we had to stop both places. We've just opened Kirkstall, only Thursday Fridays and Saturdays, and we're thinking we should make it more, so that we can make a few extra pennies to keep paying our landlords - because obviously it's been tough working with landlords where they're not putting down the rent. They're not giving out a rent reduction so it's been tough for us to keep afloat, we're just taking day by day. 

What has it been like since lockdown lifted?

Kirkstall market is back up and running since the end of July. People are slowly back but we had a lot of trade from the offices, and there's no one in the offices. It's dropped by 50%. With the hit to our incomes and also with all the staff being furloughed it's been tough for me and Michael that we've been juggling both places and since you have to go back to doing it on your own we have to get up at half six in the morning, doing a big cook for the market. Michael’s been at the market, I'm running here, I do the chilled food here so it's been kind of tougher as with all the staff being furloughed because they've got young children and the kids were not going to go back until September. Now we're in September, I can't believe that we're in September. Finally, slowly we are getting staff back.

You’re particular about who you hire, aren’t you?

Because of our backgrounds it has always been Indian, Asian women. I think we're always being left in the back! Rather, we can't voice ourselves growing up so it's nice to bring Indian ladies in who haven't been working since they've been in the UK ─ and we're talking about 10 or 15 years they've been in the UK, that they've never worked ─ and their husbands feel safe that their wives are going to an Indian lady who's given them work! It's kind of nice to have that feeling that they feel comfortable coming to work here.

Restaurants were just all dominated with men in the kitchens and I'd always thought ‘oh we need to change this’. So we turned it around and invited those ladies in. The main thing is we just all get along, they're all comfortable working within Manjit’s Kitchen so it's absolutely a godsend. 

And then we work with Cafe Leep (a charity that employs people with learning disabilities), where we get one member of staff a week. Michael's been with us like since we've opened the Kirkgate market so that's 2015. He's been with us for years and he helps out every Thursday, but with the pandemic he’s vulnerable so he can't come to work just yet. I think he's ready to come back now but we will go through all the COVID measures before we get him back in.

So Leeds…

I think everybody can tell with my strong, well you can’t tell now because I’ve got mask on, but I think you can tell by my accent she’s a Yorkshire lass. Born and bred here at St James'. Leeds United has always been like down there down there (in the Championship) but never, ever getting above. But when they actually won the, you know, when they got into the Premier League, it was just like…come on! Bielsa is the best, he is so down to earth and it's just made our city even better. I'd like to say we needed that, I think with the pandemic. With the pandemic going on around us, I think we need some kind of normality, something good coming out of it for our city basically that is, huge, it's been huge for us. That leap right into the top division.

Yeah, and you decided to be based here not just because, like, you live here but because you're from here. Right?

I just, I think I never can be anywhere else.

Because obviously Manchester's got the big street food scene or whatever but you never thought you'd be happy there.

I've never been out of my comfort zone and Leeds is always been a part of me and I think that's where I want it to be and I think, Leeds needed that little kick really because the big places have already got it like London Manchester, Liverpool, they've already got big street food places and big, you know, places to be and eat. Leeds is in there now, you know.

Yeah, and you've got bits from other businesses who are independents as well. 

We use small businesses in Leeds ─ we get our bread from a bakery in Harrogate, Balterzens. You know, we get coffee from local, you know, independent places (e.g. Kulture Coffee) and it's kind of nice we use the beers from our local Kirkstall brewery as well we've got our local beers from there (Horsforth Brewery), we got beer on tap from Kirkstall Brewery so we all use all the independents. The community help each other and that's how it should be. It’s nice to have that support from people. That's who we are, we get that support and we give the support but we help each other. And we get through it. It’s back to everyone cooking for everyone else.

Tell me about the chapasty (a favourite, I miss it)

That was back in the day 2010, I think that was. It was basically a chapati, filled with either chickpeas or paneer and folded up and made into a pasty.

When will it come back?

It will be hopefully very soon.  We've done quite a few different things but it's just so hard because of the COVID measures and the pandemic. We've only got a limited menu.

Your food is often dictated by what there’s a lot of in the market that day, so what’s the most difficult thing to make when there’s a huge surplus of something?

A lot of people, a LOT of people don't like mushrooms. And every time I used to make mushrooms, I often made a korma of it with coconut milk. I think, mushrooms are one of the hardest sells. Once, I think ,there was some rhubarb, fried rhubarb and I just put it on top of my salad. Just bringing things and throwing things in, in whatever we can use because it's such a real local good that we have the outdoor market on our doorstep so we just use all this fresh produce whatever we can. Sometimes we have aubergines, and sometimes we have cauliflower. We just use and make whatever we do, what we have outside from our fresh produce at the market so it's kind of fabulous to have.

Like you are convinced you can make me like okra when I think it's horrible. How do you get around people’s weird dislikes?

Yeah, so after what we tend to do because it gets all sticky we make okra fries, and they are good. For people who don’t like coriander, that’s easy, we can cook without coriander. It’s harder when people don’t enjoy onions, it’s tough to make things without onions, but they can have our cauliflower butter masala because that’s just made with tomatoes and butter. Chilli paneer without the paneer! Or chilli paneer without chilli! We cook everything medium, mild to medium ─ I prefer it not too hot so people can enjoy their food and not be overpowered with too much heat. I’ve had a baby loving the food, I think the mum wasn’t expecting him to like it before he came and then six, seven months old he comes in and dal and rice, onion bhaji – fantastic.

Another thing because of us being strictly vegetarian when I was growing up, we used to go out to eat and there wasn't much choice there. This is when we were younger, where and our parents were taking us out. I think there were two or three dishes for vegetarians, and then we stopped going out for that reason because there wasn't much on the menu. That informs my cooking.

So what would have happened next. If it hadn't been COVID, if you'd got to October and you've had the full year what would have been without this?

It would have been a proper party. Our first year anniversary in October's coming up so it'd be absolutely brilliant. It would have been absolutely great. I would have had that sense for me that: Yeah, I've done what I wanted to do.

Would you have expanded after that?

I think what we did realise in October, we did start to think the place did seem a bit small. 

Me: What happens if we get locked down again?

Oh God, I’ll break down and probably won’t open till at least we get the go ahead again. We’ll just have to give our shot to delivering and collection, if we're allowed to do that. We still do that, Thursdays Fridays and Saturdays collection and deliveries. Deliveries we do less and less because obviously we are opening here on a night. It's kind of tough for us to juggle because Mike is at the market. And then he comes here straight after the market to help me out on a night time. It’s been kind of tough for us both.

Who’s your food hero? Other than your grandma

Romy Gill in Liverpool. She just does what I do, I think that's what it is. It’s just really nice that she's come from that same upbringing and same background that she's brought it within her community and within her city. And I think that's what I love about it, because those ladies we just, you can see it's been done.

Lastly, if you could cook for anyone, who would it be?

*instantly* Bielsa! 


Penny Andrews is a writer and researcher based in Bramley, Leeds. They enjoy drag performance, zines and lifting heavy weights. They live with their partner, NHS waiting lists, and a strong desire for a pencil moustache. You can find their writing at http://pennybphd.wordpress.com. Penny was paid for this newsletter.