It’s 10.30 pm on a Thursday night in early January 2018. Fluorescent lights beam across the city, emitted by the skyscrapers that line Canary Wharf. Look ahead and you will see the famous HSBC building, the Barclay’s HQ next to it, and the flickering lights of the new residents that live between them; these are young, affluent city workers coming in from a long day at the office, or, more likely, from a night out at the latest trendy bar in the ‘cool’ new districts of South London.
A stone’s throw from Canary Wharf, just around the corner from Poplar tube station, is Perfect Fried Chicken – written in all red capitals on a bright, white luminous backdrop. Pasted on its windows are its menu items as patrons are invited to choose from different combinations of chicken, wings, chips and burger meals. Allow your gaze to flit to the far right corner and you will see an array of Halal food signs, also a noticeboard mainly consisting of landlords letting out rooms, as well as women offering ‘special massages’. Anyone living in this city would walk past Perfect Fried Chicken without a second glance. The shop looks like any other on London’s dilapidating high streets. Out of the six retail outlets on this road, only four are occupied: Perfect Fried Chicken, a betting shop and a rival chicken shop that also sells kebabs, along with a new store selling vape pens and e-cigarettes. The others – a family-owned florist, and a further education centre for the area’s deprived communities, all shut down in the past couple of years as a result of rising rents and business rates and the double-edged impact of the area’s continuing regeneration schemes.
As a young Muslim growing up in Britain, fried chicken shops have played an important role in my life. At a time when my school friends all ate McDonalds, Burger King and KFC, obscurely named fried chicken shops were the only spots selling halal alternatives to the Zinger and Whopper meals – a respite from days of eating daal, roti and saag (the kinds of food you only appreciate post-adolescence). But, beyond the satisfaction that comes with salty, crunchy, oily chicken, was also the taste of London itself. Like many well-to-do immigrant families, we moved from South London to leafy Kent. The schools were great, but, being surrounded by middle class, white families who routinely went to farmers’ markets on weekends, the only fast food options that didn’t have traces of pork in them were vegetarian sandwiches at Subway, or the dreaded mushroom slice at Greggs’ bakery. Eating fried chicken would usually come as part and parcel of travelling out of the oppressive ‘sticks’ toward the bright lights that lay on the other side of the Dartford bridge – a place where things happened, where brown people weren’t just provincial lawyers and GPs or oddities to be photographed for the grammar school brochure. London represented the opportunity, the freedom and the acceptance I craved. A type of liberation that, to me, still tastes like the crispy, golden batter on a freshly fried chicken thigh.