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What My Immigrant Parents’ Restaurant Means To Me

From Cypriot şeftali kebab on Green Lanes to Pakistani nihari in Norbury, London’s immigrant-run restaurants cement its reputation as one of the best cities in the world for anyone who loves to eat. For many people who come to Britain to make a new life, food is not just a means of holding on to their heritage; it's also a means of financial security and independence. By cooking for others, immigrants have shaped the tastes not only of the capital but of the nation. We spoke to three young women who are the daughters of immigrants and have grown up with or manage their family’s food businesses in London, sharing a taste of the food they grew up eating in their parents’ adopted homeland. 

Chorloi, 22, studies mathematics at university and grew up with the Four Regions restaurant in Richmond, which is run by her family 

Four Regions was opened in Richmond on the day my older sister was born in 1990. My father had studied engineering at university but when he saw the restaurant for sale, he saw an opportunity to make it his own, and he took it.
My parents emigrated from Hong Kong in the '70s. My grandparents found more job opportunities in London and they saw it as a better place to raise their children. But I think they struggled at first, having to come without their families. My mother’s father moved to London first — she didn’t really get to know him properly until she was able to join him in England aged 12. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the family to have been split like that. 
I love that my family has a restaurant. I boast about it to everyone I meet. When I was younger and my parents worked during the evenings, it’s where I would play with my older sisters, do my homework and eat dinner. I’d even bring my little DVD player. My favourite dish at the restaurant is what we call the ‘Big Fish’ — a whole sea bass with spring onion, which I haven’t seen done in any other restaurants. At home we’d have more traditional Chinese food, which is quite different to restaurant cuisine, but I love them both. Without the restaurant, I wouldn’t know as much about my Chinese culture as I do now. When I was younger, I’d try to make myself seem more Western — but then I remembered that everyone loves my family’s food! The restaurant has played a big part in making me proud to be Chinese. 
Four Regions won’t be there forever — Dad has said that he wants to retire soon. The restaurant’s been there throughout our lives so it’s hard for us to accept it closing in the future but we understand. Our dad hasn’t had a break in 30 years. I’m just grateful for the time we’ve had there. 

Nafeesa, 25, is a project manager at a digital agency. She also helps manage Masala Wala Cafe in Brockley, and runs Goodness Gracious Grief, an online platform for young people experiencing bereavement 

Saima, my late sister, started Masala Wala Cafe in 2015 with my mum, Nabeela, who up until that point had been a homemaker raising four children as a single parent. My mum moved to England from Gujranwala, a town near Lahore, when she was 19, and while she’s been here longer than she lived in Pakistan, she’s rooted in her heritage. Masala Wala Cafe aimed to celebrate the ghar ka khana, or home cooking, which we grew up eating.
When Saima fell ill, my other sisters and I stepped into the managerial jobs at the cafe. We relaunched after offering a takeaway-only service during lockdown, breathing fresh energy into the space and continuing to honour the causes close to our family by using the cafe space to support various charity partners. My mum’s cooking is still at the centre of everything — her kadu channa has healing properties. My sisters and I have a running joke that our mum’s great in a commercial kitchen because Desi mothers are used to cooking way more than anyone could actually eat. It’s so exciting to see other people love the food we ate at home, especially because growing up it was something I felt self-conscious about. Saima was always so proud of being Pakistani, and of our food. She never hid it in the way my sisters and I might have wanted to as children — she saw it as a way our mum showed her love for us.
It felt empowering to take ownership of our skill set and knowledge through the cafe within our female family unit. We’ve grown and flourished as a strong team of women who fiercely support each other. When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, our family was distraught, but we had to rally around her and pull together as a team. We have worked through absolutely everything together, which is why we continued running Masala Wala Cafe. Unfortunately, this month the rent rose above our means and we’ve decided to navigate a new chapter. It doesn’t feel painful now that we have had to let go of our physical space. It’s been an honour to sustain something so special.

Kyomi, 28, owns and manages Joy’s Health Sanctuary in Catford 

My mum was born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to England as a young girl. Before she set up Joy’s Health Sanctuary, she ran a stall in the Elephant & Castle market, and later a cafe. When she decided to retire to Jamaica, I took over the business. The vision wasn’t necessarily to be an exclusively Jamaican restaurant but the menu has ended up predominantly Caribbean — in the end, I just wanted the food to taste good, and those are the flavours I love the most. When my sisters and I were growing up in Surrey Quays, we would go down to Peckham to buy what we call ‘hard food’ — things like yam, green banana and sweet potato. They were really expensive at the time so it was a treat for us. Nowadays, we can get it whenever we want. 
My favourite dish on our menu is the stew peas, which is suitable for all vegans including Ital followers, but my bestseller is the 'jerk chikan', which I created to offer the same textures and flavours as the meat dish while remaining plant-based. I’ve always loved cooking and learned from watching my mum, and now my son is learning by watching me. Jamaican food culture is a big part of his life as well — he’s a big eater and he just loves visiting his nan. 
My family are really close and we work together for the business. I speak to Mum every day on WhatsApp, my sister makes desserts for the shop and sells her shea butter creams there, and my niece makes the sorrel (a Jamaican drink made from hibiscus) and lemon drizzle cake. I manage the shop, I cook, I tidy — I do everything. It’s been hectic but I’m no stranger to hard work. I enjoy it. 

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