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Walking into Indian Veg buffet is like stepping into a badly-formatted website. Clip-art festooned propaganda is plastered over every available surface, extolling the physical, mental and sexual benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle.
“Research suggests vegetarian food can be really orgasmic,” reads one poster; “you say tomato… we say anti-ageing,” another. “I have five or six posters ready to put up, actually,” says owner Mohammed Safa. “But there isn’t any space left.”
Indian Veg is a rebuttal to the overpriced pretensions of haute cuisine dining. From his pokey premises on Islington’s Chapel Market, Mr Safa serves up a nightly all-you-can-eat feast for just £6.50.
“My philosophy is not to be a rich man,” he explains. “Every customer says their food is tasty and reasonably-priced, and that is my reward.” He pauses, as though he has forgotten something. “Oh, and in time they realise that meat is murder.”
He’s certainly right about the first two. Indian Veg is superlatively good value for money, and the food is expertly prepared. Mr Safa is at the market by 4am to stock up on lentils, spinach and the occasional hunk of paneer.
The gregarious restaurant-owner has an authoritarian streak which emerges in the kitchen: “I say what ingredients to use, what to cook, and how to cook it. And my chef does exactly what I say.” Wiping my plate clean of curry with my last scrap of paratha, I have no quibbles over the quality of the food. But why is a meat-free diet so important?
“Well, I’m 67,” Mr Safa says. “Do I look it?” He does not. His skin is preternaturally smooth for a man of his age, and his eyes sparkle above his salt-and-pepper beard. “10 years ago, hardly anyone went to the gym,” he continues. “Now they’re on every corner. People are very health-conscious these days, and it doesn’t make sense to eat any damn thing you like.” Mr Safa advises sceptical carnivores to try a month or two without meat, and see which they prefer.
He was still a meat-eater himself as an accountancy student in the early 1980s, when he took a part-time job waiting tables in a vegetarian curry house. According to Mr Safa, it was one of only a handful in the city at the time, and as he rushed from table to table he realised that demand was outstripping supply.
Indian Veg opened for business in 1986, at one point charging the princely sum of £2.75 for a meal. The restaurant was soon doing a roaring trade, having entered the market just as vegetarianism was filtering into the public consciousness.
It was filtering into Mr Safa’s consciousness too. As he read about the ethics behind the food he was serving he gradually cut meat from his diet, and plastered the walls of his restaurant with vegetarian agitprop and motivational quotes.
For full disclosure, it should be noted that Mr Safa occasionally eats fish when dining at home or in his native Bangladesh, which he left as a young man to study in England. (Meat may be murder, but the man who spurns his aunt’s home cooking is not long for this world either.)
“I have seen how people live, back home in Bangladesh,” he says. “And I am very grateful that I have come here and worked hard and managed to start a restaurant- so why not give a helping hand to the most needy?”
Mr Safa gives away platefuls of curry to up to 20 homeless people a day. The desk sergeant at Islington Police Station sometimes sends freshly-released miscreants to Indian Veg for a meal, and the buffet has even taken referrals from the local job centre. The restaurant also supports clean-water and education initiatives in Bangladesh.
Every night, gourmands across London poke mournfully at microscopic portions of unidentifiable artisan matter in over-priced restaurants. They’d be better off at Indian Veg. As a wall-hanging in the toilets screams in block capitals: “GIVE PEAS A CHANCE.”
Indian Veg, 92-93 Chapel Market, London N1 9EX. 0207 837 4607. Open daily 12 – 11.30pm.