Published1 day ago
An 85-year-old Indian-origin woman who came to the UK as a refugee from Uganda is now one of its oldest chefs and restaurateurs.
Manjula Patel owns and runs Manju’s, a popular restaurant in the seaside town of Brighton that serves traditional vegetarian dishes from the western Indian state of Gujarat – where Manju, as she is fondly called, was born.
She moved to Kampala city in Uganda with her parents in the late 1930s, when she was three. Her father ran a general store there for some years.
Her childhood, Manju says, was a happy one. But that changed at 13, when her father died suddenly.
Overnight, her mother became the sole breadwinner and Manju stepped in to help her take care of the family.
With her mother’s help and recipes, the teenager started cooking and selling 35 tiffin boxes of food a day to office workers.
“Along with traditional Gujarati recipes, my mother also passed on the values of discipline and an incredible work ethic, values I still uphold,” Manju says.
In 1964, Manju married a businessman, and they had two sons over the years.
But their peaceful life came to an abrupt end in 1972, when dictator Idi Amin took over Uganda. In those days, Asians owned 90% of the country’s businesses and accounted for the bulk of tax revenues.
But Amin ordered them to leave the country within 90 days, accusing them of “milking Uganda’s money”.
Tens of thousands of Asians were displaced, and many were forced to move to other countries.
Manju, her husband and their two young sons arrived in London – where her brother lived – with just £12 ($15).
“Just three days after we arrived in the UK, I started searching for a job because we had no money,” she says.
She found work as a machine operator at a local factory in London which made electric plug sockets, and worked there until retiring at the age of 65.
She had always dreamed of running her own restaurant but their finances didn’t allow it. But her love for cooking didn’t fade.
Every day after work, she would cook the Gujarati dishes she learnt from her mother – from okra and potato curry to theplas (flatbreads) – for her family.
Manju’s sons had always wanted to fulfil their mother’s dream, so a few years ago, they started looking around for a suitable place.
“[When] this place came up, we decided to buy it. The deal came through on mum’s 80th birthday,” says Jaymin Patel, Manju’s elder son.
It was one of the happiest days of Manju’s life.
“I never thought that my sons would buy me a restaurant. I was so happy, and I was crying, and I said, ‘oh my dream is now complete’.”
Manju’s has been delighting locals and tourists in Brighton since 2017.
“We decided to open a Gujarati restaurant because it is the food we know. It is the food that mum has been cooking since she was young,” says Manju’s younger son Naimesh.
But opening a vegetarian restaurant came with its share of challenges.
“[People] would sit down, expecting to eat chicken tikka masala. But when we would tell them we only offer vegetarian food, a lot of people would walk out,” he says, adding that people love their dishes now.
Manju’s is a family-run operation. Manju’s sons greet customers and take their orders, while she and her daughters-in-law Dipali and Kirti run the kitchen and prepare the food.
The restaurant, which has around 48 customers a day, has a small menu.
“On any given day, the menu will have 12 dishes that change constantly, depending on the vegetables that are in season,” says Kirti, Manju’s elder daughter-in-law.
Like other businesses, the Covid pandemic and high inflation in the UK has hit their work as well.
But Manju says she has no plans to retire just yet.
“I want to continue cooking and feeding people for as long as I can.”