The night of 30 July 1966, when England’s football team won 4–2 against Germany in the World Cup Final, left the English with a sense of glory. That evening has a special significance to me, even though I’m Australian.
My parents met while watching the match in a Leicester pub called The Bowling Green, three years before leaving for Sydney.
Now, after living in the UK for several years, I’m finally making a pilgrimage. After arriving at the railway station, I stroll along a section of New Walk, a Georgian promenade, before continuing to The Bowling Green.
There’s a group of Indian students sitting in the corner. I smile at them. My father, too, having been brought up in Fiji, was an Indian student in Leicester. It strikes me how the greyness of the city must have contrasted with the tropics of his childhood.
Even before Idi Amin expelled the Asian population from Uganda in 1972, Leicester had a burgeoning Indian population. The partitioning of India in 1947, combined with labour shortages in Britain after the Second World War, led many, in the 60s, to believe that migration would improve their employment options and quality of life.
Leicester is the local authority area with the largest Indian (based on Census 2021, so Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh: Indian) population in England and Wales and, research suggests, it is the UK city with the most Indian restaurants per capita.
I sit down to lunch at one of these, Bobby’s Deli, its décor – a sorbet of rose and pistachio – is at odds with my expectations of a curry house. I get stuck into Gujarati-inspired vegetarian dishes – cassava-based mogo flavoured with spices (£5.50), Firecracker Cauliflower (£8.50) and Dal Makhni (a creamy, spicy black lentil curry for £8.00).
Despite having never worked in the restaurant trade before, Bhagwanji Lakhani opened Bobby’s on Valentine’s Day in 1976. His family was among the Ugandan Indians who arrived in the 70s. The establishment’s colour scheme is a visual reference to the 1973 Bollywood film, Bobby.
“At one time or another, all of my parents’ six children have worked here,” says Bhagwanji’s son, Dharmesh, who now runs the restaurant with his wife, Enna. Our conversation is frequently interrupted by greetings from customers, to whom I’m introduced as if I, too, am family.
Enna gives me a copy of her book, Cook with Love, a celebration of Bobby’s history and its founders, which she wrote with one of her sons.
There are other types of veggie food to enjoy in Leicester. The Good Earth, for example, which dates to 1965, is the longest-running vegetarian restaurant in the city. The site was once a hosiery factory; today, exposed beams and patterned china give it a rustic feel. I choose a mushroom, potato, leek and stilton bake. Nothing is more than £10.
My mother never visited The Good Earth. Perhaps, in the 60s, she was too entrenched in the ritual of meeting her best friend Geraldine for cappuccinos at Brucciani’s (which closed in 2019, after 82 years of trading), and trips to the also now-closed Regency Cafe, near the market. They visited the cafe partly, my mother admits, because of her crush on the handsome Greek owner, Nick.
I wander to the market, which is also known as the “birthplace” of Gary Lineker. His parents owned a fruit and vegetable stall here (the Walkers Crisps factory is a local institution). Connections between sport and food don’t stop there in Leicestershire. Cricketers Stuart Broad and Harry Gurney own the Tap and Run pub in the town of Melton Mowbray, the home of the eponymous pork pie.
Given the association between Leicestershire and the pie, as well as cheese – Red Leicester and Stilton, in particular – it is a surprise to learn that Leicester lays claim to being “the home of veganism”. In 1944, local animal rights activist Donald Watson co-founded The Vegan Society. He organised a meeting in London of six like-minded “non-dairy vegetarians” who, removing five letters from “vegetarian”, settled on the word “vegan” to describe their diet. He is remembered at Donald Watson’s Vegan Bar.
In its dimly lit environs, the design includes a Hindustan Ambassador car, apparently bursting through the back wall, and Enfield motorbike parts. The bar is linked to next door’s Herb, a vegan restaurant based on Keralan cuisine.
I skip the bar snacks as I have a feast to come that includes Uzhunnu Vada (£6.45), which are crispy fried lentil bites yielding to fluffy insides, a lentil and rice-based uthappam (£10.45) and Koonu curry (£9.89).
My mother is quite put out when I report back, given that she thought she was living the high life with a shandy at The Bowling Green and shepherd’s pie from “Regency Nick”.
The queue for the jacket potato shop at lunchtime shows there’s still a market for heartwarming stodge. No matter what your culinary tastes run to, you could happily eat your way around Leicester for a weekend. As it says on the wall at Herb – Athithi Devo Bhava: “the guest is god.”
Leicester is served by East Midlands Railways and CrossCountry, eastmidlandsrailway.co.uk; crosscountrytrains.co.uk
Apartment rooms at The Gresham range from standard studios to terraced apartments with views over the city. All have kitchenettes. Doubles from £80, thegreshamaparthotel.com