Stories|Part of The Taste of Health

The family food of a kebab van man

Football and food that he trusts are what shore up Yusuf’s health. His daughter Melek Erdal unpicks Yusuf’s food philosophy, revealed as he ventures with his kebab van into formerly unknown territories like Dagenham and the Norfolk coast.

Words by Melek Erdalartwork by Anna Keville Joyceaverage reading time 8 minutes

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Photograph of a grey and silver stethoscope floating in front of a bright orange background, the tubing curling in a snake-like shape. The chest-piece is just out of frame. Between the earpieces is a large rectangular block of unwrapped yellow cheddar cheese.
The family food of a kebab van man. © Anna Keville Joyce for Wellcome Collection.

Yusuf, my dad, is a miracle. A miracle of a human being. The long, gruelling hours of running his own kebab shop and navigating the hostile written and unwritten bureaucracy of being non-British never wore him down – neither physically nor emotionally.

Orphaned at the age of 11, he was torn from his rural life in his village in the east of Turkey, Mesçit, and sent to the cities to work on construction sites. Before he started his own young family, he had to be his own source of love and encouragement. How could he have survived otherwise?

His self-conjured resilient spirit was, and still is, his biggest resource. It is something that brought him across mountains and cities to London at the age of 27, a four-year-old daughter in tow, with no English or education, and no internet to give him a morsel of indication of what he would find.

During this, my dad’s commitment to his health was at the core of his way of life, instinctively bound to his resolve to survive. The precarious nature of immigrant life leaves little autonomy outside of the one you have over your body. He would socialise and exercise by playing football at the Hackney Marshes. His team, a collection of Kurdish and Turkish immigrants and ex-revolutionaries from the underground factories, was called Roj International Ltd, despite it being neither international nor a registered company. I guess it gave them a self-endorsed legitimacy that was missing in every other aspect of their lives.

Visits to his GP were simply a validation. Dad would make an appointment for an ailment, but on arrival he would strongly insist to the doctor how he had a perfect bill of health and try to impress them with his stats.

Above all else, he only ate things he trusted and respected. Things my mama made, things that were simple or took time. Pickled beetroots, rosehip molasses from mama’s urban foraging, homemade yoghurt with starter that had been kept alive for years. His favourite was breakfast. Even in the middle of the night, after a long day of work, Mum never tired of getting up to make him breakfast.

Photograph of a section of a grey stethoscope floating in front of a bright orange background.
The family food of a kebab van man. © Anna Keville Joyce for Wellcome Collection.

“Dad’s visits to his GP were simply a validation. He would make an appointment for an ailment, but on arrival he would strongly insist to the doctor how he had a perfect bill of health and try to impress them with his stats.”

I would wake up, while Mum would boil some eggs and peel them at the table in front of us, sprinkling salt and pul biber. She would roughly chop some tomato, cucumber and sivri biber onto the plate. She would leave whole stems of spring onions and wild rocket for us to tear into our warm pita bread. She would bring us a bowl of her homemade yoghurt for us to dip our bread in, some patiently brewed tea. The joy of that table was unmatched.

Cowboy parking

Like many other immigrants of his era, my dad was also an explorer, the kind who may have left what they knew out of necessity and hardship, but was, equally, openly fuelled by curiosity and blind courage. His first venture after working in the textile warehouses in the early 1990s was a kebab van. Like a caravan, it had to be towed by another vehicle – in this case, his old mustard-coloured Ford Transit – all the way to wherever he wanted to sell doner and burgers next.

He would venture to parts unknown, and ‘cowboy park’ in a spot without a permit until he got caught and had to move on. He would pick a town from a map often just by how the name sounded. “Dagenham – this sounds like a friendly place!” he would proclaim with excitement. He would settle in a spot, make friends and then, like clockwork, get caught and move on. I remember translating the letter Dad got telling him he had to leave the site, but Dad claims he finally won the permit officer over after he tried his halep sauce. 

When he bought a pizza oven and started making pizza, he would never let us have a Hawaiian or Meat Feast, as if knowing this is not what Italians would have.

Sometimes he would be gone for months and would come back with stories of what he had discovered. He once took his kebab van to the Isle of Wight and slept on a mattress in the back of his yellow van. He returned after three months with rock candy, stories of the white sandy beaches and reports of an alarmingly disproportionate number of elderly people walking about unsupervised.

I like to imagine those first trips out and what that must have felt like. A time of so many firsts: for Dad, going to new places, and for the people, who were trying something for the first time. Dad was delivering kebabs to new frontiers. I see now how my dad’s way of life and approach to food mirrored the life and nomadic spirit of the original Kurds, the land being a source of discovery, not of ownership.

Photograph of a stethoscope floating in front of a bright orange background, the tubing curling in a snake-like shape. The chest-piece is just out of frame. Just visible in the top right corner is the edge of a rectangular block of unwrapped yellow cheddar cheese.
The family food of a kebab van man. © Anna Keville Joyce for Wellcome Collection.

“Dad was delivering kebabs to new frontiers. His way of life and approach to food mirrored the life and nomadic spirit of the original Kurds.”

A doner in Dagenham

Sometimes he would even take me with him. I will never forget the night I got to visit Dagenham. Parked on a green patch next to a corner Chinese takeaway, he refused to let me eat his doner.

“But why can’t I have some doner, Dad?”

“Because it’s bad for you. It’s not good.”

What a mystery this was to me. It only made me more curious. He wouldn’t let me have a burger either. Nothing except the chips and pita, and the hummus. 

“We don’t know what’s in it.”

“What could be in it, Dad? Why do you sell it?” 

“Because that’s what they want.”

Not even the rum baba was immune. “It’s fake – that’s not a real dessert.”

There seemed to be this deep chasm between what we ate at home and what Dad would sell for a living. Later, when he had his own kebab takeaway shop in Great Yarmouth, there were certain things he was proud of and would let us have. Things he made himself, that took time and that he put love into – like his adana kofte and his homemade chilli sauce.

When he bought a pizza oven and started making pizza, he would never let us have a Hawaiian or Meat Feast, as if knowing this is not what Italians would have. Instead he would make us one with all the vegetables and would add feta cheese, proclaiming that the grated mozzarella that came in huge plastic bags was not real cheese, it was plastic.

The takeaway exchange

As I got older, I understood this was a mistrust of things that were factory-processed, that were not simply made. Things he could not tell the origins of. He seemed to disassociate the food he sold to earn a living and the food he ate to live. He understood that there was a public and private life of an immigrant: the private was of simplicity and time, but the public was one of survival and capital. The two did not touch, never to meet.

The same was true on a broader scale: to the outside world, most Kurdish and Turkish restaurants were resoundingly all kebab places, while the secret community spots were about soups and sulu yemek or menemen and serpme (sprinkle) breakfast. They were secret because they were ours. Not ready to be understood or explained, but a place to recuperate and remember an old way of life.

The family food of a kebab van man. © Anna Keville Joyce for Wellcome Collection.

“As I got older, I understood this was a mistrust of things that were factory-processed, that were not simply made. Things he could not tell the origins of.”

Knowing the origins of the food you ate and how it was made was about getting your bearings in a world turned upside down. You needed these fixed rules. “Don’t eat that doner, it's from a factory, it’s not real,” feels akin to meeting someone from back home and asking which province and village they are from, making broad assumptions about their character based on their literal “rural postcode”.

 “That guy’s from Kırkısrak – they’re horse thieves!”

“What, all of them, Dad?”

As rigid as Dad seemed about his eating habits, I also could not make much sense of his patchwork of principles. On the occasion when I joined him on his trip to Dagenham, we would exchange takeaways with the Chinese family who ran a takeaway two shops down from where Dad would park his van.

Dad gave them a tightly packed container of doner, salad, extra pitta bread, a pot of chilli sauce; in return we got chicken chow mein and beef in black bean sauce with steamed rice. He wouldn’t eat the rice. Of all the things he tried, plain rice felt most alien to him and a betrayal of how we eat rice – fried in butter, with vermicelli noodles and cooked in chicken stock. This was not a question of health, but of loyalty. 

Our journey back at 3am was a moment in time. A massive spring roll packed in a paper bag in my hand, still warm, grease seeping through. Dad popped open the glove box and pulled out a cassette, the word ‘QUEEN’ on the front.  He was given it by the owner of a pub he used to park his kebab van next to. Dad said his name was George, but that’s Dad’s generic name for any Englishman whose name he doesn’t remember. He handed me the pack of Werther’s Originals, uttering softly, “Have one – it’s good for you.”

About the contributors

Head and shoulders photograph of a woman with long dark hair wearing a woollen jumper and an apron

Melek Erdal

Author

Melek Erdal is an Istanbul-born Kurdish chef and writer who grew up in north and east London. She opened her own café in 2013, inspired by the food of her roots and upbringing, and the way it emboldens and brings together communities. She has since moved on to teaching and writing about food, culture and identity, running classes and working on documentary videos and essays. Her most recent work has been with the food-sustainability charities Made in Hackney and the Felix Project, and regular appearances on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Kitchen Cabinet’. She has just published an essay in the new book ‘London Feeds Itself’.

Black and white, head and shoulders, photographic portrait of Anna Keville Joyce.

Anna Keville Joyce

Artist

Anna Keville Joyce, Food Artist and Creative Director, is originally from the USA and currently based out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and New York City. With a background in food styling, design and anthropology, Anna has participated in a wide variety of photography, film, and installation projects worldwide, and has been featured in numerous publications and exhibitions. Her creative spark, attention to detail, and keen sense of composition has allowed her to gain a broad international client and she has the pleasure of collaborating on increasingly creative and dynamic projects.