Sarfraz Manzoor knows he is an unlikely cook. 'My family are quite surprised I can do this,' he says, as we trail around London's Ladbroke Grove hunting down ingredients for tonight's dinner. 'When I told them I did dinner parties for six people they were staggered.' Then again, Manzoor is hardly an amateur when it comes to confounding expectations. As a Pakistani Muslim growing up in Luton he developed a profound and - at least to his family - baffling love affair with Bruce Springsteen. Later, while many of his contemporaries remained in their home town, he landed up at ITN news in London as a trainee, which led in time to a job in commissioning at Channel 4.
These days, aged 35, Sarfraz is best known for his pointed and elegantly argued polemics on the coverage of young British-born Muslims in the media, published in this newspaper and elsewhere. He has berated the mainstream media for laziness in painting Muslims as a single homogenous block with one set of easily categorised views, and has been able to point to himself as proof that to be Muslim and British is to be many things. Now he has written a book, Greetings from Bury Park, and again it is going to confound expectations. 'I think my publishers expected an angry book,' Manzoor says. 'Maybe they expected a tract.'
Instead he has written a warm and affectionate memoir about growing up in some poverty in the Bury Park district of Luton, which pays tribute to first-generation Pakistanis like his father Mohammed, who came here in 1963, and laboured alone for a decade before bringing his family across to join him. The narrative is lubricated by Manzoor's account of his love affair with Springsteen, and the tug and pull of both the community in which he was raised and the rest of the world whispering in his ear (or, in Springsteen's case, shouting). Sprinkled through it all are memories of food, almost all of it made by his mother, Rasool Bibi. He describes the embarrassment of being sent to a mostly white school with a packed lunch full of chapatis stuffed with spiced potatoes, or going to his first Springsteen concert with an absurd amount of Pakistani lunch in his backpack. More comfortingly, there's the memory of how his mother made his favourite dish for him after his first ever day of work, aged 15, in a shop that sold nothing but doors.
That dish was keema aloo - mince and potatoes - and right now we are at the halal butchers on the Portobello Road, shopping for the ingredients to make it. 'The way I make keema aloo is literally the way my mum taught me to make it,' Manzoor says. 'I think a really good recipe is like a great song. A song comes alive every time a record is played, and it's the same with a recipe every time it's made.' So is it exactly the same as mama makes? 'I've changed it slightly,' he says. He doesn't use salt and he uses olive oil instead of ghee, the clarified butter which is common to much of the cookery of the Indian subcontinent. 'My dad died prematurely of a heart attack aged just 62 and I'm very conscious of that,' he says. 'And there's a genetic predisposition to diabetes. Both my mum and brother have it so I have to take care.'
It's raining outside, which may explain why the fruit-and-vegetable stall where he usually buys his chillies and coriander is not here today. There's another shop nearby where he could get what he needs but, he says, 'the owner is Muslim and always gives other Muslims stress about whether they're being religious enough. I don't need that.'
Manzoor may not have much interest in rituals. He does not go to mosque, but he has other ways of connecting with his Muslim identity and one of them, he says, is dinner. So we steer clear of the religious lectures and instead make for the tiny and wonderful Spice Shop, with its bright-yellow frontage, the walls stocked floor to ceiling with tins of pungent-smelling spices. Manzoor has lived around Ladbroke Grove for nearly a decade but has never before visited this shop. It's one of the things he likes about the area: there are always new things to discover. He picks up handfuls of fresh green and red chillies and a bunch of coriander.
Books for Cooks, the legendary cookery-book shop regarded as a place of pilgrimage for foodies the length and breadth of the country, happens to be across the road, so I drag him over to have a look at the three shelves of books on Indian cookery. Manzoor shrugs. 'This is all irrelevant to me,' he says. 'Nobody who's actually Asian would buy one unless they are completely estranged from their culture. The thing for me is my mother's cooking. If I can replicate hers then that's the best.'
Weighed down with shopping, we return to his cosy top-floor flat so he can start cooking. His guests tonight represent a snapshot of his life: Craig, a friend from old Luton days, who used to flog him pirate videos when they were kids and now works as a flight engineer for easyJet; Asma, a Pakistani-British friend who works at the Roundhouse in Camden; and Laura, a documentary-film maker. The walls are hung with framed vintage American magazine covers, some bearing shots of the beloved Springsteen, others with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. On one wall is a print of Jasper Johns' iconic painting of the US flag, a clear reminder that Manzoor was obsessed by America from an early age. Facing it, leaning against another wall, is a symbol of a different part of his life, a poster for the classic Bollywood movie Deewaar. 'To be honest there aren't an enormous number of things to be proud of in being Pakistani,' he says. There are the movies, there is a genre of Islamic gospel music called Qawwali. And, of course there is the food. 'Cooking is a perfect example of how ethnic groups have put part of themselves into the mix. It's a part of multiculturalism that works.'
Nevertheless, Manzoor admits that, for many years, he avoided cooking. Part of this, he says, was laziness. He would be the slacker student surviving on pasta and ready-to-cook sauces. Some of it was a lack of confidence. 'When I was a student in Manchester I wanted to eat my food, but I was ashamed because of the smell. I would wait until everybody else had finished cooking and cleaned away and only then would I go into the kitchen, close the door and start.'
He only became serious about it in 2004, when his mother had a stroke. 'I had a sense of collective memory that we could lose. I became intrigued by the idea of what you could do with raw ingredients. It was, I suppose, a mixture of that sense of mortality and also of wanting to keep in touch with my culture.' At first Rasool Bibi would dispatch him home with the exact ingredients to make the dishes, the spices already measured out and bagged. Today he does it himself. Into a pot with a little olive oil go chopped onions and tomatoes. On top of that he throws in the spices: a deep red drift of tandoori masala, some rust-coloured chilli powder, and a little ground cumin. He roughly chops the chillies and throws them in too, seeds and all. The stew is now a vivid Technicolor mix. Next he rinses the mince under a tap - 'it's what my mother always did' - and adds that to the pan. It will braise in the liquids coming off the ingredients already there. Finally the chopped raw potatoes go in and he pushes it, covered, on to a low heat to bubble away gently for an hour or two.
Manzoor admits his repertoire is small, about six dishes in all; he doesn't do daal, because it takes 24 hours. 'There's lots of pre-preparation and I'm not that kind of guy.' But some dishes he makes were things his father used to cook when living as a single man in England in the 1960s, which he in turn taught to his wife. 'There's a chicken roast, with potatoes and tomatoes cooked in the oven which takes three or four hours, that must have come from my father's village near Lahore.' He even has pictures from those days of Mohammed sitting round the table with his friends. His father looms large in the book, and not always sympathetically. He comes across as a very controlling man, obsessed by his family's reputation, and driving his kids to put economic security before happiness. 'You know that thing that liberal parents say about how they just want their kids to be happy?' Manzoor asks. 'I never had that.'
But as time has passed since his death it is clear that Manzoor has come to appreciate both the sacrifices his father made, and the virtues of the tight community in which he was raised. Tonight, when his friends come round to trendy Notting Hill for dinner, to be taken on cushions around the coffee table, it won't only be about the comforting taste of keema aloo. It will also be about Manzoor connecting with who he is. It will be about him taking pleasure in his own culture. It will be about the boy from Bury Park tasting the flavours of home.
Rasool Bibi's family recipe
Try eating Keema aloo with chapatis or pitta bread, with a few drops of lemon juice squeezed on top.
455g lamb mince
4-6 green and red chillies
1 medium sized onion
4 medium sized tomatoes
3-4 medium sized potatoes
a handful of coriander
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs chilli powder
1 tbs tandoori masala powder
1 tsp crushed ginger
1 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp crushed black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
Chop the tomatoes, onions and chillies and put into a pot with a few drops of olive oil. Stir over a medium heat for a few minutes.
Add the spices and a few tablespoons of olive oil and heat for around five minutes. Add the mince and a splash more olive oil and stir until the mince looks uniformly cooked.
Meanwhile peel and slice the potatoes and add to the mince.
Finely chop the coriander and add to the pot. Place a lid on top and allow the potatoes to cook right through.
Serve with yoghurt or raita.
· Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885