Saturday, 18 September 2010
Restaurant - Cottons
Location - Farringdon
By Boeing : 9179 miles
By Boris Bike : 3.8 miles
I began this journey dreaming of exotic climes and colourful destinations. By a quirk of fate, or perhaps phonetics, I have spent much of the first leg in the sparse and spartan surroundings of Eurasia, which is why I was bursting with anticipation on arrival at Cotton’s, a Bajan oasis in Farringdon. The Caribbean is a tropical paradise where each and every island is a beguiling variation on an enchanting theme. They are a unique amalgam of native customs, African settlement, American influence and the legacies of European colonial rule.
It is fitting that my first visit to the Caribbean is to Barbados, perhaps the most British of the West Indian islands. But this isn’t virgin territory, because my imagination has preceded me. A combination of Malibu adverts, cricket commentaries and the Notting Hill Carnival has painted a vivid picture of palm trees, laid-back beach life, unrelenting rhythms and colourful, vivacious personalities. Britain seems hopelessly constrained and conservative in comparison. But thanks in large part to cricket, a national obsession, many things are still done in an English way. So I need not have worried upon entering the restaurant, dressed, I now recoil in recalling, in the colonial colours of blue cords, red cardigan and white summer jacket, as just one word of praise for the unequalled talents of Sir Garfield Sobers, a Bajan icon, would see my greeted as a kith and kin.
Generally Caribbean food is served in colourful local cafes or street markets. This seems suited to the casual, ‘no worries’ ethos of the West Indies. But cheap and cheerful is not a recipe for profit for an aspiring restaurateur. Cotton’s, located in the trendy and cosmopolitan Exmouth market, offers ‘fusion’ food. This means that they serve Caribbean dishes at western prices. This ‘fusion’ concept extends to the décor. They have, no doubt rightly, surmised that customers will baulk at paying £30 a head if they are squeezed into Formica tables staring at a torn laminated poster of Bob Marley. So at Cotton’s there is polished wood flooring, leather benches and pristine white tablecloths. A hint of Bajan spice is offered in the odd exotic plant and brightly coloured fish painted on the walls. In truth, it doesn’t quite work. It is neither authenticity endearing or aesthetically pleasing. Part of the appeal of the Caribbean is a homely absence of pretension. However, the waiters were jovial and a suitably colourful cocktail, rum based of course, Barbados being the first manufacturers of that particular poison in the world, set the evening in motion. The menu was printed in a fancy italic font: a fusion of Caribbean recipes and western respectability.
While different islands have their own specialities ,regional favourites are served right across the Caribbean. Very few west Indian restaurants in London betray their island of origin. The Bajan delicacy is the so called ‘flying fish’. This is a species prevalent in that part of the world but is literally emblematic to Barbados, having been adopted as a national symbol. Water Pollution has meant they are a far rarer sight these days and are rarely served in restaurants.
Leaving ‘Jerk sauce’ and salt fish fritters to Jamaica I ordered the signature dish of goat curry. In Bangladesh I was conscious that I was eating my first fork and flag curry, that most urgent and ubiquitous of food formats. The Bengali version was, of course, very familiar but as my journey continues I will sample curries of varying and various textures and tastes. The Bajan curry is inspired by the thick, spicy dishes found throughout west and central Africa, the ancestral lands of the vast majority of the population.
A friend of mine later lambasted me for eating goat. But you can’t embark on a journey such as this without throwing caution to the wind. I’ll happily try a marinated mouse or a pickled possum if that is the plat du jour. What I won’t do is eat an endangered species. You won’t find me chewing a battered Panda or sampling an albatross fillet in an aniseed reduction. For the record a goat tastes like gamey mutton. Huge chunks of meat and bone in a thick sauce makes this as hearty a meal as you can imagine.
My dining companions opted for sea food dishes. Being island nations fish is abundant in the Caribbean and a key part of their diet. The image of a septuagenarian Rastafarian swooping up a red snapper in a primitive net from a whicker chair on the end of a rickety jetty in a tranquil, palm-lined bay is an appealing one. More appealing certainly than our Captain Birdseye and his mass-produced, mechanical methods. His affable demeanour and ruddy cheeks disguise the hard soul of a ruthless businessman.
The mix of cultures in Barbados include Amerindians, mainly from nearby Guyana, Arawaks and Carib tribes from South America and the Afro-Bajans of the Yoruba and Igbo tribes. This demographic melting pot has seen the island evolve into a culturally complex land that adopts a joyously laid-back approach to life. Comparing Barbados to Barnsley is, on the face of it, absurd, and yet its neighbours refer to the island as “Little England.” I somehow can’t imagine Dickie Bird or Michael Parkinson in tropical garb beating a steel drum.
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Restaurant – Dil Chad
Location - Whitechapel
By Boeing : 4289 miles
By Boris Bike : 5.2 miles
After Austria I had expected to make my way to Azerbaijan and learn a little more about the Caucasus, that much maligned and misunderstood region where states seek to escape anonymity by clustering at the beginning of the alphabet. But alas, like Angola, it’s sole London restaurant had recently closed, another victim of the tightening purse strings of increasingly discerning diners. So earlier than anticipated I travelled east to Bangladesh and one of the liveliest and most evocative streets in London, Brick Lane.
Bangladesh, once part of Greater India, now stands very much in the shadow of its illustrious neighbour, lacking its Bollywood glamour, economic might and international profile. While India is a global brand extending its reach and riches, Bangladesh is a regional backwater, too busy furrowing its own fields to cast its sights on pastures new. And yet us British are more familiar with its cuisine than you would ever guess. Around 80% of Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bengalis. So odd as it may seem our adopted national cuisine is from a country most of us would never consider going to. Our taste is for Indian and so Indian restaurants they are.
London’s Bengali community are largely focused just east of the city, in the boroughs of Whitechapel and Shoreditch. Such are their numbers and influence that Brick Lane is known colloquially as ‘Bangla-town’. To walk down this street of a bustling evening is to assault your senses. There is nothing subtle or under-stated in its appeal: neon lights glare down on you from lurid shop fronts and waiters chase you down the road with increasingly frenetic entreaties. If you want to wander unnoticed and unhindered you will be disappointed. This part of London is vibrant and visceral.
But rather than succumb to a beseeching Brick Lane my friend and I wander through narrow lanes towards Liverpool Street and amidst the edifices of enterprise is Dil Chad, one of the oldest foreign restaurants in the city. When this restaurant opened in 1962, London still considered Lasagne exotic and most east enders would sooner chew a whelk than be wined and dined. You could, perhaps, in Knightsbridge or Soho sample Italian or French but London’s culinary map was less culturally diverse than a Cornish prep school. But you could eat Bangladeshi, albeit cunningly disguised as Indian.
This land of low-lying deltas has had its fair share of floods and failures. It is not surprising then that Bangladesh has this far failed to dance on the international stage. Given the troubles, many with ambition fled the shores, a significant number settling in London and stirring their cuisine into our national consciousness.
As much of Bangladesh is water, fish is eaten in great quantity and striking seafood dishes are prepared, such as Shukti, a pungent dry fish. These are seldom seen in a London Bengali restaurant. Nor, it seems, are our palates particularly keen on stewed pulses, which form the basis for most authentic dishes. Dal is a staple of the sundries but pigeon pea and red gram would certainly raise a cockney eyebrow. The tell tale giveaway that you are sitting in a Bengali restaurant in Indian tailoring is the presence of Beef dishes. These would never be served in a Hindu restaurant.
One of the emerging themes of this journey is how restaurants have sought to balance authenticity with popularity. Bengali cuisine is a classic case in point. Those holidaying in downtown Dhaka will struggle to find a Tandori Tikka Masala or onion bhaji. The Bangla-Brit hybrid menu is now established but as Londoner’s become more adventurous, restaurants are returning to more traditional, authentic fare. Catering for the post pub crowd is as simple as having a red sauce (Masala), a brown sauce (Bhuna) and some onions simmering on a stove. But the sober seek out the speciality dishes.
To start with we ordered Dal, a suitably spicy dipping sauce for a shard of parata. I then opted for the appealingly annotated ‘Pride of Bangladesh’, a variation on the popular Jhal Frezi dish of spiced chicken with onions and peppers. Free from so strict a remit my friend blithely ordered a Lamb Vindaloo, that came simmering and burbling with ill intent.
For some reason, unlike other cuisines, the British do not tend to order desert at an Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant. Despite once ordering a scoop of ice cream in a moulded plastic penguin I too have followed this custom. It is ironic then that Bangladesh is renowned for its traditional sweets. And sweet is very much the word. Even the most ardent sweet tooth would baulk at some of their sugar laden concoctions. Fried sweets, that resemble battered icicles, and various forms of sweetened milk dishes pervade. But alas such sweets are not a part of the Bengali-Brit tradition and therefore I was spared the ignominy of loosening to the next belt hole.
Leaving the restaurant I noted that the street signs in this part of town are bi-lingual, making it comparable, if not as widely known, as Chinatown. Bengali restaurants are spread liberally across London from the centre to the suburbs and the satellites. For so long sampled only on a booze addled Saturday night Bengali culture is now more prominent and proud, with Bengali dress, music and custom a familiar sight in many parts of London. First it was ubiquitous and only then unique.