Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Restaurant: La Bodeguita
Location : Elephant and Castle
By Boeing: 9151 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.1 miles
Elephant and Castle is a district of London I have always sought to avoid. But the fork and flag journey has forced me to confront my preconceptions and in discovering the world’s cuisine get under the skin of my home town. My Bolivian trip saw me stride off past itinerant off-licences and fried chicken emporiums to the Old Kent Road. But my Colombian host, La Bodeguita, was located in what is surely the ugliest building in London, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. For most Londoner’s the Elephant is a urine-scented transport hub to be passed through and forgotten as quickly as plausible. But for the city’s South American disapora it is a place to linger, live and sample the tastes of home. There is a corner of a foreign shopping centre that is forever Colombia.
In Bolivia I had been deafened by panpipe techno, fed excessive volumes of food and as a sole Caucasian stuck out like an MCC member in a Millwall terrace. But on my next visit to the continent I went from the surreal to the soulless with the dissapointingly unmemorable Chilean fusion experience. But having placed one foot inside La Bodeguita i knew that Columbia would be a return to form. The restaurant was awash with cultural colour and patriotic paraphernalia. A huge Colombian flag protruded from a bizarre wooden palisade erected in one corner while every inch of wall was covered with shrines to Columbia’s sporting heritage.
La Bodeguita is no intimate bistro, rather it resembles a cross between a nightclub and a viewing area at an airport terminal. The floor-space is vast, enough for several hundred diners to eat in comfort or, if needs be, for local secondary moderns to hold GCSE examinations. Its wedge shape means that most diners sit close to a shimmering wall of glass that commands panoramic views over South London’s gridlocked traffic. It reminded me of that peculiarly English road-side bistros, The Little Chef, where disgruntled families and travelling salesmen sit in silence, staring dolefully out of the window at cars flashing by. But such is the effusive energy and lust for life of South America that the atmosphere was lively and the evening expectant.
As with Bolivia I found myself a lone Englishman gate-crashing a latino party. Looking around there were large family groups spanning four generations, young couples locked in amorous embrace and groups of friends in frenetic conversation. I looked agape at their garish fashions and they returned curious glances of my newly acquired red trousers. Some of the younger women shared the same figure and features as that saucy singer and national icon, Shakira.
While the English generally order, eat and leave in the most efficient manner possible I got the impression that my fellow diners were staying for the duration of the evening. The waves and welcomes between tables suggested that this was a close-knit community where everyone knew everyone else.
My waiter thought I was a intriguing character and the feeling was mutual. In talking me through the menu he demonstrated a greater range of facial expressions than ken Dodd. As ever I wanted to sample something unusual and authentic. I gleefully ordered a Refajo, a potent mix of lager and a local variant of my favourite teenage tipple, Irn-Bru. The noxious, syrupy elixir was, like most South American fare, sweet and scandalously satisfying.
Having been frustrated in recent attempts to sample national dishes I was glad to see the Columbian staple of Bandoja Paisa on the menu. The waiter described it as their equivalent of an all day breakfast. In England we take breakfast very seriously, but would our anaemic rashers, sallow sausages and bloodshot beans seem paltry in comparison? I have seen less food served up at mayoral receptions than was crammed onto to my 50 cm diameter plate. Instead of bacon rashers was a salt encrusted ring of Belly Pork, flanked by an angry, bulbous chorizo with an extraordinary translucent orange hue. These were accompanied by rice, fried plantain, kidney beans, cornbread, avocado and a fried egg. The concept may be comparable but the execution could not have been different. This isn’t a dish you’d find served from a portacabin hatch in a Hangar lane gyratory lay-by.
Struggling to focus on the desert menu from the dizzying effects of gluttony I looked over a dozen or so choices, each as sickly-sweet as the next. In refined circles it is customary for the English to enjoy a cheeseboard after desert. But Columbians take a different approach, combining the two courses.
They enjoy a slice of cheese smothered in evaporated milk toffee. The contrast of the salty cheese and the sweet toffee combine to delicious, and impossibly indulgent, effect. As this was Colombia I finished the meal with a cup of coffee. I was so belt-bracingly full it was a good twenty minutes before i could stand.
The waiter smiled knowingly when he came to clear my plate and found me slumped in a sated stupor. Noting the complex lighting rig above my head I asked him if the tables were cleared later on to create a dancefloor. “The tables aren’t cleared because people dance on them.” This was logic, albeit of a uniquely South American variety.
Thursday, 7 April 2011
Restaurant: Tai Ka Lok
Location : China Town
By Boeing: 11508 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.2 miles
China is a conundrum: like a sudoku puzzle some unlock its secrets and derive great pleasure in the process, while others look on bemused and befuddled. It is a country that is at once familiar and unfathomable. Familiar as we all have a take-away in our local parade of shops, unfathomable as even though it is just round the corner it seems a world away.
It is fitting then that China Town is one of London's most intriguing districts. Tourists arrive on strange oriental tricycle contraptions driven by excitable jugglers who, struggling to fill a beret full of coins in Covent Garden, wreak peddling bedlam on the bustling streets. A huge brick Pagoda stands sentry at the head of Gerrard Street, it's central thoroughfare. But like Brick Lane's Bangla Town its street signs are bilingual. It may well fall under our jurisdiction, but this is Chinese soil.
Boasting 80 restaurants i wasn't quite sure which to chose, choice being a luxury i haven't enjoyed that often on the Fork and Flag odyssey. But having reached ‘Crispy Duck’, and moved on to ‘Four Seasons’, and walked further to the amusing titled ‘Dumpling Legend’ I decided i wanted the untranslated experience. Remarkably that left only one choice, Tai Ka Lok. And seeing that it filled my other criterion, having glazed fauna roasting in the window, i walked in.
My choice was smaller, tattier and less enticing that its Anglicised rivals and therein, i hoped , would lay its authentic charm. I was pleased to see some Chinese families busy in urgent chatter, slurping soup, bent over the bowl, in a manner no Englishman would. The other restaurants I had passed had installed high-backed chairs and small water features. Diners had no option but to pay a ‘fountain tax’ for the privilege. But Tai Ka Lok kept the prices down and diners had to make do with red lanterns and a picture of cascading water on a plastic poster, struggling for freedom against the adhesive oppression of blue tac.
The menu was reassuringly incomprehensible. No chef in the country can produce the range of dishes this man can, spread in tiny print across seven pages. I ordered some Jasmine Tea to aid my ruminations. Ever intrepid I ordered shark fin soup, but was told they didn’t serve it but included it on the menu in case Gordon Ramsay visited. Not even a sozzled Spike Milligan could have dreamed up a more perplexing response. But it was said with such earnestness that i didn’t question it. Instead i ordered Won Ton soup and some steamed pork Dim Sum to start, which seemed to cover most appetiser bases.
China Town is an intriguing, often comical, mix of local Chinese, Londoners and tourists. The latter group largely comprises of clinically obese Americans wearing high waisted shorts, obscenely titled ‘fanny-packs’ and over-sized baseball caps. One such specimen was on the adjoining table. He seemed determined to prove that the waiter did not enjoy a monopoly on bizarre behaviour. His lack of adventure coupled with a mind-blowing ignorance of cuisine or culture was excruciating to bear witness to. “ Are your noodles like pasta? You know like the Italians have; pasta?” he asked, before clarifying “You see I just want pasta with vegetables on it. Can you do that? Can your chef just do that for me?” The menu had almost everything you could imagine but, unsurprisingly, it didn’t have pasta.
Given the sheer scale of China it is unsurprising that there are a multitude of different regional cooking styles, each with their own distinct flavours and traditions. Us British are most familiar with Szechwan and Cantonese, but there are many, many more ranging from mild slow-cooked stews to fiery hot curries.
As with Indian food the British have cultivated their own variants of Chinese cuisine and rarely venture beyond them to subtler, healthier flavours. Our favourite is the toxic, iridescent gloop that is sweet and sour sauce. With deep fried pork balls thrown in it almost competes for calorific value with a meat feast pizza or a Tikka Massala. Scoffed in front of the latest rom-com from Blockbusters and you have the template for a perfect Friday night-in. But Chinese food defies simple classification. While at one end of the scale it is the staple sustenance of the sofa slobs, at the other it can be the most fragrant, flavoursome delicacy a diner will ever sample.
Bamboozled by choice i decided to follow the promptings of my nose and ordered the roast pork, that was lovingly turning on its window mounted spit. I ordered a side of Chow Mein for it to rest on. These ‘ever-ready’ noodles have also been anglicised. It is a well established truism that students need only two items to survive: a Che Guevara T-shirt and a self-replenishing cupboard of Pot Noodles. But i’m pleased to say that my chow mein was a little more refined.
I then tried to order Sorghum wine, a traditional Chinese tipple. The waiter begged me not to and when i didn't heed his protestations he called over the manager. He was equally as adamant but i defied them. It was the most foul smelling liquid i have ever had the misfortune to be in sniffing proximity of. But authenticity was all, and down she went.
Rather than stay for a scoop of ice-cream i decided to venture along the street for something sweet. I found a Chinese mini-mart that was a shrine to that Chinese cultural phenomenon, Hello Kitty. You can buy Hello Kitty chocolate, milkshakes, probably even branded corned beef if you wished. It is a national obsession. I chose the Poki, small biscuit wands half coated in strawberry candy. Delicious.
As well as restaurants and Hello Kitty window dressing China Town is full of herbalists. With operations on the NHS taking close to a decade to book in we are increasingly looking to the ancient remedies of the East to cure our ailments. A heady tea made from stewed leaves and twigs can cure almost any condition, or at least ameliorate it. And flick a few needles in for good measure and we'll all be fit as a fiddle. But then I remembered the Sudoku puzzle. We want to know the secrets of the East, but we don't always have the appetite to discover them. Even though we are a nation that loves to make tea, when it comes to ourselves, most of us will continue to swallow our prescription pills.