Tuesday, 21 February 2012
Location: Edgeware Road
By Boeing: 774 miles
By Boris Bike: 2 miles
At my last destination I wrote of how Iran was suffering from an image problem, a mire of modern problems masking a rich heritage. Well as I move across the border to neighbouring Iraq that bold statement looks something of an understatement. The Iraq we have seen through the lens of rolling 24 hour news coverage is hardly a fitting advert for the cradle of civilisation, once led not by a mad dictator but the respected and exotically named Nebercudnezzer and thought to contain the Garden of Eden.
As I walked along the Edgeware Road to the cluster of bustling Iraqi restaurants just south of the Regents Canal it seemed odd that these culinary exclaves exist and, seemingly, flourish in a country that has spent much of its recent past bombing its citadels and condemning its brutish authoritarianism. But multiculturalism and acceptance is one of London’s greatest strengths and has brought its corners and crannies different flavours, sights and sounds. I got a feeling of deja vu then looked up see that my destination, Azmar, was right next door to one of my earlier hosts, the wonderful Burmese Mandalay.
I was lured in by the skewered lines of kebabs and the rainbow of piquant colours in the dips and sauces that line the refrigerated window display. Away from the war ravaged, borderless fields of dust portrayed in the glut of war films Iraq bears fruit, and bounteous dining tables of it. As i squeezed past the counter and salivated at the skewers I saw that Azmar was like the Narnian wardrobe, leading into another world. Up some steps the restaurant stretched away out of sight, and all the tables but one were filled.
This was a Saturday evening and the middle eastern equivalent to a British family Sunday roast. Led to a small table flecked with yoghurt, but soon wiped clean, I took a look at the menu. Most was translated into English, but some Saturday only dishes, weren’t. In the spirit of adventure and ever in search of authenticity I enquired what they were first. The waitress giggled once she saw where my finger had settled, ‘Boiled sheep’s head. It comes with a spoon.’ Crikey. I decided to choose from dishes in my native tongue.
The choice was similar to Persian, with kebabs complimented by rich stews. Not wanting to repeat my Persian experience I ordered a Lamb Shank, with lentils and an aubergine side. But before that arrived I was surprised by a finger bowl of lentil soup. This was, it seemed, complimentary, and very pleasant, like a light, lemony dall. The restaurant was echoing with animated conversation, with most tables featuring three generations of a family. Laughter was infectious and gossip appeared to spread from table to table. On the walls were pictures from an older, more peaceful Iraq, featuring historical sites and sweeping vistas.
The Shank was unlike any served in a home counties gastro pub. Slender and sinewy it slipped off the bone. There was nothing subtle about the taste, indeed it was almost as strong as goat. After the first mouthful an enormous nan arrived, the size of a bedside table. But the discovery was the aubergine, brimming with flavour and every bit as delicious as anything sold overlooking the Mediterranean or Adriatic.
I ordered the yoghurt based drink I had sampled in Iran. But this was different, more savoury and salty: wince inducingly salty in fact. I ordered several glasses of water to prevent me from slumping into a dehydrated trance. The lamb, served on a bed of rice, as is tradition in the region, only yielded about five forkfuls but I was sated long before I could polish off the rice and lentils.
I was disappointed not to see any desserts but when my tea came it was accompanied by a slice of a baklava style desert. It was very sweet and as filling as something ten times its size. This was, i was pleased to discover, also complimentary. The whole kibosh came to a level ten pounds and I was very content with that. As I walked back past the packed tables, a few eyes followed me, but none seemed to question why I had encroached on an Iraqi Saturday feast.
The owner, grilling kebabs, wished me well and asked if I had enjoyed the food. I had, and I told him. Walking back onto the street I felt a bit like Mr Benn, wondering whether that small changing room really had opened out to the wild west. So much life is lived behind the prying eyes of passers by.
A few doors down was an Iraqi grocers and I decided to take a look. I emerged with some rugged looking fig rolls, which are, I was delighted to learn, an Iraqi invention and national dish.
Iraq, a good example of not believing everything you see on television.
Monday, 20 February 2012
Location: West Kensington
By Boeing: 4137 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.5 miles
Iranian cuisine is one of the most ancient on earth the culinary inheritance of the most ancient of ancient civilisations, Mesopotamia. Contrary to preconceptions it is a lush, verdant land blessed with bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables. This is reflected in the dishes, especially the appetisers, that tempt the tastebuds with tomato, peppers, cucumber and the ubiquitous Aubergine, known by locals as the ‘potato of Iran’.
But Iran is suffering something of an image problem, with many sceptical that it is being rather dastardly in developing nuclear capability and generally treating United Nations resolutions with the respect a teenager reserves for his mothers Citroen Saxo. This is why many Iranian restaurants in London, of which there are many, chose the rather more romantic description of Persian cuisine. It is timeless, infinitely more poetic, and unsullied by current affairs. Persia is synonymous with the silk road, proud princes, scented boudoirs and indulging the senses. A far better context for cuisine than a authoritarian power hell bent on mischief making, though that is of course, dependent on perception and where you buy your newsprint from.
Persian cuisine in the capitol ranges from dingy kebab houses in the outer ring of the tube network to sumptuous restaurants in Kensington and Chelsea. Indeed it is probably only matched in culinary scope by Italian and Chinese. My choice, Mohsen, was in Kensington but rather than sit proudly opposite an embassy or Vera Wang boutique it is located in the unfashionable West, dwarfed by the shadows of the Homebase superstore opposite.
Through the front room, once unkindly described as an ‘outpost office of an unsuccessful charity’ but now modernised with a smart pine-planked bar and red leather benches, lies a large dining area under a conservatory, with traditional rugs strewn across the floor. One of the signs of an authentic restaurant with decent dishes are tables packed with ‘locals’. Mohsen certainly had that, and my tweed blazer looked a little out of place amongst traditional robes.
On this journey I have found two reactions to being a lost Caucasian stranger in a foreign restaurant, either you are welcomed and lavished with attention and education, or snarled at and begrudgingly served. Thankfully Mohsen fell into the former camp and other than a rather unsavoury episode when a lady accused the waiter of stealing her car keys only to find them in her pocket, it was a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.
One of the hallmarks of Persian restaurants is the bread oven, usually placed in pride of place at the front of the room, making it a focal point of any mealtime. I ordered some nan as an appetiser and watched as the chef slapped and pulled the dough before throwing it onto the roof of the oven. How gravity didn’t see it fall into the ashes i’m not entirely sure. After less than a minute a brown, flat, crispy, sesame specked bread emerged.
The starters are very similar to Lebanese or Cypriot and were being greedily consumed by neighbouring tables. The menu informed in large italic script that a bowl of feta cheese and green herbs was essential. The waiter looked rather bemused when I overlooked it and went straight for the national dish, chelo, kebabs on a bed of rice. Though he perked up a little when I ordered a glass of Koogh, a traditional yoghurt drink in preference to a can of Coca-Cola that his countrymen seemed to prefer.
My chelo consisted of a skewer of koobideh, a minced lamb and herb dish similar to a Turkish kofte, and a skewer of joojeh, chicken marinated in saffron and garlic. The rice was predominantly white with every twentieth grain an angry, enticing orange.
The joojeh in particular was delicious, soft, succulent and saffron infused. Unfortunately the kebab was so filling i couldn’t find room to order any other side dishes, such as walnut soufflé or fragrant stews. But I couldn’t end my journey to Iran without a glass of Iranian tea. I dutifully loaded it with sugar and sipped away listening to the manic rhythms of the local brand of musac.
While sipping my eye was drawn to a large framed picture of a thatched village. Well i say a picture, it was almost a model, being 3D with balsa struts and buttresses bringing the quaint houses jutting into the room. It was one of several, each depicting a traditional domicile. It was a reminder that though Iran lies in the middle east it is defiantly not Arab. It has a distinctly different culture and were it not for tensions in the region would surely be a more popular cultural holiday destination.
It has a thriving film industry and artistic community and has been one of the more progressive Islamic states. The recent animated cartoon, Persepolis, showed both its cultured citizens but also the problems that have prevented it from becoming a successful and secure modern nation. I for one hope that Iran once more becomes more like Persia, that evocative land that inspired beautiful verse from some of our most romantic poets.