From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Japan



Restaurant: Asakusa
Location: Camden

By Boeing: 8018 miles
By Boris Bike: 5.8 miles


If French is the language of love, Latin the language of the old boy’s network and Klingon the language of the socially restricted then Japanese is, surely, the language of cuisine. Is there another culture that has different words for a fish depending on what season it is caught? Or categorise dishes eaten before 1868 with an opposing nomenclature from those introduced after? In contrast to the easy, on-the-go cuisine of Yo Sushi, wedged in the corners of our airport terminals and shopping centres, traditional Japanese cooking is unflinchingly formal.


There have been many surreal moments on this fork and flag journey but lamenting the absence from the menu of eel liver with the winner of Masterchef surrounded by a mock-Tudor interior in a bustling Japanese eatery is close to the top of the bill. Asakusa was like a cavern, twisting and narrowing as it went, light dissipating with distance. The decor was discordant, which gave it a quirky charm of clutter and chaos. It was the antithesis of the chains from which its diners had sought refuge. To modernise would be counter-intuitive.

Wagamama has been so successful because it dupes the diner into believing they are ordering the exotic when in reality they are only choosing from dishes that have been imported to the western taste. Japan beguiles with its accent on tradition and its deep, resonant spirituality and folklore. While the West is enthralled by its difference it also likes to appropriate it into the familiar. Take for instance the last Samurai, that symbol of Japanese pride, that Cinephiles will recall Hollywood cast as Tom Cruise.

Having spent three years in the country and heavily influenced by its flavours and traditions our resident expert reeled off dish after dish from the specials menu, scrawled in Japanese with a marker pen. It was only dishes arrived at the table that I had an inkling of what awaited us. Having a reputation in the show for brave flavours and adroit combinations I braced myself. I was right to, as the first dish was Monkfish liver.


This was an Izakaya, principally a drinking place but serving small dishes. But that didn’t mean that the language of cuisine was any less in evidence. While all national cuisines have to some degree or another been influenced by and incorporated dishes and flavours from other places very few divide the traditional and the alien so abruptly and so precisely. Any dish introduced after 1868 is deemed Yoshoku, non-native. Such imports include the Japanese favourites such as Katsu (india), Tempura (Portuguese) and Ramen (China). These rude interlopers to the Japanese table, these migrant flavours are, however popular, destined to remain on long term visas never to be granted a passport. They can never be Washoku, traditional dishes. Indeed purveyors and producers of such dishes are not referred to as Itamae, a Japanese cuisine chef.

Such endearing terms of specificity pervade the Japanese culinary lexicon, in which precision is all. For instance the seasonality, or shun, of a dish is so important that ingredients change name. They even have a specific term, hatsu-gatsuo, for the first catch of skipjack tuna that arrives on a particular current.


Washoku usually consists of Ichiju-sansai, or one soup and three sides. This may typically be Miso soup with rise, grilled dish and a vegetable. Meat, or more particularly Mammal meat, has been something of a taboo in traditional culture. But again, the definitions are specific to the point of pedantic. While cultivated meat was shunned wild game was prized, in particular slaughtered hare. One of the effects of this is that Whale meat and Terrapin took the place of pork and beef.

But in modern Japan this culinary straightjacket has largely been thrown off, allowing us to indulge in a wide selection of the traditional, the popular and the downright indulgent. Fulfilling the former an aubergine boat filled with miso, pork goyza and mushrooms in butter. For the popular we tried Sashimi, that delicately flavoured raw fish that has become such a craze in the capital. Unusually ours was sea-bream and sea-bass, two familiar fish in an unfamiliar guise. The most intriguing selection was chicken skin kebabs. Looking like deep fried toenails on a cocktail stick these proved surprisingly morish, like a light, less cumbersome pork scratching.

It would have been remiss, almost rude, not to try some Sake so I ordered a tasting set. This comprised of three varieties each introduced in verbose terms on a laminated card. Like wine and whiskey Sake varies in quality and price and attracts its own acolytes. The key, I discovered, to the taste was its relative rice polishing ratio. As with other aspects of Japanese cuisine nothing is left unclassified.

Japanese food has revealed itself to London diners but has kept much of its mystery. Perhaps more than any other cuisine on this journey it speaks its own language, and how you interpret it depends on your reading of the menu.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Jamaica



Restaurant: Bamboula
Location: Brixton

By Boeing: 5356 miles
By Boris Bike: 5 miles


One of the most emotive and stirring scenes in London in the heat wave summer of ‘76 was thousands of Afro-Caribbean fans storming onto the parched outfield of the Oval to hoist their cricketing heroes aloft. Their cricket team had made them proud and reigned victorious over their starchy English hosts. It was as much a cultural celebration as a cricketing one, the reggae soul and carnival spirit transplanted from tropical shores to London’s controlled, calculating cityscape. It was a homecoming for all those who had made their home thousands of miles from an island paradise.

Of all the West Indian nations it is Jamaica that has left its indelible mark on the capital. The delicious juxtaposition of its carefree charm with England’s tense conformity has enlivened London and imbued it with a sense of fun and a pinch of irreverence. Brixton has always been the spiritual home of Jamaican London, spilling over with reggae record shops, rickety stalls of exotic fruits and all manner of hooded tops and stationary emblazoned with that anti-establishment symbol, the Cannabis leaf. So it was naturally to Brixton I headed to pay culinary homage.


A short walk from the station past a ubiquitous KFC was Bamboula, a yellow-fronted restaurant behind a short picket fence. It stood out from other Jamaican fare in the vicinity for being a genuine restaurant, rather than a take-away shack with a few tables squeezed in the front. The minute you walked through the door you left frenetic London behind and were enveloped in an ambience of a chilled Caribbean beach. Indeed the space is transformed into a beach hut, with a vaulted thatch effect ceiling and wooden veranda fencing around the walls. Tropical plants daubed onto the wall and a bar sunk under a sloping beam roof complete the bright, ebullient effect.

Wisely passing on a jug of rum punch on a weekday evening we chose two of the island’s famous brands. My friend opted for Red Stripe lager while I chose the more intriguing Dragon Stout. Intriguing because this thick, viscous island staple seems so incongruous with the light-hearted vibe of the island. In a Wigan working man’s club perhaps, but on a sandy beach slung in a hammock? But it shows that though Jamaica bristles with very unBritish freedoms it has nevertheless adopted some of its tastes.

Being an island fish is never far from the dinner table and our starters reflected this. Lightly seasoned Ackee in a fried plantain pocket was served alongside cod fish fritters with a peppy salsa. The subtle flavours of the fish emboldened by spice made for a pleasingly fresh and satisfying starter, and also hinted at the heat to come. While many dishes are pan-Caribbean the Jerk marinade is a Jamaican speciality. So while grilled Tilapia and Curried Goat tempted we opted for the Jerk. This sauce is sweet and spicy, assaulting the taste buds and forcing them to savour flavour while bracing themselves for wave after wave of heat.

British cuisine could never have concocted something so brash, so brave. Like a fairground big-dipper this is not an experience for the faint-hearted or easily flustered. Our eyes welled with tears of attrition and our lips burnt with flavour. More beer was required to douse the dish. Had the chef created this inferno especially for our British, middle-class sensibilities?


A sign hanging nearby said ‘Nuff Niceness’, and by the final forkful we agreed. It many ways it was a chastening experience, like commuting on the Northern Line. But as the heat subsided the flavour remained and tantalised. The waitress betrayed a smile as she collected the plates and saw the trail of tears on the tablecloth. This would provide the chefs with much mirth, I thought. Enjoying the soft reggae rhythms playing over the speakers and the friendly patter of the barman and waitress I relaxed into the evening and delayed requesting the bill. There was time, I reasoned, for a rum bread and butter pudding. Once again this was a British custom adopted but then Jamaicanised. The suet, soft slice of the British version was unrecognisable. This was coarse, brown bread, more

like a Ginger cake than a loaf of Sunblest. The Wray and Nephew rum had seeped through its grains like a flash flood through porous rock and gave it a boozy depth. It was decadent and filling and was complimented with the tang of a scoop of stem ginger ice-cream. Its home-baked heartiness was at odds with its sharp flavour. Again it was a British dish but not playing by British rules.

Jamaica will forever rule the roost in this corner of South London and the timid will do well to gird their loins, for its cuisine makes you sit bolt upright faster than a conversationalist on the tube.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Italy




Restaurant: Briciole
Location: Marylebone


By Boeing: 1398 miles
By Boris Bike: 5.6 miles


To say that a country enjoys its food is a truism as gauche as remarking that misery ensues on Ryanair flights. But there are some nations for which cuisine has transcended mere sustenance and become a cherished art-form. Table-tops become altars and waitresses godesses serving manna from heaven. Albanians eat and the Scots eat a lot and then deep fry some more but in Italy dining is far more than mere refuelling, it is a devoted pastime and a love affair deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.

In a country where dinner has been deified it is perhaps not surprising that the larders are bountiful and the menu's run to the length of a novella. The Italian culinary footprint, like Michael Palin, has circumnavigated the globe and many of its staples have become truly global foods. Pizza and Pasta are some of the most successful exports in history giving corners of the world as distant and distinct as Kerala and Kyrigistan a little taste of Italy.

So widespread is its influence and so readily subsumed has it been into regional menus that authenticity is not always easy to judge. If the Balinese served up a Ham Hock it would surely be spotted by a Brit as a culinary fraud but a Carbonara in Cassablanca may slip into a banquet unheeded.


As you would expect in the global capital of food London is blessed with a plethora of Italian restaurants, from Michelin stars to Mitcham takeaways. I chose to bypass the temples of temptation in the west end and the city in the search for a meal that would not require the remortage of my flat but would conjure an image of the Italians at play.


In a distant corner of Marylebone lies Briciole, a delicatessen-cum-bistro situated in a former pub. Unassuming and understated from once through the door the atmosphere is convivial yet confident, with a delicatessen counter whetting the appetite as you pass to a table in the main body of the restaurant. Exposed brick walls, low lighting and simple wooden tables offer an amiable charm, a welcome contrast to the aggrandising pretentions of some trattorias in theatre land.

The aromas that drifted through from the open kitchen and lingered amongst the throng of tables were rich and welcoming. By the time we had chosen the wine, from a fulsome list featuring regions, let alone grape varieties, that I'd never heard of, no table was vacant and a burble of animated conversation eagerly echoed through the restaurant.

Wanting to do both the menu and the many regions of Italy justice we selected our courses in a tapas fashion, wanting to sample as many flavours and pay homage to as many traditions as we could. First to arrive was a simple, lightly toasted tomato bruschetta and a trio of steaming, squidgy Arancini balls. Both were delicious. Next was a dish new to me, a deep fried fritti, a deep-fried miniature pizza stuffed with Ricotta. Wherever I looked there were plates of delicacies.

It is the best form of Italian dining when your senses are invigorated and your appetite sated. You wouldn't sit down for dinner around a rustic table in an olive grove with every grandmother in the vicinity and expect to be served a beautifully presented, paltry portion so why would you in a restaurant?

With a rich, vibrant Montepulciano flowing very freely indeed the main courses arrived in something a culinary crescendo. A whir of waiters saw veal ravioli and sausages with polenta and pecorino placed before us along with wilted spinach with balsamic vinegar. With such a varied and various culinary history it is impossible to sample all of Italy's tastes in one sitting, though a week off work and the acquisition of a gastric band could provide much mirth and merriment in the trying. Just as the long limb of Italy has contrasting climates, from snowy peaks to sun baked Mediterranean groves, so do the ingredients and flavours of its cooking. It is no wonder Italian TV Chefs have a grin that never deserts their face.

To finish the evening and cleanse the palette we sampled the famously Italian Sgroppino al limone, a tart lemon sorbet with prosecco, served effervessing in a tall elegant glass. This Italian twist on the shandy was so exquisite it made the insides of the mouth reverberate in a salivating shivver.

There is an art to Italy that nowhere else in the world can emulate, an appreciation of style and elegant living that somehow manages to be both understated and decadent. Italian men somehow avoid getting oil smears on their suede Gucci loafers as they Vespa through Verona while their fathers retain dignity with furious remonstrations of their arms in public settings. They are a race apart, and food is a mistress to whom they are devoted and devout.

I recently saw a pizza chain advert that featured a deep pan 'feast' the crust of which was rudely stuffed with a hotdog. As diplomatic insults go that is akin to setting fire to a Ferrari with the statue of David in the driver's seat. But despite this bastardisation of Bologna and Brindisi us Brits rather like Italy and of course, each and every delicious one, we love their food.