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

Monday, 27 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan


Restaurant: Pasha Hotel
Location: Camberwell

By Boeing: 2742 miles
By Boris Bike: 10.8 miles




While rank upon rank of Londoners were loitering outside Lebanese, fraternising by French bistros and salivating on sushi bar stools I was boarding a bus for what has to be London’s oddest culinary destination. The double-decker weaved past the ivy-bedecked stand of the Oval cricket ground before turning into the tatty tributaries of Camberwell. This derelict district is geographically central and yet culturally peripheral.

Wide, littered, unloved streets feature neon lit fried chicken chains on the odd numbers and itinerant minimarts on the evens. Yet nestled amongst this depressingly amorphous clutter is a hidden gem, a diamond among the drumsticks if you will. It is the unlikeliest setting for a boutique hotel, and yet the Pasha sits squat and stylish, a delicious out of place discovery, its exotic bloom of flags promising something different, perhaps decadent inside.



Past a smart, minimalist lobby a red carpet leads through the building to the restaurant at the rear, twisting and turning a good 70 yards, past a succession of badly painted, awkwardly framed pictures of water meadows and verdant valleys and what can only be described as an illuminated shrine to wooden fruit.



Given the duration of the approach and the novelty of the country my heart beat fast wondering what to expect. Then suddenly the narrow corridor opens out into a beautiful, low lit, gently arched room decorated with ornate rugs and a watercourse. Yes, a watercourse, a fountain-cum-pond overgrowing with foliage, that can only be crossed by a slatted bridge.

From this flowing fulcrum of the restaurant stream white silk banners to the four corners of the room. I was taken aback, as surprised as if I’d stumbled across a champagne and oyster bar in the heart of a Sydenham sink estate.




My Eurasian surroundings were attested to by the seating arrangement, raised platforms around the walls covered in ornate rugs and cushions. As I took off my shoes and sprawled my weary limbs across the gold and crimson brocade I remembered my first Fork and Flag destination, Afghanistan, where dining was equally as regal and reclined. Dispensing with formality of horizontal dining is very satisfying indeed, a reminder that eating out is as much a social experience as a necessity of ingestion.

Before I asked for the menu I pondered what suffices for super in Kyrgyzstan. A little reading on the subject suggested horse was likely to feature, though I suspected the Food Standards Agency may have hastily met the cultural attaché to put pay to an Anglicisation of that tradition. I also remembered reading that the vast majority of the population couldn’t afford the national dish. But these didn’t look like humble surroundings. This was no yak scented yurt and Camberwell is certainly no windswept Steppe.



On perusing the menu it was clear that Pasha took a sanitised, westernised approach to translating the cuisine of the former Soviet satellite to English tastes. While many of the traditional dishes featured, horse had been traded for beef, and there were plenty of regional classics to appeal to the less adventurous. For instance the traditional tipple of fermented mare’s milk was conspicuous by its absence, but there were Georgian wines aplenty.

I ordered a pot of black tea and a brace of starters, fried beef on a bed of noodles and hachapuri, a delightful baked cheese pastry. Once again I recalled my Afghan experience and my shock at the presence of pasta. But along with beasts of burden this Italian staple is a key part of mealtime in the beguiling, often bewildering nations that sandwich Europe and Asia.

The restaurant was busy and several tongues could be distinguished in the gentle timbre of an evening’s conversation. Before my main course arrived I took another look at the menu. In many ways the cuisine looked South and East for inspiration, with shashlik kebabs, stuffed vine leaves and hummus giving it a Persian and Mediterranean flavour. But the Stans were for a long time under the Soviet yolk and there is a cold calculation to offset its warm, simpering silk-route charm.

My Russian Beer had a name and a number, as if it was a cell in a barracks or demarcated hectare in a collective farm. And it was chilling, too. This serial numbered beverage was no doubt being consumed this very moment thousands of miles away in a draughty bar by frost bitten Soviet Stevedores in Vladivostok, guffawing at a coarse jibe.



My tastebuds still negotiating sense from the beer, tea and sweated noodles my main course arrived. The national dish of Kyrgyzstan, Besh Barmak, lumps of meat served on noodles swimming in a light, carnivorous broth. It was a dinner you had no choice but to slurp, at once hearty and warming. A modest garnish of coriander was the only semblance of seasoning. I imagined one of Gengis’s entourage sat cross-legged at an open fire after a long foray West restoring his strength with such a pragmatic plate.



I was the guest of a host that is misunderstood, that wins bronze wrestling medals at the Olympics, that represents the ultimate challenge at a spelling bee, that sees hosting Eurovision as the ultimate expression of nationhood. There is nothing else to add, other than I left Pasha confused but oddly elated.