Monday, 15 October 2012
Location: South Bank
By Boeing: 10759 miles
By Boris Bike: 4 miles
In the eighties going out for a Mexican was the suburban equivalent of having a sunset wedding in the Grenadines starring Simon Le Bon as the master of ceremonies. It was the ultimate expression of the cul-de-sac dweller’s definition of exotic. In an era when eating out was as rare an occurrence as a Labour by-election victory in the Cotswolds Mexican was the final word in celebrating cuisine and affirming life. Yet two decades on and those same Carshalton cantinas are the epitome of crap, cringeworthy cuisine.
The harshly-lit, cluttered restaurants are cactus strewn with bulbous, phallic wall murals that resemble a primary school community art project gone to seed. Stale tacos laden with mildly seasoned, bolognaise-on-a-budget mince and sallow, over-weight waitresses begrudgingly offering sour Tequila from party shop surplus, PVC holsters is kitsch at best and culinary catastrophe at worst. At some point in the summer of 1991 Mexico lost its allure, and other cuisines took its crown.
But now tacky Tacos are a thing of the past and Burritos are back in a big way. All over the capital street kitchens, Hipster hatches and pop up restaurants have sprung up in a Mexican renaissance. And this time the accent is on authenticity, not Pedro produced pantomime. Inspired by a renewed interest in everything Latin and boasting healthy, headstrong, simple flavours we are all embracing the Mexican street food experience.
Popularity is the acorn from which the profit tree may grow and Mexicana has become big chain, big business fare. But because its charm lies in its humble humility chains have sought to retain the impression of independently run, ramshackle restaurants. This helps explain why successful chain Wahaca launched an oh so popular ‘pop up’ on the South Bank. Constructed from a half finished game of Jenga using shipping containers it features a canteen and cocktail terrace, with the utility of corrugated steel deliciously juxtaposed with a rainbow of vibrant colour and an army of sassy, sultry waitresses.
Mexican has been a beneficiary of the street food craze. Merely a rebranding of the age-old tapas format it offers an array of cheap, community dishes. The decor, menu and carefree attitude of the staff offers a chilled out atmosphere, the antithesis of the stuffy, starched protocols of the theatreland restaurants across the river. Street food is London’s admitting that dining out is now the norm, not the exception.
One of the charms of street food, and a way it has been skilfully marketed, is that the chefs don’t stand on ceremony, and the dynamic of the serving and the served is deconstructed. So you are told on ordering that each dish ‘comes when it is ready’, not according to age-old customs of starters, main course and desserts. It is communal dining too, perhaps taking advantage of the near hysterical appetite for jubilee street parties. We found ourselves pushed onto a bench with several other groups. My grandfather would have stormed out at such rude service, such an absence of privacy, but it is all part of the experience.
Mexican beer, with that tart slice of lime, helped washed down Tortilla chips with a piquant salsa. Then for dizzying five minutes dishes arrived at ninety second intervals until the table was littered with tacos, burritos, quesadillas and chilli dusted corn. From spicy chicken to the must have filling of the moment, ‘pulled pork’, the flavours were urgent and satisfying. Like tapas this abundance of tastes creates a sensory, convivial experience that more formal, main course dining can’t replicate.
Mexico shares many staples with its South American cousins, with beans predominating, with spice enlivening pork and beef. But because all but the youngest generations recall the first wave of Mexican culinary imports the tastes are a little more familiar, while still feeling exotic and different. Though many rave about Colombian, Brazilian and Peruvian food they have not been embraced so widely or eaten by so many so frequently. Mexican, it seems, holds the trump cards in its combination of the different and the dependable. Though they like to think they are adventurous, most London ‘foodies’ would rather appear to have left the beaten path than truly test their tastebuds.
What street food has brought to the Mexican experience is a far greater range of sweet treats. Not desserts as such, but a sugary continuation of the hastily served tasters. I tried Mexican doughnuts with a milk toffee sauce. They were served almost instantaneously, with steam rising off their deliciously deep-fried sheen. Neither round nor ring there horseshoe shaped dough balls were light and fluffy, with the sickly-sweet weight of the mile toffee perfectly complimenting coffee.
Yards away from our open terrace, twenty feet above the Thames was a bustling food market, featuring aromas and flavours from all over the world. But though we were eating in a chain restaurant it didn’t feel incongruous. It was all street food, it was all London dining out on the nights it didn’t used to.
By Boeing: 5569 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.9 miles
After several stops in Eastern Europe and the Balkans I was looking forward to an exotic, oriental destination. Malaysia is more modern and outward looking than its neighbours Thailand and Indonesia with its capital Kuala Lumpa renowned more for its glistening high-rise skyline than any historical or spiritual sights. Its focus is on commerce rather than culture. The country as a whole is a heady mix of ethnic groups and localised traditions, with Malay and indigenous tribes of Borneo joined by large immigrant communities of Indians and Chinese.
It is land of Orang-Utangs, colonial remnants, tropical beaches and tea plantations. The contrast between the urban modern and the rural past is striking, making it a land of contrasts for those who love to explore. Its cuisine reflects these multiple influences, similar to that of its neighbours but also displaying flavours inspired by India and China. While the 1990s saw London adopt Thai as a favourite new cuisine, supplanting Chinese as the oriental food of choice, Malaysia has always been and continues to be under-represented.
While Thai restaurants now feature in most neighbourhoods Malaysian food is less conspicuous. It is also not very favourably reviewed. When choosing from the fifteen or so available I noted ruefully that few were recommended. Tukdin, between Paddington and Lancaster Gate, seemed better loved than most.
Arriving at this small, unassuming restaurant I was a little underwhelmed. Preferring cultural clutter to minimalist style it felt a bit acanine. The seven or eight tables were arranged in two parallel rows making it feel a little formal. We were then disappointed to see that no alcohol was served as it was muslim owned. So instead of the crisp beer we were looking forward to we ordered some exotic soft drinks. Mine was soya milk based with a Rose Water syrup and was served with grass jelly globules floating in the top. It was a bit like having a Strawberry milkshake and finding half a dozen midget gems floating in the top. Looking at each other quizzically we drank contentedly and looked at the menu. We had no choice really, as there were no pictures on the wall to attest to the beauty or bounty of Malaysia.
To start we ordered some Chicken Satay. As we did so a large group of Malaysians arrived and took all the tables on the opposite side of the room. We both felt this augered well for the authenticity and quality of the food. Sure enough the Satay was succulent and delicately spiced. It was a world away from the ‘satay kit’ my mother once erroneously acquired from Iceland that consisted of processed strips of chicken and a pot of chilli-enriched peanut butter.
Oddly Lakhsa, the coconut milk based soup that is often considered the Malay national dish, was not available so I opted for another culinary classic, Beef Rendang. This was the signature dish among the curries, yellow or brown generally in contrast to the green and red of Thailand, and stir fries. As I saw it being carried through from the kitchen my tastebuds almost escaped my throat and wrenched it from the waiter’s hands. Rendang is a thick, spicy curry that is more substantial in taste and texture than its Thai cousins, hinting more at the depth of an Indian dish. Mine featured slow cooked chunks of beef fillet, that split into with the mere hint of pressure applied by my fork. One of the reasons for the popularity of oriental food is its lightness, its relatively uncalorific form of indulgence. But this isn’t the case with a Rendang, which is a heavy, filling, satisfying dish.
My friend had a much hotter dish of thin strips of beef in a rich chilli paste. Between forkfuls he looked across longingly at my hunks of beef, that could have easily, in a different kitchen, been in a thick, boozy stew. To accompany our main course we had a Tofu dish, laced with chilli and stir fried. Tofu is an absorber rather than provider of taste, and was pressed into service mopping up the red Rendang sauce.
As with most oriental cuisines the desserts are few and far between. They were familiar too from earlier Asian legs of the Fork and Flag journey. Black rice pudding and deep fried caramelised bananas tempted but were left unordered.
I left the restaurant feeling that Malaysian has all the ingredients to be one of the most popular cuisines in London, presenting oriental flavours while satisfying that western want for a full stomach. And yet it remains on London’s culinary fringe, without a trendy exponent or interest from a celebrity chef. While Korean and Vietnamise vie to take Thailand’s mantle as the oriental cuisine of the moment Malaysian is left largely unexplored.
Thursday, 4 October 2012
By Boeing: 893 miles
By Boris Bike: 12 miles
There are few countries in the world whose name is as evocative and historically resonant as Macedonia. Every schoolboy knows its connection with Alexander the Great, the classical embodiment of the Emperor-Adventurer who conquered the known world by the age of 30. But while its place in antiquity is unquestioned and revered its role and profile in the modern world is much less assured. For as a Balkan state in the Greek sphere of influence it has struggled to assert its own nationhood and sense of identity.
This was shown on its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 when Greece strongly objected to the fledgling republic claiming the name Macedonia. For this is both the name for a wider Greek region and one of its administrative provinces. The diplomatic row continues though many countries have, largely through default and growing impatient with a conclusion, dropped its prefix of ‘The Federal republic ..’, much to the ire of Greece.
I pondered this as I arrived at Vardar, an annexe of a cavernous pub in Action, at 5.19 PM on a Monday afternoon. I didn’t quite know what to expect as I approached the small porch, outside which were a group, including the chef on a cigarette break. As the heavy door creaked open I cast my eye over the small, dimly lit space. I was surprised, nicely surprised. It was charming in the way that the cafe in Allo Allo was charming. An inter-war bistro feel was given a certain grandness by heavy scarlet curtains and a wooden beamed ceiling.
The rustic ambience was not unlike my Lithuanian experience, both being a pleasant escape from the tattiness of some of London’s thoroughfares. I ordered a small beer, Bulgarian in origin, and perused the shiny plastic menu.
Its cuisine is in many ways provides a flavour of its complex, divergent history, with influences from the Ottoman Empire, Slavic traditions, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Being a hot day the thick, cream-laden soups, didn’t appeal so to start I ordered that Balkan baked delight, a Borek. This heavy, layered bread is a popular street snack and is generally filled with meat or cheese. I had last eaten one mid way through an ascent of a one in four hill in Dubrovnik and struggled to reach the top. They cannot claim, as a Milkyway does, that it won’t spoil the appetite for dinner.
For a main I ordered the national dish, Tavce-Gravce, braised beans in an earthenware pot, in this instance served with a sausage. More eastern European than Greek or Mediterranean! Although oddly the most similar dish on the Fork and Flag journey had been in Brazil, where the humble bean is venerated. As I waited my eye scanned the room for the paraphernalia hanging from the walls. It was similar to Armenia, with traditional clothes and toys hung from small hooks. These were complimented by embroidered flags and shields that I suspected were an accompaniment to the patriotic fervour of a national football match or other sporting occasions where the local community sought the company of their countrymen.
When the meal arrived I felt like I’d ordered from the kids menu at a Little Chef. Beans n Sausages, it may as well have been Dinosaur Shaped chicken nuggets and Alphabet spaghetti. But on closer inspection it was infinitely richer than that and with infinitely less e-numbers. The sausage was broad and seared, the edges of the diagonal incisions crispy with heat. It made for a hearty and very filling sausage casserole. I felt like I should have been eating this leant on the back of a haywain, in a mid afternoon pause while reaping the harvest. It had that earthy goodness that is an agricultural labourer’s due.
I tore pieces of the Borek, its warm, crumbly cheese spilling out with the light pressure of finger and thumb, and scooped up the remaining beans. There was only one other table occupied, it was afterall still within the working day on a Monday, so I had no opportunity for food envy. I would have been interested to see, for instance, what the Pleskavica, a local pork burger, was like. Though casting my mind back to one I sampled for Albania perhaps I wasn’t missing out.
Had I not arrived by car, a first for Fork and Flag, I would have perhaps tarried with a local spirit or farmers wine. But instead I drove home. Whether it was a meal fit for the greatest King of antiquity I’m not sure, but it provided far more than it promised. It is a sleepy corner of Europe these days, not on many people’s ‘wish list’ of places to visit. But I have an inkling Macedonia could offer a few surprises.
By Boeing: 1519 miles
By Boris Bike: 8.4 miles
Eating pigs ears wasn’t on the shortlist for the bucket list I hadn’t yet written. But I felt a moral obligation to order them. Afterall, a Lithuanian dinner without pigs ears is like a Greek wedding with intact crockery. How would they come? Blistered and bristled? Or deep fried and oily like sensory pork scratchings? These are not questions faced by those whose Tuesday dinner is provided pre-packed by Budgens. My stomach baulked at the momentary lunacy of the mind.
It was a lunacy that had already crept up on me as I disembarked the tube at Walthamstow. It was a hot, balmy night and yet I shuddered with shivers. For Walthamstow is not a district you visit unless you have an extremely good reason to. Walking along what must be the most depressing and soulless pedestrianised kilometre in the northern hemisphere my shoulders slumped with foreboding. The stench of a drumstick drenched in saturated batter drifted across the road and mayonnaise curdled on discarded kebab wrappings on the floor.
So it was with a sense of palpable relief when I arrived at Krantas, by far the most pleasant establishment in the area. I pushed open the door draped in doilies and entered foreign soil. I had wanted to be transported far, far away, in a sense I had been. The contrast with my last destination was marked. From bustling Edgware Road, brimming with life in the neon dizziness of the small hours, to bleak, deserted Walthamstow.
The waitress served the ears apologetically, sensing that I had ordered them for the experience rather than the enjoyment. They came sliced, which was a relief, and made this trial seem less cannibalistic somehow. The taste was acceptable but the crunch through the cartilage was anything but. It was like chomping on a pensioner’s wrist.
The first thing I noticed were the high backed benches. They were a cross between a Shakespearian throne and a church pew and were quite regal in a pagan way. The beige was matched by the walls except for deliberately exposed brick-work. This gave the room almost the feel of a cloister. A large plasma screen shimmered in the corner and burbled excitedly in a foreign tongue.
The medieval feel was perhaps no accident, afterall the former Soviet Baltic state’s heyday was in the 14th century when it was one of the most powerful potentates in Europe. Now a political backwater,It only raises diplomatic eyebrows in its suspiciously generous scores for the atonal Eurovision pop tunes of its Baltic neighbours. It once incorporated Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and a large swathe of Russia. Its national hero, Vytautas the Great, would have sat tall and proud in his throne-cum-pew surveying his vast empire.
As I sipped a very cheap, very strong beer the tables around me began to fill. With the Daily Mail reporting that 97% of Londoners are Polish and that a boiler hasn’t been fixed in the capital by anyone other than a pole since 1981 it is perhaps not surprising that the UK has also attracted a community of neighbouring Lithuanians.
I noticed that the ceiling was pine-planked, lending the room the soft intimacy of a sauna. Were it not for the pigs’ ears I would have relaxed into the evening. The menu was a delight of culinary intrigue and linguistic eccentricity. Some of the dishes were familiar, with potato and pork prevailing. It promised the same huntsman heartiness as the Czech Republic but with a distinctly more Russian flavour.
I was tempted by Crepes in a mushroom sauce, a national staple, but couldn’t deny myself the wonderfully named ‘Man’s glory’. But to begin I chomped on some potato fritters and attempted to follow the storyline of a Lithuanian soup which appeared to feature an aggrieved housewife seeking revenge on a slap-dash handyman. It caused great mirth among two locals on an adjoining table, who thought my mere presence almost as amusing as my pathetic attempts to nibble pigs’ ears.
Watching me struggle the waitress kindly withdrew the offending platter, deprived only of several grams of pinched skin I had nervously picked at. She smiled knowingly, as if to say ‘My race is more manly than yours, soft, callow Englishman.’ I was more than happy to nod in wordless agreement.
Then came a huge steaming plate through the swing door to the kitchen. It was the ‘Man’s Glory’, the culinary savour of the evening. It comprised of a flat, tenderised pork steak smothered in cheese, mushrooms and onions. This wasn’t female food, I could see that now, and there was indeed glory in every delicious mouthful. There was nothing delicate about it, no deftness in its creation, just honest, filling and tasty. I tucked in with the relish of a man deprived an edible starter.
It was all ridiculously cheap, like a three bedroom semi-detached in a northern mill town. This meant I could wash it all down with another Soviet beer. I left sated and satisfied, and in truth a little surprised that I had enjoyed Lithuania so much. But as the door opened Walthamstow reappeared like a terrible nightmare psychologists spend decades attempting to suppress with expensive machines and hallucinatory drugs.