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, 17 June 2013

Pakistan




Restaurant: Lahore Karahi

Location: Tooting

By Boeing: 3442 miles

By Boris Bike:6.3 miles


The inspiration to write florid verse is usually found in love, passion and beauty. So I felt a little guilty when a sonnet emerged as I bit into a naan bread. Get a grip man, I thought. I did and feverishly took a second bite deep within the circumference of this divine dough. You shouldn’t eulogise about leavened flour, it suggests a loss of perspective. But then isn’t the richness of life found in the details? And afterall, on what the papers lauded as statistically the most depressing day of the year who wouldn’t welcome a ghee up?

Pakistan was the latest stop on my curry caravan that had already passed through Bangladesh, India and Nepal. They all come from the same cultural tradition but have a distinctiveness that is often lost on post pub purists. The Pakistani variant tends to be grittier and spicier than its counterparts. And it is generally found in no frills, canteen style restaurants. The Lahore Grill in Tooting was certainly a world away from the Bombay Brasserie. In place of booths and high backed chairs were formica, wipe clean tables and where an intricate chandelier would have hung a plasma screen showing cricket.



It felt authentic. Not that I’ve been to Pakistan but it was reminiscent of similar establishments in Dubai, where Pakistani’s outnumber locals by three to one. It was busy, bustling and abuzz. Enjoying “hidden gem” status it draws in a broad range of clientele. One young man near us had even brought a date, who looked distinctly unimpressed and overdressed.

The room is dominated by an enormous counter of food that shimmers with colours, from the earthy browns of curries, the golden glow of freshly fried pakora and the rich red of chicken thighs irridiscent in their Tandori glaze. From behind the counter an army of waiters weave in and out of tables ferrying dishes to distant tables. It is a dizzying spectacle.



Having explained to my friend that sundries can be bought, stacked and reordered for a matter of pounds I go bezerk ordering a platter of vegetable pakora and deep fried, aromatic paneer cheese. Ruefully seeing bring your own beer on neighbouring tables we cut through the spice with Seven Up. We then peruse the menu.

I order the staple, Chicken Tikka karhai. It usually comes on the bone, but I ask for conventional chunks. When my friend orders prawns i widen my eyes. “Brave,” I offer by way of wisdom. Then I order it. The thing that had forced all other thoughts out of my mind. The sundrie that makes a mockery of Jesus’s claim in Gallillee that man cannot live on bread alone.

We waited, impatiently. The Pakora was served, dipped in a chutney, eaten and replenished. People left, arrived, ordered and left in a ceaseless movement. Tables went no more than a minute unoccupied. My karhai was served in sizzling silver bowl, thick and bubbling and pungent. Then I saw it in the corner of my eye, held aloft on a silver platter as if an offering to the gods, spilling over the sides in coriander specked majesty. I was so disorientated by awe that I almost curtsied.

If you imagine sundries as the Serengeti then this nan was Simba, the Lion King, master of all it surveys. To describe it as a Keema naan is like saying a Twix is dessert for two. It does feature a seasoned layer of minced lamb but that is just a lone viola in a symphony of flavours. One of which, my friend soon discovered, are chillies laced into its fabric as delicately as a name in a primary school sweater. One bite and he was struggling and a second he was broken, more a surface over which sweat pours than human. We tore and dipped and savoured until our stomachs were full and the roof of our mouths were cursing us for refusing to yield to respite.



The last time I felt this sated I was virtually blind licking the vestiges of vanilla ice-cream from a moulded plastic penguin. Then it began: the retribution. We paid, traded reflections on the form of the Pakistani pace attack and opened the door to the real world. The real world where actions have consequences, where gluttony is a mortal sin not an inevitable state of bliss.

Walking to the pub it was clear that we were casualties of wanton greed, barely able to retain the faint memory of the ability to walk. We communicated through a series of nuanced sighs. And I, well I started to hallucinate, reaching out my hands and muttering a word. In truth it was more of an incantation. Grandmothers turned and expressed pity. “Naan.”

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Norway




Restaurant: Nordic
Location: Fitzrovia

By Boeing: 3712 miles
By Boris Bike: 2 miles


It costs the equivalent of £8.10 for a pint of beer in Norway. That isn't afjordable in anyones book. In fact it is roughly the same price as a four seasons pizza in a suburban trattoria. If these costs are scaled up that would make a Ford Focus with executive trim cost as much a semi detached in Cleethorpes. Or, to put it differently, a pitcher of riverside Pimms on the weekend on a par with ensuring the safety of a hectare of Orangutangs through an adoption scheme.

This expense, along with the more established charms of Stockholm make Oslo and Bergen a relatively unattractive proposition for a four figure city break. Best then to sample the culture over here, where the receipt won't read like an enigma code transcript.

With nordic culture very much in vogue I opted for somewhere trendy rather than traditional. Hidden down some iron stairs in a side street in Fitzrovia the Nordic bar is low lit and intriguing. Basement bars have an air of the seedy, it comes with their subterranean location, but they have a way of beckoning you in. It is certainly in stark contrasts to the old fashioned British boozers in the vicinity, where tweed rubs shoulders with herringbone on thronged thoroughfares.



The heavy pine door opens to a narrow, claustrophobic (or intimate depending on your mood) space with clusters of tables and a long, low lit bar. Though not mathmatically feasible everyone appears to be sitting in a corner. As you walk towards the bar it is apparent that the venue is larger than first supposed, broadening out to a lighted restaurant area to the back.

The d├ęcor is trendy and understated though there are some Nordic nods. These are mainly glossy, high resolution adverts for Tuborg, the beer of choice, showcasing the crisp living and understated style of Scandinavian urban culture. But there is also a surreal twist, an alabaster stag's head protruding from the wall. Nordic hedges its bets. On the one hand it seeks enough authenticity to be the favoured choice of the homesick hordes but on the other softens its soul to appeal to generic good time drinkers.

Cocktails were most prominent on the menu but there was also an impressive selection of craft ales, all boasting more umlauts than Harveys or Theakstons. But I played it safe and ordered a Tuborg and sat down to peruse the menu. The manager was sat opposite interviewing a prospective DJ for the Saturday night. They were talking business, the business of margins. It all sounded a bit corporate but then my eavesdropping continued the reason became clear, Nordic was part of west end chain and needed to earn its keep in the line-up.

Its Nordicness was, in effect, an experiment. They watch Borgen when they are in, perhaps they'll enjoy a Smorgasboard when they are out. That is, I can only presume, the logic. I must admit I'd rather it was a family run affair presided over by an emigre addled with pride. But food is about forecasting profits as much as the next commodity.

It was an eclectic crowd. Bearded twenty somethings with unusual trousers writing notes on needlessly small sheaves were flanked by couples, one half of which looked suitably arian. Others just seemed to have dropped by and stayed. I was bouyed by the news that there was a midweek half price food promotion and set about the menu with renewed relish. I recognised many dishes from the Denmark leg but there were some interesting variations along with with a non Nordic selection for the less adventurous.



With a taste for seafood that can fluctuate from disinclined to dismay I gave the Gravad Lax, Pickled Herring and Crayfish tails a wide berth and settled on more familiar tastes. My first pick was Roast Beef with onions and a traditional remoulade sauce, which is a tangy mustardy, curry like staple. The next was the wonderfully worded Pytt I Panna, an indulgent fry up of bacon, sausage and onions, topped with an egg. Then of course I had to have Kottbullar, or meatballs to you and I. Finally my eye was drawn to a dish I'd seen previously in my Czech excursion, fried cheese. I love the simplicity of the concept. Not something fried with cheese. Just cheese, fried. A lady on a nearby table knew instinctively that there was a genius there that had moved me deeply.

It all came loaded on a single, Alan Partridge proportioned plate. And it looked mightily tempting. The Beef was cold, which was a bit of shock, though less of a surprise than the fact the Remoulade was hot. In my view a Silverside shouldn't be taken lightly or indeed in modest portions and I suspect the herring may have been the shrewder acquisition. But it provided some body, in a cold buffet kind of a way.

The Pytt I Panna was what students dream of when waking up with a hang over in a springless bed in a room in which the wallpaper has long since fallen out and separated from the wall. Nothing sophisticated about it but very, very moreish. The fried cheese presented no unwanted surprises and the kottbullar had a pleasing depth of flavour.

As with many dishes in Northern Europe there is a heft to Norwegian cuisine that helps get a snow bound people through a virtually lightless winter. They need calories just as they need long, thin skis. In the midst of winter even familiar cul-de-sacs become wild wildernesses and when the door shuts the winter out and flakes of ice begin to thaw on the cuticles of chapped noses what is required to recuperate is warmth and wholesomeness. That isn't to say there is no craft or subtlety on display, there is that too in the preparation of fish, salads and delicate desserts. But at heart dining for the Norsemen is about the day to day rather than delicacy.

You can almost picture Dumas preparing an intricate dinner of precision and panache. But I rather think Ibsen would just sling an elk over the hearth.



Saturday, 23 February 2013

Nigeria




Restaurant: Aso Rock
Location: Hoxton

By Boeing: 10061 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.7 miles


Hoxton is trendy. Nigerian food isn’t. Mulling over this awkward truth I followed my smart phone GPS to the postcode for the latest African eatery, only to find it led me to a small park abutting the canal in Angel. Not a good start. I catch a cab and drive miles across town wondering how a restaurant on the margins of London’s culinary map can afford to promote inaccurate postcodes. We pull up outside a simple, spartan restaurant at the end of the trendy thoroughfare. I hand over my dessert budget hoping the first thing I see upon opening the door is a laden dessert trolley. It isn’t.



We sit in a corner of the cafeteria style restaurant and peer over at the counter. A girl serving seems very amused by something, perhaps no more than the fact we were there, though in truth it could have been my jacket. Feeling irascible after the postcode debacle I calmed a little when I saw that they sold authentic African beer. We ordered a large bottle each and asked for advice on our selections.

The format appeared to be combinations of meat and sauce escalating in value in accordance with the number of items. I went for three, a full house. The first was a chicken drumstick in thick, hot egusi sauce. The egusi also covered a hunk of mutton. The last was altogether more intriguing. I prodded it nervously with my fork and scrutinised it with the concentration of a form guide at a greyhound track. But this
didn’t even yield a guess. So I asked the question that should never be asked: ‘what exactly is this?’. ‘Cow’s foot’, came the reply. ‘Of course it isn’t a cow’s foot’, she added. Right. ‘It is cow’s skin, the outer skin.’ So essentially it is leather. Why you’d eat it rather than make into a brogue was beyond me. I tried to cut through it with a knife, but to no avail. There seemed no way of and no motive to eat it. So I didn’t. We decided to order some sundries to complete the experience. This was a very satisfying spinach and smoked fish stew and a small beef pasty.

The pasty is ubiquitous it seems, in one form or another. The Cornish crimp is a distinguishing feature of ours, but, like deifying the world’s source of light and heat, encasing meat in pastry appears to be a primeval urge across the globe. Being Hoxton I was surprised that this was not described as ‘street food’. This craze is predicated on the belief that we want to eat what they eat, wherever they reside,
not the food they want us to believe they eat. This is of course fine, until someone puts two square inches of the rear seat of a Bentley on your plate.

With the exception of the Maghreb region, the African destinations on my route so far have had no tourist fripperies. They serve who they serve, namely those who miss the tastes of home. And while London’s palate becomes more adventurous browsing in food markets on the South Bank it is altogether braver to gatecrash a community restaurant and deprive them of a table. It can be a little unnerving to be scrutinised as a curiosity, like a striped rodent with the capacity to hop in the natural history museum, but if all goes to plan they offer begrudging respect for your cultural curiosity. If it doesn’t go to plan, well you’ll have read Cameroon.

You can’t be squeamish with African food. The flavours are bold and unsentimental. It isn’t advised to discern to closely between flesh, fat, ligament and bone. For they won’t be neatly separated for you. Your sensibilities, if you have them, tend to expose you. I once dined with a Nigerian man who ate a succulent breast of chicken as if it
were merely a source of protein but was sent into raptures when sucking the marrow from a split bone. Their approach to cooking is visceral and natural. Perhaps it is borne of necessity that all of the animal is eaten and none left to waste, but there is also a palpable sense that they want to indulge in all the flavours and textures. It is cooking unedited.