Monday, May 31, 2010

The best place in 'souf' London on a Saturday afternoon, innit

In Melbourne, my Saturday morning go-to for killing multiple birds with single stones – e.g. sating a hangover, sucking up some culture, attempting to get my shiz together for the week ahead – was the Preston Market. Here in London, the Brixton Market is a pretty sweet equivalent. The first weekend I arrived, in July last year, I was taken on an excursion to the infamous Franco Manca, but it was the haphazard street stalls selling unidentified veggies (in hindsight, probable yam sub-species) and miscellaneous crap, the crowds of locals cruising around like they had all the time in the world and, above all, the reggaeton and dancehall music floating through every laneway. Nearly a year later, I still break out into a silent boogie when I see the street sign for Electric Avenue.

The market is generally regarded as “the” place for Afro-Caribbean food shopping, but I think it’s still a bit too intimidating for your average Waitrose-type foodie. I’m pretty sure most of the diners who line up for a perch at Franco Manca hightail it to the tube once they’ve polished off the last of their sourdough crusts and organic ales.

Coldharbour Lane entrace to Brixton Village

My hands-down favourite place in the market on a Saturday is Brixton Village – a 1930s market arcade with entries off Coldharbour Lane (beyond the train line) and Atlantic Road (past Argos, on the other side of the road). When I first ventured there last year it was downright grim, and half the shopfronts seemed vacant. But since November, Lambeth Council and Space Makers have supported its transformation into a bonafide community of pop-up shops and culinary enterprises. The “slack space” project apparently offers three months’ free rent to creatives and entrepreneurs, so amongst the six rows of shops and stalls you’ll encounter everything from a Thai massage studio and art workshops to handmade cupcakes and confectionary. The Community shop also sells the Brixton Pound currency, which gives you decent savings on goods and services spent at local businesses.

It’s awesome to see permanent businesses like the Agile Rabbit setting up shop in the arcade – it’s the newest kid on the block, and will hopefully stick around longer than three months. The stylishly no-frills café/pizza bar serves up generous pairs of thin-base pizza squares, which you can eat off grease-proof paper on communal tables. If you’ve ever had to fight the tourists outside the Franco Manca, you’ll appreciate an alternative for fresh, cheap artisan pizza that’s far from the madding crowds – but for how long, who knows... I discovered the Agile Rabbit a few Saturdays ago when I was guiding my frightfully hungover pal through her first Brixton market tour. After splitting a pair of pepperoni squares and a can of coke between the two of us (£4 total) and then chatting to Victor, the owner, I discovered I wasn’t going mad – “I swear to god, this place was not here last weekend…” – it had only opened for business the day before.

Other shop to visit include Federation Coffee – damn fine Melbourne-quality coffee, unfortunately not exactly Brixton-cheap though – and Etta’s Seafood Kitchen, which serves Caribbean-influenced seafood dishes. Ok, so I haven’t actually eaten at Etta’s but I curse this every time I walk past and read the daily specials. It’s Brixton cheap, too. Brixton Village is the place to head on Thursday nights, as all these new pop-ups trade from 6-10pm and you can BYO booze when you eat in. More often than not there’ll be a cracking soundsystem and a huge smoky BBQ pumping near the Coldharbour Lane entrance. The Brixton Village Facebook page gives regular updates about special events and new occupants in the arcade.

How to sleep on couches in London for two months and not outstay your welcome (a.k.a. best-ever Chocolate and Walnut Brownies).

When I arrived in London I managed to doss around the place for about eight weeks before the craving for a dressing table and chest of drawers all got too much and I moved into my own sharehouse. You don’t need a Ph.D in international relations to work out the obvious ‘to do’s when you’re occupying the communal lounge space in someone else’s house for a while:
- Always do the washing up. Everyday. This is a non-negotiable.
- Ensure ready supply of beer/wine and toilet paper.
- Befriend the annoying housemate and listen to their tales of woe so the paying tenants don’t have to.
- Develop a repertoire of curries, lasagnes, and stir fries that the biggest eater/guts/food stealer in the house can eat for a few days at a time.

(image above of Augustus Gloop's untimely end is reminiscent of what you might experience if you eat more than two squares of brownie in one sitting...)

I can’t remember where I found this recipe for chocolate brownies, but they were an absolute WINNER. In fact, I recently passed the recipe on to my mate Em who’d just arrived in London and was looking for ways (other than the list above, obvs) to butter up her generous hosts. It’s essentially chocolate, butter and sugar – clearly a no-brainer. Plus, noone seems to bake too much in this town – probs has something to do with the fact that you can’t swing a cat in most kitchens. Even the most neglected sharehouse kitchen cupboard will usually have a baking tray that could be used (as long as it’s about 5cm deep), although you can pick one up at most pound shops. Before setting out, check there’s a whisk of some description for beating the egg mixture. That’s a non-negotiable.

What to do first:
- preheat oven to 180 degrees
- grease and line (with grease-proof paper) a 20cm square cake tin

125gm butter, warmed to room temperature
200gm good quality dark chocolate (e.g. 70% cocoa), chopped roughly
2 eggs
230 gm (1 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
60gm (1/2 cup) plain flour
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (oh my god, get Black and Green organic if you have to buy some - it's freakin' amazin... so much better than Cadbury etc. – you can tell the difference straight away if you're having it in a hot drink)
100gm (1 cup) chopped walnuts

What to do next:
- Melt butter and half of the chocolate in a bowl set over simmering water
- Remove from heat and leave to cool
- Whisk eggs, gradually add sugar until thick and foamy. If you’re doing this with a hand whisk, it will take a while, but you’ll get there eventually. (albeit with early-onset tennis elbow). Add vanilla essence and blend thoroughly. Add egg mix to chocolate and butter mix.
- Sift cocoa and flour over combined runny mixture, add walnuts and remaining chopped chocolate
- FOLD mixture with large spoon (be gentle otherwise they'll turn out rubbery). Folding is the secret of fluffy baking, my friends.
- Pour batter into tin and bake for 30mins, or top is cooked/dark brown. Put foil over top if it start to burn.
- Cut while still warm and leave to cool completely on wire rack.
- Dust with icing sugar if you're feeling particularly Donna Hay-ish.
- Do not consume more than two pieces in one sitting or risk falling into a diabetic coma and/or suffering massive heart attack.

Brownies will keep for a few days in airtight container but chances are, they’ll be gone by Day 2, especially if made at the start of the weekend. And especially if spied by hungry housemates returning home from a boozy night out.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dumprings! Dumprings!!

A version of the following feature was published on UK arts and culture portal, The Collective Review.

One of the first things I missed when I moved to London was somewhere to get a quick, cheap, fresh dumpling fix. The whole Shanghai dumpling craze in Melbourne has been raging out of control for YEARS: once upon a time a standard Friday night in Shanghai Noodle would involve groups of hipsters sharing one plate of steamed chicken and prawn dumplings while polishing off a dozen long necks of Coopers Sparkling; these days you’re just as likely to wait in line for a table behind packs of inebriated suits (aaahhhh, god bless gentrification…) who’ll inhale a platter apiece in a pit stop during after work drinks.

Anyone who has a clue (and a car…) knows to forget Melbourne’s Chinatown and get to Box Hill in the ‘burbs. David and Camy’s in Station Street (they used to have a city restaurant off Little Bourke St) serves shanghai dumplings (pork, cabbage and herbs in a crescent-shaped wrapper), shanghai noodles (thick, wormy, homemade noodles in a dark sticky soy sauce with shredded pork and cabbage), and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce BIGGER, BETTER and CHEAPER than anywhere in Zone 1.

…Which is all very well when you have a car and live in Melbourne, but things are a whole lot more depressing when you’re new to London, unemployed, reliant on the £6.30 in your wallet for the next two days, largely friendless, and nursing a mid-week hangover that can only be sated by steamed meat in dough, doused in a 1:1 ratio of soy/chilli sauce. It’s taken a while, but I’m pleased to say I now have options in a few different neighbourhoods…

1. Jen Café, 4-8 Newport St, London WC2H 7JP
Sorry, but this ‘China town’ caper is a total crock – it’s like three streets max and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Chinese people who actually live or hang out there. No matter, just get to Jen Café for the dumplings. They’re Beijing style, apparently. Handmade on the workbench in the window, in fact. £4 a plate, maybe? Cheap, steamed, fried, in chilli oil, whatevs. For Melbournian ex-pats hankering for the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” hospitality championed by the nasty man with the glasses and the even meaner old woman (his mother-in-law, perhaps?) who run Shanghai Dumpling, Jen Café boasts a similar level of service. Arrive in an antsy, stressed mood and you’ll feel like glassing the waiting staff within five minutes.

The last time I was there we were sat infront of a door that stayed ajar whenever anyone entered (it was during winter). The spotlight above us short-circuited whenever someone in the kitchen used the microwave (like, every 30 seconds), and I was shafted with second-hand dumplings rejected by the dude sitting infront of us. The dumplings certainly fill a hole, though.
If you’re still peckish after you’ve (most likely) been sent packing after 19 minutes inside, there’s a seriously sweet food stall out the front of the Asian grocers behind Jen Café (28-29 Newport Court) selling the best pork buns I’ve ever tasted (disclaimer: I only really started eating them in the past couple of years, so I can’t compare them to much). The note I wrote in my phone reads “Chinese chive, pork, chicken, vegie buns”. I think they come in four varieties. They’re like £1 each, I think.

2. Tibetan Momo stall, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Visit the Brick Lane UpMarket on a Sunday and, at some point between buying Japanther’s new EP on vinyl at Rough Trade and buying some pre-loved vintage crap from the unofficial garage sale on Brick Lane (hey, you’ve probably helped pay for some kid’s ticket to Bestival), make sure you try the Tibetan momo from the undercover food market. So ‘momo’ is the Tibetan version of dumplings (who says I don’t do my research…).

These ones come in lamb, pork or chicken, with celery, cabbage and spices (or just plain vegie). Same hand-pressed crescent shape, but with a distinctly heavier (wheatier?) wrapping. I went with lamb – that’s the animal I most easily imagined wandering around behind sherpas at altitude. To really bring out the rustic character of the momo, season liberally with the complementary chunky chilli tomato sauce with mustard seeds – it’s wrong to call it a salsa, but that’s what it’s like. Eat it like a salsa and it will literally blow your head off. In a good way. Steamed or fried, six for £4, eight for £5.50, served with salad.

2. Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR
I’d heard the rumours about Camberwell’s impressive variety of cheap and cheerful non-Western eateries (compared to neighbouring Stockwell and Brixton), and have recently become a little O-to-the-BSESSED with the rather unusual Chinaman blogger who is Southside proud, with his predilection for cheap, good fare with a south-east Asian inflection. As if I didn’t need any more motivation to check out Silk Road’s renowned dumplings, I discover my man J-Ray jumped on its bandwagon MONTHS ago, touting the specialities of its Xinjiang cuisine (that’s the Chinese province bordering – amongst others – Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and home to some serious ethnic tensions).

Given Xinjiang borders pretty much all the “…ajistan” countries – hello, Borat – I arrived there excited to taste how Central Asian flavours (mutton and spices?) would fuse with noodles and dumplings. Vegan BF went with the mixed vegetables and noodles (£6), I got the lamb and onion dumplings (10 FOR £2.50... David and Camy, you're dead to me now) and we shared pak choi with garlic (£5). Let me tell you something for nothing: Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce has stiff competition in the form of pak choi with garlic. Same consistency sauce with liberal slices of fresh chilli, but a revelation.

The dumplings seemed a cross between the standard steamed Shanghai variety and the Tibetan momos – the filling was deffo a bit more rustic (it defintiely tasted like lamb and onion, FYI), ditto the doughier wrapping. Not sure how they’d go once stone cold – clearly they didn’t have time to cool, as I hovered up all 10 with Chinese vinegar and chilli oil at the speed of light. The BF’s noodles were interesting – I’d like to try Silk Road’s noodles with lamb, or even something offaly. The tomato, cabbage, green chilli and garlic stirfry looked, at first, like an Italian sauce gone wrong (the homemade and obviously hand-stretched noodles could pass for tagliatelle at a glance). But when you bite into the totally-redefining-al-dente noodles, you realise how totally crappy all the noodles you’ve ever had were, compared to these. I’d like to confirm if the noodle dough is the same as the dumpling dough. I think it might be.

We clearly didn’t give the menu enough of a shake up to feel fully versed on the culinary pecularities of northwest China, but I’ll be certainly returning for a plate of the lamb and onion, beef and onion, or egg and shrimp and something else dumplings VERY SOON. It would appear the large platter of chicken is the customary dish - it's a 'book 24 hours in advance' number. Oh – Tsingtao beers were £2, and our bill came to under £20 and we were so full we nearly died on the walk home to Stockwell. The end.

Friday, May 7, 2010

GET TO TOOTING! Seriously, guys - it's on the Northern line, it's not that far.

Tooting. First heard of – and promptly forgotten – in a Time Out feature last year touting up-and-coming suburbs (I’d just arrived in London and thought anything beyond Zone 3 on the tube was a provincial wasteland). The fact is, it’s a jewell in south London’s crown, considering its Primark – smaller than Oxford St but bigger than Kilburn – TK Maxx, Tooting Bec Lido being the second biggest pool in Europe (91.5 metres) and – best of all – a collection of Indian restaurants that leaves Brick Lane for dead.

We were meeting up with old mate Em who’d just arrived in town, and was staying in Streatham. First stop, for pre-d’s, was the Tram and Social on Mitcham Rd, right next to the tube station, tucked down a confusing alley that not one, not two, but THREE of us managed to miss.

Think guttered warehouse/factory space filled with mismatched velvet couches and battered chesterfields, retro touches, and all the sorts of things you dream about finding in hard rubbish but never do. For Melbournians, a bit like Little Creatures (space-wise) crossed with the Comfy Chair, if it were located just off Mitchell Road in Thornbury. I wish I’d noted the boutiquey ale we were drinking – a golden ale and a pale ale… something about a goose or a horse? – because it was GREAT. Place was pretty empty while we were there but we ducked back after dinner for another round and it was pleasantly populated – especially for a Wednesday night. It’s totally the kind of place to organise for birthday drinks – big enough to claim a corner, not too intimidating, but enough character to impress people who are trekking over from the wrong side of the river.

On to dinner. We tossed up between Sree Krishna and Apollo Banana Leaf, right next door to each other down Tooting High Street. Main consideration was that APL was BYO, but the little offy across the road didn’t look too inspiring. SK did look slightly fancier and was licensed, so we went there and agreed to try APL’s Sri Lankan fare another time soon.

I think I like South Indian curry the most of all “Asian” – I still can’t get my head around that British definition – cuisines. Coconut, fish, hot hot curries… what more do you want? We started off with long necks of Kingfisher (£6ish) and papadums – the onion, yoghurt and mango sauces weren’t anything to write home about, but as usual I could have polished off another dozen papadums. (As is always the case in these situations, I had to restrain myself from re-enacting the blessing and breaking of the eucarist… what can I say, I see a huge, circular flat biscuit and start reciting Communion prayers… That’s what you get from 20+ years of Catholic education. Mum once caught me doing it with a giant salt ‘n’ vinegar chip and went mental at me.)

As for mains, Em and I split an Alleppy fish curry (whole fish curry with spices, tomato and coconut milk, £7.50) and the Malabar chicken (chicken and veggies with coconut, coriander and spices, £4.50). Vegan BF had a dal and a veggie Malabar (£3.50 each). I think we can all agree it was freakin’ awesome. The fish had all its bones and tail bits, but what you couldn’t pick out you could eat. The spices tasted like they were fresh out of the mortar and pestle – an invigorating change when you’re acclimatised to Patak curry pastes. Bill came to £39 with all the bits and bobs included – I think we can all agree that was pretty astounding, given the fine fare and classy surrounds. In short: get to Tooting!