Sunday, 29 November 2009

Home-Style Cabbage…

No! Please keep reading! I am not going to write about cabbage for the second week running, I promise. Well, not entirely about cabbage. First I have to explain how I got here, as I know you’ll be curious.

It was via the Silk Road – sounds exotic doesn’t it? Giant pink skies and stretching horizons?

Not exactly, unless you visit this fine Chinese establishment on Camberwell Church Street one deserted summer’s evening. A combination of tube, train or bus will get you to this Silk Road – I can’t tell you exactly where we were, but I would happily take any means necessary to return, even if it does take almost as long to get to as the ancient Asian trade routes...The restaurant is mercifully difficult to get to, so still feels like a well-kept secret – how the regulars prefer it, I’m sure.

I have to come clean; this was to be an epiphany for me. Chinese food has not always been that high on my list of top eats. Now I realise that that was a bit like me saying that I don’t really like European food, the nation is so vast and the tastes so varied. This simple restaurant, run largely by a very happy family, turns out Xinjiang cuisine, from the west of the country, near, um, (I gave up Geography at GCSE so I’ll stop right there before I embarrass myself).

IMG00054-20091118-2010 This food was completely new to me, hot, fragrant and not a glint of MSG in sight. Moreover - and a first in my not-so-illustrious Chinese eating career- the entire meal was enjoyed and not a single grain of rice passed our lips (the main carbs were in the form of flat homemade noodles, slipped into our Big Plate Chicken at the end). The dumplings we had to start, some filled with lamb and onion, others with pork and celery, were quite the best I have ever tasted anywhere. The flavours that slapped us were big and pure: lots of garlic, chillis and tomatoes. IMG00051-20091118-2003The fiery chillis almost beat me twice – the first time when my poor broth slurping technique caused red flecks of the hot stuff to hit the back of my throat at high speed, prompting much amusement and a timely glass of water from our hosts. (I blame enthusiasm, and over weaning pride preventing me from asking for a spoon. Due to my shortcomings with the chopsticks this I probably ate half the amount I had intended to. A good cutlery solution for Christmas feasting I reckon.)

The second heated moment came when I took the BSG at his word that his dried chilli hadn’t been hot, chomped one between my back molars and consequentially could do nothing – talk, eat, drink – for the next ten minutes. Unfortunately, for these near death-by-capsicum episodes there was no handy glass of milk around...perhaps I should bring my own bottle in future.


What we ate was plentiful and completely wonderful; shredded pork with black fungus, raw cucumber in a sauce (extraordinary), home-style cabbage with chillis, home-style aubergine, lamb skewers with cumin...and of course the Big Plate Chicken, a hot stew of chicken, chillis and potatoes, for which the aforementioned slurping technique is required, indeed encouraged. I could swear that my stomach stopped me in the street a couple of days later asking me to run straight back there. For all sorts of reasons, my taste buds will not forget the trip for a very long time. We wondered if there’d been a mistake when we were given the bill. For the 6 of us, with a couple of Tsing Tao beers each, it came to £12 each. This was the best and possibly the cheapest feast we have eaten this year, and I can’t wait to go back (after a bit of intensive chopstick practice).


Silk Road

49 Camberwell Church St
London, SE5 8TR
020 7703 4832


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Brassicas and birthday cakes

By now I suspect that some close family members will no doubt be wondering how I can have come this far and neglected to mention my love - well obsession really - of cabbages in all shapes and sizes. When I was a child I would have so many extra helpings that whoever was doing the cooking would get in extra, just for me. I always remember Sunday lunches at my grandparents’, granny proudly announcing that she got lots of cabbage in, just for me. Given the dread this foodstuff instils in most children, my family must have thought me a little odd. I could happily occupy the space in my stomach others saved for pudding with mountains of the green stuff, when other children around me would offer me theirs too. I don’t remember there being the adverse side-effects associated with such a habit, any classmates sidling away from me in confined spaces, or siblings running for the hills…at least, I don’t think so.

sprouts water

This addiction has since spread to all green veg; broccoli, spinach, beans, peas, asparagus – in fact, apart from Gossip Girl and SATC reruns, one of my guilty BSG-less pleasures is a bowl of freshly cooked peas, a knob of butter melting into them and a dollop of salad cream…the BSG just about tolerates the presence of a bottle in our fridge…

In eating terms, these leafy delights were probably my first love; though I have discovered many things that I have adored since, it is that intense joy I experienced during these cabbage-laden feasts that remains with me. Happily, and unlike many first loves, I have not endured the lows – apart from the odd school dinner, of course, though the associated self-denial perhaps comes in the revelation that my younger self would not have indulged quite so vigorously had it not been for the ever-present butter or gravy to mop it up with. My adult self is certainly more than capable of taking down a bowl of pure, unadulterated emerald veined Savoy, a mountain of squeaky greens or a plate of tight, firm Brussels sprouts. Just season to taste.

sprouts pan

It is at this time of year that those tiny, compact members of the green family come into their own. The sprout. They are so often murdered in boiling water until soggy and yellow, and that is why so many people avoid them. So I suggest trying them a different way. Last week we cooked them in a shallow pan, with butter and a lid, for five minutes, until lightly caramelised but still acid green and slightly firm. They were great. This week they’re for the wok, to be stir-fried with soy and ginger.

So it is Stir-Up Sunday (thanks OFM), the day when traditionally you start on the Christmas cake, and this morning we were indeed baking. However, the candied fruits didn’t leave the cupboard – it was the BSG’s sister’s birthday – Victoria Sponge time. She is one top baker, so the bar was set at astronomical. Watching the BSG doggedly working at the butter and sugar, creaming them carefully to a paler hue, I realised what I had been doing so wrong all my life. Care and attention to this seemingly simple process makes all the difference. How can a mixture of such mundane ingredients; flour, eggs, sugar and butter speak so profoundly to us? I know a girl who used to follow cake recipes to the complete raw stage, then take the bowl, hide under her bed, and eat the lot. What happens during the baking process still completely astounds me, the magic, the alchemy that makes the humble cake batter transform into such a floaty princess of a thing. It speaks to so many of us and conjures countless food memories. We served ours (worthy of the W.I thanks to the BSG's lightness of touch) with a filling of crème fraiche and apricot jam, with steaming cups of fragrant Earl Grey tea, the weather stripping the last leaves from the trees outside.

cake 2

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Not guilty…

It is so rare that it is not overcast and drizzling whenever I land back in England that I thought it worthy of a mention. Like broken egg-yolk, dawn permeates the morning sky, the grapefruit drop sun filters through the cloudscape in a riot of reds, pinks and purples.

These hues match those of some jaw-stingingly sour sweets we bought two days ago (called something apt like Head Blasters), in a shrine to all things artificially coloured and flavoured: Dylan’s Candy Store, a New York must-see, according to Ari. ‘How sour can they be?’ I thought. Well let me tell you, it was endured rather than enjoyed - the child in me wouldn’t let me spit it out.

Dylan’s is not a place to go if you are feeling in any way fragile, waves of colours and flavours hit you as do immediate thoughts of overdue dentist trips. I wondered how the staff could stand it, listening to candy-themed classics such as ‘Lollipop’ on an interminable loop, and retain their teeth (not to mention their sanity). Don’t read this wrong – it was a marvel: I was 10 again, eyeing up the everlasting gobstoppers and custom-coloured M&Ms. For this riot in glorious technicolour I had been well prepared. Just the day before, we’d spiralled up the smooth white snail-shell of the Guggenheim for the kaleidoscopic Kandinsky exhibition: an altogether different feast for the eyes. The museum stands on the edge of the park, an alien monolith in the towering Upper East Side landscape.



Too often, food that is most immediately obvious is sugar-laden, guilt-rich, and high in fat. Luckily, Dylan’s was a case of reverse psychology for me, otherwise I would still be there chomping my way through it all. Looking at my ‘to eat’ list, a great number of items were laden with healthy dollops of vice, however food-guilt is not something I am troubled by. The hot pastrami bagel (I’m told it is called the Reuben, piled high with mustard, cheese and pickles) tackled one lunchtime was New York in a bite, and I don’t regret a morsel of it. Like everything here, it was big…but I coped, and got some help in.

After reading many internet entries about the city’s perfect burger, I had an inkling that perhaps I was trying too hard – surely none of them were too shabby? An evening at PJ Clarke’s, a red brick tavern style place, a two storey bastion in a forest of glass towers, satisfied my craving. I am not entirely sure that I am all that high-maintenance – just give me a soft bun, some ketchup and a gherkin and I’m happy. However, I must say that this was a satisfying experience all round, the burger was slightly crisp on the outside, smothered in golden melted cheese, with a side of crispy matchstick fries in their obligatory paper. In the Big Apple, the burger is a different creature, unpretentious and easy to eat, and it must be approached accordingly (if it comes in a plastic basket, so much the better).


Another night: another world. Dinner at Rouge Tomate was homage to eating healthily and sustainably, concepts that are perhaps less visible behind the hotdogs, pizzas, bagels and other fast foods on offer in this city. We were told proudly but not sanctimoniously that our meal would provide three quarters of our recommended daily nutritional needs – not bad so far. But the trouble with things that are really good for you is that so often they are on their way to disgusting, stopping en route at bland and insipid. Not so here, everything was cooked to bring out the natural flavours of the ingredients, and to prove how delicious the results are, the restaurant had just been bestowed with its first Michelin star. Its laid-back appearance belied this; it was convivial and unstuffy, with lots of natural wood and a long cocktail bar. We were lucky enough to sit in a booth looking out onto the vast dining room; the whole thing felt very Sex and the City.


The ceviche of fluke I had to start was exquisite to behold. Sprinkled with micro herbs, kiwi and mango, the petal thin slivers of fish were scattered with popcorn which was fun and gave an interesting textural dimension. It was fresh and fragrant, tangy on the tongue: I felt very virtuous and not at all like I was compromising. The enormous scallops (the two were enough) that followed were perfectly caramelised on the outside and delightfully translucent within, and worked well with stir-fried sprouts and sweet goat’s milk polenta.


Sprouts get such a bad rap due to people’s hideous childhood memories of being force-fed overcooked balls of yellow mush, but for me they are a lifelong love and I must champion these misunderstood greens. Slicing and stir frying them keeps their important bite and makes them different creatures altogether…especially with little bits of bacon and chestnuts for the impending festive season.


Mariza’s squash soup tasted like Christmas in a bowl and whilst Dad’s gravadlax came second to the exciting apple salad it sat under, the venison he had next packed an extremely tasty and similarly festive punch. We shared a tangy California white wine, recommended by the sommelier who knew her stuff. The combinations were thoughtfully conceived and fresh-tasting, the flavours made complete sense, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, everything tasted like it should at its best, if you know what I mean. Even after a pudding each we did not feel so overwhelmed that we couldn’t squeeze in another cocktail…

As the plane taxied for take-off last night, New York gave me her swan song, one last frisson of what I would miss, leaving the city for another year. An island of lights in a sea of inky darkness, her flashing firework displays providing a mental snapshot to carry with me until we meet again. Next time I will bring the BSG, there’s lots more food exploring to do.

gugg 2

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Chomping my way through the big apple

When the moon drops and the day invades, the New York dawn is electrifying. Jetlag and the city’s heartbeat have steadily rocked me awake, ensuring my front row seat for the sun’s performance as it ascends and illuminates the geometry of this vertical landscape. The ever-present hum is soon joined by a steady note of heavier traffic, punctuated by a percussion of horns and sirens, harmonies and discord building, the orchestra tunes up for the melody of another day…Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I reckon.

nyc dawn

This metropolis doesn’t shut down; transitions between night and day are marked not by stops and starts, but rather by a change in tone. This place is brash, fast, sleepless, beguiling, never more so than during these first waking moments, and right now it feels like it is all mine. From Dad’s apartment on the 29th floor, it is all at my feet (or rather a long way below them – I am told that on rainy days you can be in the clouds up here), a man-made carpet of activity and adventure lying before me.

On the eve of my departure for this city that never sleeps, we thought we’d enter a New York state of mind with some transportative cocktails at 69 Colebrooke Row, a Prohibition-style speakeasy of a cocktail bar, a handy seven-minute walk from my half-packed suitcase. The owner and head alchemist, Tony Conigliaro, has won the title of something like ‘the absolute best bartender in the world…ever’, so says the BSG, so we were in for a treat. We stepped from the chilly night into a low-lit, cosy room, softly resonating with a tinkle of jazz. The whole place felt like a secret. Given seats at the bar, at the mouth of the magician’s cauldron and by far the most exciting place to be, we huddled over the menu, whispering at the possibilities. I had the Death in Venice, an elixir of Campari*, grapefruit bitters and Prosecco – it took me on a dreamy holiday for long after I had finished it. The BSG ordered his usual, an Old Fashioned, which he said was the best he’d ever had. We will go back, again and again, until they can no longer stand the sight of us.


So here I am, and without my BSG. With regards to spare time, I felt it only appropriate to state my intentions early on; I am a food tourist, eager to take food souvenirs back home. My Dad, Step-mum and stepsister were expecting this and have done some preliminary research…I have 10 days and an appetite. So this week, work dominates, next week, food.

Still, a girl’s gotta eat…

food emporium 

First stop was a food shop, always a good method of immersing oneself in a different eating culture, and this excursion didn’t disappoint. Dad and I squeezed our way through the adoring crowds of marathon supporters (no, we weren’t running, and no, I don’t have a marathon in me, but I think people who do are amazing), intent and devout in our mission. Nestled underneath the arches of the 59th Street Bridge, the patter of running shoes bravely soldiering on twenty feet above us and unheard, we found ourselves in an ivory temple to food, our chosen place of worship this Sunday morning, cavernous and beautiful. This was the Food Emporium, one of a chain of many supermarkets in the city, but I got the distinct impression we were in the smartest (the neighbouring Conran Shop was a clue). These ivory halls celebrated foodstuffs of every variety – this was not a weekly drag round soulless aisles under flickering strip-lights – this was an experience, an event where abundance and choice are key. How many UK shops can boast a whole shelf of peanut butter? This was my kind of spirituality, packaged any way you wanted it.

At Bloomingdales (an early stop, natch), my stepmother and stepsister led me to Forty Carrots, where we indulged (or rather drowned) in the most gigantic cumulus of frozen yoghurt known to man (Ari says it’s the best: it was spectacular, bigger than her face, and would have kept a small village going for a week). We all got brain-freeze, which explains the fit of impulse buying that ensued…

A stateside childhood treasure for me (up there with Archie comics and Reese’s Pieces), is the garish and irresponsibly categorized breakfast cereal they call Froot Loops. There it was, staring at me from the kitchen cupboard, the last box left from a variety pack; I had to try it once more. I must say that although a tiny part of me still loved them, it was to be my final foray into this hyperactive realm of coloured (all natural flavours eh?) breakfast confectionery. Well, perhaps I’ll revisit Apple Jacks just one more time…

froot loops

* When it comes to Campari, I am a bit of a Johnny-come-lately I must admit, the bitter taste was to me reminiscent of pencil-sharpenings. Until recently, that is, when I realised it was for sipping rather than quaffing.