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Dry your eyes mate!

May 28, 2012 Leave a comment

My favourite vegetable is the onion. Without it, hundreds of recipes and most cuisines around the world will be incomplete. Isn’t it wonderful that a humble bulb which brings tears to your eyes can become the backbone of so many dishes?

Onion is great as a base for so many dishes but I do love them as the main ingredient of a few dishes

spanish onions halved, drizzled with olive oil and baked;

spring onions barbecued in foil

baby onios pickled in vinegar

finely chopped red onion, tomato, fresh coriander and green chilli (Kachumber)

The unassuming little bulb is something that most people will find in the vegetable basket. When you go for your weekly shop, spy other people’s baskets or the checkouts, and I am willing to bet that most will have a bag of onions. What will we do without the onion? We would have bland curries and even blander soups and stocks. And as for the French Onion Soup. Well, that would be a bowl of tepid water with croutons without the onions. 

In fact I must admit that I am a big fan of all vegetables in the Allium family. Other than the onion, it boasts the mighty garlic, chives and leeks. Onion and garlic are the fundamental ingredients in Indian, Chines, Italian, Mexican and so many other cuisines that it’s a miracle this family isn’t known as the king of vegetables! So next time you are peeling an onion to start a dish, say hoorah for the onion and smile through the tears!

No tears Though there are a number of tricks ( see http://www.wikihow.com/Chop-Onions-Without-Tears ) to prevent you from crying when chopping onion, my favourite is to wear sunglasses. Other than keeping the enzymes from getting into your eyes, it makes you look cool when cooking!

 

Medicinal Though it’s well known that onions have medicinal qualities – they contain a natural chemical called flavonoid quercetin which apparently protects against heart diseases and cancer – my favourite use whilst at primary school was to sleep with an onion under my armpit. Next day you’ll have a fever (without any other symptoms) and you can can bunk school!

Joking aside….SON: What vegetable makes your eyes water?
DAD: An onion.
SON: You`ve obviously never been hit in the nads with an eggplant then dad!’

Q: What can you make from baked beans and onions?
A: Tear gas.
 

One day two onions, who were best friends, were walking together down the street. They stepped off the curb and a speeding car came around the corner and ran one of them over.
The uninjured onion called 911 and helped his injured friend as best he was able. The injured onion was taken to emergency at the hospital and rushed into surgery.
After a long and agonizing wait, the doctor finally appeared. He told the uninjured onion, “I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is that your friend is going to pull through.
The bad news is that he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life”.

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Behind closed doors

May 13, 2012 1 comment

Now that I’ve experienced my first closed door restaurant in the UK, I am surprised it has taken this long to repeat this delightful activity.

There is something slightly mischievous about going to eat at a closed door restaurant – a sense of adventure. Thrill-seeking. It’s because you aren’t really visiting a restaurant, you are being invited into someone’s living room. That you don’t choose the menu, it’s put together for you. And that you don’t ask for the bill at the end, you leave a ‘donation’ in a little envelope on the desk by the front door.

My first experience of a closed door restaurant or supper club as many prefer to call it (though I think that sounds more smutty!) was in Buenos Aires where a large number of  friends and I took over a couple’s little flat in Palermo. Since then, as I travelled through Asia, the excitement of trying another supper club waned as I didn’t come across any suggestions for similar experiences.Ben Thanh Market in Saigon

So when recently a colleague recommended a supper club in East London, I jumped at the chance to try it. The fact that it was Vietnamese in cuisine only heightened the anticipation. When recently people have asked which part of the world was my favourite to visit in the last year of travel, the answer has always been Vietnam. Other than the long, stunning coastline, the food in Vietnam really captivated my tastebuds. And besides, it’s the lengthy coastline in Vietnam which provides the copious quantities of seafood, which I totally fell in love with.

In the top three of all experiences in my life, is sitting on little plastic stools at the food section of Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi MInh city, surrounded by colourful vats of food and slithering fish being sold for wholesale. At this little stall, we’d point at this shellfish or that and wash it down with a glass of fragrant Dalat blanco.

Fernandez & Leluu live in London Fields and organise suppers a couple of times a fortnight. The house is narrow and when you enter it, you would be forgiven for thinking that there might only be a small gathering for the supper club. In fact, Leluu manages to fit 26 people in her narrow sitting room. Mind you, the crowdedness adds to the titillation of sitting next to strangers. You are invited to bring your own wine and Leluu points you to the seats she’d like you to take. There is a hint of seating arrangements as though you were at a wedding.

A couple of minutes after taking our seats and popping open the first bottle of the ‘Fat Bastard’ Pinot Noir (if you book to go here, I recommend you buy wine elsewhere as there is limited choice close to the supper club), a couple came and joined us at our table. Whether this really was deliberate on Leluu’s part or not, we were delighted to have the company of an energy trader and his Vietnamese girlfriend. It turned out that the Vietnamese girlfriend was in fact Danish-born and a budding shoe designer. The conversation flowed easily and the first course arrived.

Fish cakes with radish leavesBy far my favourite course of the eight served this evening was this simple appetiser of fish cakes. These were served with radish leaves and a sweet chilli sauce to dip into. These delicious little morsels of food gave way to starters. First a puff pastry with creamed chicken, mushrooms and sweet peas – the French influence taken care of.

Then slices of barbecued pork with spiced vermicelli which we agreed lacked heat. Then other bits and pieces, which if I am honest, I am struggling to remember. As we went through the courses, we found they were tasty but sanitised for a Western palate. The flavours that stand out in Vietnamese cooking for me are lime, coriander and chilli – fresh and bursting on your tongue. Though I could tell that the food was prepared with care, it just didn’t have the zinginess I associate with Vietnamese cuisine.

In the middle of the courses, the Pho arrived. At our table, we had speculated whether this elephant would make an appearance. With a mixture of anxiety and trepidation I took the large bowl of soup from Leluu. The broth tasted like homemade chicken consomme and there Pho as it should be (in Hanoi)was a large portion of noodles sitting in it with slices of cooked beef. The broth was tasty but lacked depth. A plateful of mixed leaves and herbs and more wedges of lime to add to the soup would have improved the dish greatly.

At this point, the sequence of courses took an interesting turn when we received a large bowlful of prawn crackers at the table with a salad of grated chicken, carrot and banana blossom. The crackers were crisp and spicy and really rather good. The salad I found to be really rather offensive to my palate – the texture of banana and chicken with grated carrot was vile.

We were feeling very full at this stage but managed to taste mouthfuls of the next couple of courses including goujons of steak wrapped in betel leaves and breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the last course arrive at the table.

A scoop of avocado and coconut ice cream served with a couple of cubes of melon. This dessert sounds a lot more exotic than it tastes. Perhaps it was the blandness of the dishes it followed which left me impartial to this last course. Perhaps I came with too high expectations. Given this was my first Vietnamese meal after visiting the country last year, it was most likely the latter.

Popham in your mouth – the black puddings!

March 5, 2012 2 comments

A few of us were on the road from London to Torquay for a birthday party and realised that we drive right past Popham. There is very little of note in this sleepy little village not far from Stonehenge. There is a small service station with Little Chef. Having always found Little Chef’s dark, gloomy, overpriced with the worst food ever, what made us stop here and wait half an hour to get a table?

A couple of years ago, that nerdy chef who spends more time in a lab than in a kitchen – Heston Blumenthal – took a challenge with Little Chef to convert one of their service station restaurants’ food to something a little more inviting and edible. As it was 11am and as we were exactly half way between London and Torquay, it seemed like a good place to check out.

The first thing you notice is the absence of old dark wood and dirty curtains. The sun was shining and the place was bathed in a beautiful light, showing off the bright colours of a long bar around which tall stools stood, right next to the open kitchen. This was very inviting but also full of people so after a short wait, we were seated at a booth and handed menus by a surprisingly cheerful waitress. She took our drinks order and left us to devour the lengthy menu.

Heston’s specials stand out in red letters and a different font on the menu so its easy to choose if that’s what you’ve come here to try. We all went for the  breakfast menu and I chose the Olympics Breakfast. Our hot drinks arrived and again, it was a pleasant surprise to get a decent cappuccino and filter coffee.

My breakfast was a handmade all pork sausage with bacon, chips, beans, a field mushroom, two free range eggs and the best black pudding I’ve ever tasted! In fact it was so good that I decided to write this post just to mention the black pudding!

Before leaving, I went to use the facilities and was taken aback when someone shouted out an order from behind me in the cubicle. It turned out that there are individual speakers in the toilets which play peculiar sounds and music! Slightly unnerving! But on the whole a good experience all round!

Why can’t all other Little Chef’s be transformed into the same style and food as Popham? Beats me!

Tayyabs – a London institution!

February 26, 2012 3 comments

Tayyabs in Whitechapel, London has a similar reputation to Chacha’s Kebabs in Khan Market, Delhi (see last post). Unlike Chacha’s though, Tayyabs has consistently churned out the best kebabs in London and I’d rank them in the Top 5 in the world of the places I’ve been to specifically for kebabs. Note, here I’m only talking about Indian/Pakistani style kebabs and not the doners and shawarmas of the middle east.

Having had mixed success in Delhi last week, I decided to suggest a Sunday lunch trip to Tayyabs to compare whilst the memory of the kebabs in Delhi was still fresh in my mind. So this lunch time we headed off to East London.

Tayyabs occupies two adjacent plots in a side street not far from Whitechapel station. You would never just walk past it as it’s in a predominantly residential street. However once you do reach it, and especially in the evenings, you will know you’ve reached the best kebab place because there will be a queue of people waiting for tables just outside the restaurant and on Friday and Saturday nights, halfway down the street. Tayyabs don’t take reservations. They don’t need to. People come from far and wide to dine here.

Today, having arrived for an early lunch, there was no queue and we were seated quickly. This is not to say that the place was empty. There were only 2-3 tables vacant and we occupied one gratefully. Original Tayyabs started out as a smaller restaurant but the phenominal success of the food encouraged the owner to extend to the next plot which at one point must have been a pub, judging from the Saloon Bar door inside and Truman Breweries sign outside. Although you can’t get a pint at Tayyabs, it’s a ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ restaurant.

Today I noticed a new menu. Well, it looked new but thankfully the contents were the same. The only thing that had changed was the prices. To be honest I’m not surprised they’ve put their prices up. Tayyabs is incredibly popular and successful and was always known for being tremendously cheap and cheerful. Not serving alcohol, I often wondered how they made any money!

Today, we ordered exactly the same as we always have. A portion of tandoori lamb chops, a pair of seekh kebabs and half a tandoori chicken along with a garlic naan. My only small gripe with Tayyabs menu is the absence of Roomali Roti (see last post on Delhi Kebabs) which would be a perfect accompaniment to the seekh kebabs.

The perfect lamb chops

The portion of lamb chops arrives on a sizzling hot plate. You can hear the order coming your way even before it leaves the kitchen. Often, however, I am disappointed as the waiter walks straight past my table to serve it to another table. That’s because the lamb chops is the most popular order at Tayyabs. There is no point in dining at this restaurant if you don’t intend to order this dish. The chops are thinner than the ones you would get at Sainsburys, but my god are they long. The bone is left on long and has plenty of meat on it to chew before you’re finished. The meat is sparingly spiced and the chop is cooked for a very short time in the tandoor so it’s nicely charred from the outside and very slightly pink near the bone.

The Tandoori Chicken is also on the bone and is perhaps the best anywhere in the world. The meat is beautifully marinaded in cardamom and other spices and cooked to perfection. The flesh falls off the bone and melts in the mouth.

The chutneys – yoghurt and mint, mango and spicy tomato – perfectly balance each morsel of food. All in all, I am happy to report that nothing has changed at Tayyabs and it remains, in my humble opinion, the best kebab house in the country!

Kebabs of Delhi

February 23, 2012 2 comments

On arrival in Delhi, and finding time around the hectic schedule of my cousin’s wedding, I asked friends in Delhi and on the medium of Facebook – where to find good kebabs.

In London, kebabs are usually found in Turkish take aways, resemble an elephant’s foot and are consumed at the end of a heavy night of drinking and forgotten about the next morning (or sometimes remains of it are found at the bottom of the toilet bowl after a regurgitation session in the middle of the night). That’s not to say that all Turkish kebabs are bad. Just most.

In many Asian areas, particularly around East London, you can come across a good Pakistani kebab house where you can taste the best tikkas and kebabs in the country.

But there is nothing quite like a morsel of a good kebab in Delhi. The wedding turned out to mostly have vegetarian food and it gave me a good excuse to step out with a friend and try some of the kebab places recommended by friends in Delhi.

We arrived in Khan Market for the famous Khan Chacha’s. This place started out as a street stall around 40 years ago. It soon became a sensation and would see queues of people waiting patiently for a plate of Seekh kebabs. Today there is a two floor fast food style restaurant at the same place. Though my friend ordered chicken kebabs, I wanted to try what the place is famous for – Seekh Kebab. These are hollow sausages made of minced mutton and a large number of spices, shaped around a barbecue skewer and cooked in a hot tandoor. Along with it I ordered a Roomali Roti, a soft and wafer thin bread which is as large as a big scarf (hence the name which translates as handkerchief roti). Traditionally, you would roll the kebab along with some pickled sliced red onion and green chutney into the roti and eat it like a roll. I wanted to try the kebab on it’s own first and was dismayed by how it looked – bright red (obviously colour was used) and dry. It was also cold to the touch and when I tasted some, I was very disappointed. The roomily roti on the other hand was soft, warm and lovely and with the help of large spoonfuls of chutney I managed to disguise the taste of the kebab. My friend’s chicken kebab was much better.

Later that day, my friend invited me back to her house where her husband had cooked a meal of mutton curry and ordered seekh kebabs from a local tandoor in Jungpura. The curry was sensational as only a home cooked curry made by a true Delhite can be – soft boneless pieces of mutton cooked slowly for hours in a thick spicy hot gravy made with lots of minced ginger and garlic. The seekh kebabs were ten times better than at Chacha’s so the day was saved by a local unassuming tandoor.

On our last day in Delhi, my cousin (who was also returning to the US the next day) and I decided to go to Noida Sector 18 for a round of gol gappe. These are puffed balls made out of flour which are filled with boiled potato, chick peas and a spiced water and eaten whole. On our way to our favourite gol gappe stall, we passed a restaurant called the Kebab Factory. I looked at my cousin, she cocked an eye brow and without a word, we walked into the place. We ordered, seekh kebab and tandoori chicken. Both were freshly prepared in the tandoor and went down a treat!

However before all of this, and on just day two of my arrival in Delhi, my friend and I found ourselves in Defence Colony market and seeing there was a tandoor set up outside the bar called Moet’s, we decided to order a Malai Tikka. This is a chicken kebab that’s marinated in delicate spices like cardamom and nutmeg and laced with cream, butter and yoghurt. The result is a tender mouth-watering piece of meat which melts in the mouth. The green chilli and garlic notes come at the end of the mouthful like fireworks. The plate of this Malai Tikka arrived on a styrofoam plate accompanied with a mint and coriander chutney and wedges of lemon. This was placed on the bonnet of the car and we devoured the lot within a minute. It was quite possibly the best kebab I’ve ever tasted!

Categories: Food, India Tags: , , ,

Cooking in Naxos

September 21, 2011 5 comments

Milos was nice but just didn’t keep our attention and staying as we were, right by the port, the allure of jumping on a boat to visit yet another island

View of Santorini from our ferry

seemed irresistible. So we booked the longest ferry from Milos to Naxos which took four hours but stopped off at Folegandros, Santorini and Ios amongst a few others islands. Though we didn’t visit these places, we did admire them from the port and with the exception of Folegandros and Santorini, didn’t feel like we were missing anything much!

Arriving into Naxos, as was the case at all other islands, we walked off the boat and only outside the port and across the street behind a traffic police woman was a line of people advertising rooms and studios. Greece has recently passed a law for pedlars to stay out of the port because the local hotels complained they were losing customers. I can’t understand why the local hotels also couldn’t send in a peddler but I guess it wouldn’t pass as a done thing for 4* and above hotels. But customers looking for that will have either pre-booked or won’t be swayed by the pedlars pushing studios and apartments. Yet another Greek mystery.

Sunset from our terrace

A particularly pushy male peddler of middle age and sagging middle wouldn’t let us go and at one point elbowed a young lady who was trying to attract our attention. Though we had a couple of hotels in mind, this made us circumnavigate the girth of the big guy to ask the lady what her rooms were like. She was pleasant and had an honest style about her and before long we were in her car being driven to the old town just up from the port. In the end we settled for a room above where her mum lived and it was a little attic conversion but very light and airy with a huge terrace overlooking the sea.

Renting a scooter we had a great couple of days in Naxos and decided to extend our stay

Landlady in her kitchen

for another two days at the end of which we really liked it and ended up staying a week altogether. In that time we saw the island, visited beaches, ate at lovely little tavernas and were looked after by the Mama downstairs. She sent us dome lovely food in a dish and we instantly saw what was so great about Greek home cooking! Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines hollowed out and fled with a scrumptious mixture of fried veal, rice and thyme and cooked slowly in the oven till the juices start to run. She gave us a plate straight out of the oven and we had some and left half for later in the fridge. Cold (and hungry from a night out) we found the dish even more delicious.

In fact it is at this studio with a little kitchenette that we did the more cooking than in the previous six months. We cooked napolitana sauce with the fresh and juicy tomatoes available here. We sprinkled our food with the variety of herbs which just seems to grow everywhere in Naxos. You never need to buy fresh herbs here, just take a large branch off, go home and dry it as was demonstrated by Mama.

Waking early one morning we visited the port. There is a massive gateway standing right up on a hillock which seems like it’s framing the town and is in fact the remains of a site which pre-dates Acropolis. Having taken

Adonis impressing old ladies

photos we climbed down to find a bit of the shore where a number of older women were getting out of their clothes to go for a swim on the rocks. There were no younger people or indeed any men around the bay. Next thing I knew, Craig was getting out of his t-shirt and jumping into the water. The ladies looked up with a start. Craig swam out to the sea and emerged out of the water a few metres out and the ladies gasped with pleasure. From there Craig returned by wading into the water with the ladies admiring him like he was an Adonis come out of the sea.

At this point thoughts of the end of the year and what we’ll do when we reach home started to occupy my mind and though it hasn’t been quite as long as a year yet, I manged to convince Craig to start thinking about our return.

We started to apply for jobs and decided we needed to head home. That meant we needed to reach Athens for a flight. Between Athens and us stood one great big barrier however – not just the desire to stay away but also the island of Paros. The second largest (after Naxos) of the Cyclades group and invitingly close!

Categories: Food, Greece Tags: , , , , ,

The prettiest bay in the Cyclades – Sifnos

September 16, 2011 3 comments

Having boarded a 7.30 ferry from Piraeus (Athens) we reached Sifnos three hours later on the Speedrunner4. Following around the coastline of the island we turned into a bay – Kamares – the major port of the island. The town curves around the sheltered bay which, though a port, has transparent turquoise Dinner at the taverna on Kamares baywaters. Apparently it’s one of the cleanest beaches in Greece. Shuffling out of the port with our backpacks, we went past several cafes advertising rooms and stopped by to ask for vacancies. After a few restaurants we came by a lady who took us up the hill and showed us a studio with a balcony looking out over the bay.

Kamares and the entire Sifnos island in general is exactly as you might have imagined if you had never been to a Greek island. A curving bay inclining gently inland with whitewashed buildings of  restaurants all along the seafront and houses perched higher up the hill. In fact we never saw a building which was not white in all of Sifnos. The shutters are all painted the same bright blue too and you wonder whether there is a law against using any other colours. More likely that the islanders want to preserve the traditional vista given that tourism accounts for almost 100% of their GDP. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very pretty but I wondered if no one on the island might want say a red house or a black door.

The half a dozen bays around the island are towns with identically painted houses but their own feel – Kamares is a port; Platis Ghialis boasts the majority of the high-end accommodation; Faros is tiny with food shacks around the small bay; Cheronisos is at the bottom of a steep rock face. All have a tavernaor

A fishing boat at Chirosenos bay

three serving identical menus of Moussaka, Souvlaki, Greek Salad, Imam (baked aubergines), Okra, stemmed weed and grilled meat. All also advertise fresh fish but as you may have read in the previous post these start at €45 per kilo and steeply rise for a decent fish. Strangely the quality of the food at each taverna is pretty similar too though I guess there isn’t much you can do with grilled meat or baked vegetables. All tastes fresh and go down very well with a glass of the local vino which comes in the quantities of kilos (Greeks don’t seem to differentiate the words for solid and liquid measures!).

We enjoyed Sifnos very much and in retrospect (now in Naxos), should have spent a little longer there. But it was our first Greek island and we were excited to see more.

If you are thinking about visiting the Greek Islands, especially the Cyclades, you could do worse than spend time in Sifnos. Kamares is a very pleasant bay, with excellent swimming, a couple of good restaurants and great studio apartments. Many regard it as the prettiest bay in the whole of the Cyclades.

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