Monday, August 4, 2014

The Sun Never Sets On The British Table

At least not in London, where there appears to be at least one restaurant or takeaway shop or grocery representing the food and culture from every country in the world, whether or not it was once part of the British Empire. On the advice of my stepsister Amanda, I headed to Shepherd's Bush this morning in search of curried goat. I wasn't looking for roti (the thin bread that wraps and/or sops up curries in the Caribbean) and that's a good thing, because Ochi Caribbean Takeaway, across from the Shepherd's Bush Market, doesn't make it. I arrived before they were open, and had time to wander around the neighborhood and through the market stalls, then came back just a few minutes after noon. There are only two small tables in the place - it really is primarily a takeaway - and for an extra 50p you can eat in, on real plates with real silverware, though my pineapple juice came in a styrofoam cup.

The curried goat was good, not spicy but with a lot of flavor. What I really liked was the "rice and peas" that came with it, traditionally made with pigeon peas but in this dish made with kidney beans instead, which apparently is a common substitution. I asked the woman at the counter what was in it, and she just said "coconut milk and spices" but I've found a recipe that looks fairly accurate that fleshes out that description a bit. I think I'll have to make it while I'm here.

India was part of the British Empire for a very long time, and Indian food has been a part of English cuisine for almost as long. There are curry houses in almost every town, it seems, though the quality varies widely. I could have gone to a hundred different places for takeaway curry or a lunch buffet, but I was looking for a specific dish: the dosa. It's a large thin flat pancake - a crêpe, really - made with fermented rice flour, often with lentil or chickpea flour added. It's gluten-free! And dairy-free as well, since it's not made with ghee, as many Indian dishes are. It's a southern Indian specialty, and so you have to look for that sort of restaurant specifically, because most curry houses don't make them. The Diwana Bhel Poori House does, however, as do most of the other dozen southern Indian restaurants packed into a two-block stretch of Drummond Street, near Euston Station. It seems like that's where they all are, for the most part, and most of them offer a lunch buffet as well. I got there rather late in the afternoon, with only half an hour before the buffet closed, and it was looking fairly picked over at that point.

My dosa came stuffed with spicy potatoes, and a small pot of yellow split pea dal plus a spicy coconut and vegetable sambal to dip it in. I wish they'd put more pineapple juice in the glass. It was good, but seemed a bit expensive for what I got.

I didn't take a picture of the pad see ew that I ate last Friday after dumping my belongings on the bed in the hostel, but it was good, and Taste of Siam (just across the street from the hostel on Camden High Street) also do a wide range of fresh juices that would be worth the trip alone. I had a tall cold glass of watermelon juice that seemed to be the most delicious thing I had ever tasted, and while part of this reaction was probably due to the long train trip and the wrestling of suitcases up and down staircases, it truly was really, really good. The 134 bus runs 24 hours between here (Muswell Hill) and there (Camden High Street) so if I get a craving for watermelon juice on a hot day I'll know where to go.

There's a Thai restaurant in this neighborhood too, but they don't make fresh juices. And there are two Chinese restaurants, one that advertises Sunday dim sum; I went in to ask but the restaurant was empty and the waitress said that they stopped offering anything but pork shu mai and shrimp har gao and sticky rice in banana leaves.

I decided to walk to the other restaurant, which does a Sunday buffet, and was pleased to find the waitress very helpful in explaining which dishes had wheat flour, and which fried bits were coated in potato flour or cornstarch instead. When I sat down I asked if it was a one-time-through affair, and she replied, "No, you can eat until you drop!" Which I pretty much did, since I had only had a bit of toast and jam for breakfast.

Stir-fried rice noodles with chicken and shrimp. Lemon-ginger broccoli with carrots. Sweet and sour chicken with pineapple, and smoked chicken strips coated in rice flour and crisped before being tossed with thinly-sliced carrots and green onions. Beef with mushrooms, pork with baby corn, and a huge pile of crispy seaweed to sprinkle over everything if you wanted to. There were a few other dishes I didn't even get to, not including the three or four I couldn't eat. The waitress said that the buffet selection changes every Sunday because they have a lot of regular customers, and they want to make sure they keep things interesting.

I just might have to earn another 10 pounds (14 with my bottle of pear cider, which is a surprisingly good accompaniment to Chinese food) and go back this weekend.

My big indulgence was the Japanese meal on Saturday at Sushi Waka, but it was worth it. Honto-ni washoku desu! I realize that Japan can't be counted in the "British Empire" category, as the British never occupied Japanese territory, but the Land of the Rising Sun fits well enough with the title of this post. There are quite a few Japanese restaurants in London, but I can't remember seeing one in any other town.

After my dismal experience with a "Japanese" restaurant in Tours, I went straight for the flavors I missed: crispy salmon skin on daikon radish with ponzu dressing, steamed spinach with bonito flakes, and a cool and creamy unpasturized sake to sip on the side. Most of the other customers were Japanese, though later in the evening a group of four hip London gents came in and spent most of their time talking about how weird Japanese food is. I tuned them out and went back to slurping down my soba noodles - I went completely wild and ordered the ten-zaru with tempura shrimp and vegetables, and I think that they must have used something other than wheat in the batter because I really didn't have any reaction. Considering the fact that it might be all in my head anyway I decided to eat what I wanted. Of course, now I'm starting to really regret passing by all of the baguettes and pastries over the last two years in France ...

According to the blood test that the Portland naturopath did back in 2011 I could have been eating bread every day, as long as I didn't put butter on it. I might - might - start experimenting with wheat products again, just to see what happens. It has been often rather frustrating to not be able to fully enjoy the food around me.

Of course, if I earn a whole bunch of money, I could just go back to more Japanese restaurants and have sushi. Which I mostly ignored this time, since I was too interested in the various small dishes like kinpira gobo (braised burdock root) and soy-glazed tuna. But I needed one more little thing to finish off the meal, and so I had a small pickled plum roll as a dessert and palate cleanser. A final crunch of pickled ginger with the last sip of sake, and I was happy. Fortunately I remembered the correct word when thanking the waitress; I almost told her that I was beautiful (utsukushii), instead of happy (ureshii), after eating such delicious food.

And now it's back to beans and rice (or maybe Jamaican rice and peas!) and plain oatmeal for breakfast, since the family is leaving tomorrow and I'll be staying close to the house for the four to six walks a day the dog requires, and for the freelance work I need to do. And there are so many blog posts in draft form piling up that I really must do something about that as well, and the two hundred or so pictures I've taken already here in London to turn into yet more blog posts. But it's been fun being a restaurant-hopping tourist these last few days, I must admit.

Mata ne!

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