Sunday, 27 February 2011

east meets west

I am actually living proof of east meets west, having an Indian (by way of Cape Town) father and an English mother. People are often surprised when they find this out, and I'm more usually asked if I'm Greek/Spanish/Portuguese/Armenian (?!) delete as appropriate... Well no, I'm not and ethnic blood flows through (half) my veins thankyou please. Not that you would necessarily know it, having had a thoroughly English upbringing save the two years I learnt how to Indian dance and the odd trip over to South Africa to see my grandmother who would alternately scare us / feed us up with buttery, spicy tiki puri before waving goodbye for another few years. However there are a few things I do pride myself on, and one is being able to appreciate a properly made curry. I could never, ever buy one of those supermarket ready made Indian meals or curry pastes/sauces. The idea of it is completely abhorrent to me. When I order Indian takeaways (usually against my will) I pick the blandest thing on the menu, usually a butter chicken, precisely because it's the least likely to be fucked up and I can chow it down without feeling like it's an insult. Good Indian restaurants are the exception to the rule, but even they are hard to find in London amongst the tangle of crappy Brick Lane eateries - would you like your food dunked in bright red sauce 1, bright yellow sauce 2, or brown sauce 3, Sir? - and overpriced, overprepped fusion dens. All you really want is a decent cuzza, with a nice side and a bready thing. Done well. In general I would rather not eat curry at all in it's Western formula if it can't be cooked at home from scratch which is a lot easier than most people think.

Ok I'm a curry snob. Dad wasn't always whipping up Indian delicacies in the homestead, he's a great cook but he generally prefers more European cuisine. If I'd had an Indian mother it might have been a different story... and I would probably have been about three stone heavier. However he is top at the few staple Guju meals he does make. His curried lamb, his dahl, his coconut prawns, his spicy potatoes and peas, his chicken curry... I was reared on this kind of food, and now I'm not in the parental pad anymore, have started to get his recipes and cook them for myself. I'd really like my own kids to grow up having those dishes you always remember and associated with warm snuggly evenings in the family nest, and particularly with Mum or Dad.

I decided to try out a spicy tomato prawn curry recipe from another Indian/Cape Townian cook and vague relation of mine (in true Indian fashion) Ramola Parbhoo. Her recipe books are great and very clear and easy to use. I also made some roti, or chapati breads as they are also known. The curry turned out really well (a simple mix of spices with onion, garlic, ginger, prawns, lemon, creamed tomatoes and fresh coriander) and had a rich flavour with a good thickness to it. The secret to thickening up curry sauces is to add a couple of tablespoons of gram flour. Here's the result:
tara's tomato prawns
The roti are also simple to make - it's just a dough made from white bread flour, water and melted butter. Once kneaded, you roll into small rounds, punch your fingers in and then gather them up into little pouches by pulling and bringing together the edges (so it looks like a mini drawstring bag). You then roll this out into a bigger circle, about 3mm in thickness.

This method effectively traps air inside the roti so when you next cook them in  the pan, they puff up nicely in the middle like so:

Roti freshly made with a smear of butter on top are divine, especially with chicken dishes. I served the prawn curry with the roti, some rice, some vegetables and also did a side of yoghurt which cut through the tomato nicely.

The only thing that really requires the effort with curries is getting all the right spices in, but if you just maintain a well stocked spice rack/tin you will see the same things coming up again and again. The staple spices we always have in the cupboard are garam masala, tumeric, ground cumin, coriander, saffron, mustard seeds and fenugreek, as well as ginger and fresh birdseye chillies. It's also worth remembering that if you're using meat in a curry you should really marinate it overnight, so prep accordingly!
If you click on the Ramola link above you can find some great curry recipes, along with one for tiki puri.
A taste of India, yum yum yummmm.

Friday, 18 February 2011


A good falafel is hard to find.
Ain't that the truth.
I've had some hellish falafexperiences, notably from one of the street vendors near Tottenham Court Road station / a dodgy festival van. However the discovery of Shepherds Bush markets finest, Mr Falafel, was a real revelation. Wave byebye to greasy, tasteless, claggy falafel, limp salad and soggy wrap. Say hello! to delicious freshness, first class vegetables, thick tasty houmous and top notch sauce. All for a very reasonably priced £4.50. This little shop permanently has a queue out of the door at lunchtime, usually made up of workers in the vicinity. This week we organised a mini BBC pilgrimage down to Mr Falafel, and chowed down on some sizeable wraps at lunchtime. The menu is extensive, with variations on the standard wrap to include different olive, potato, chilli, feta, halloumi and veg options. All bases covered, delicious and filling. Ron Burgundy eat your heart out...
hanging out the back of an XL
choose your chow

mr falaf

The real Mr Falafel (aka Ahmad Yassine) was born in Lebanon's largest refugee camp, growing up amongst violent warfare and constant fear, before moving to London at the age of 17. He talks in this Guardian article about his story. It always saddens me that highly skilled and educated people, well respected in their home countries, have to go to the bottom of the heap when they are (often forced) to move away. Often they work with good humour for a shitty wage, doing jobs which would have been deemed way beneath them in their former lives. There's often no way around it - but can you imagine how depressing and demoralising it must be? To know you are capable but to be constantly reminded that you can probably do nothing about it, so may as well resign yourself to your lot. Reminds me a little of the story of The Kiterunner, when Amir's father has to move from Afghanistan over to the US. He goes from being a wealthy businessman living in luxury, to eking out a living working at a gas station as his health declines rapidly. I imagine the majority of people being served by their local petrol station or fastfood employee would never stop and think that that individual could actually be much more of an intellectual or highly skilled than themselves...

But enough of that doom and gloom! That story had a happy ending! And so does this one!
Fantastic falafels. Worth a trip to the Bush any day.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

paris me manque

If you hadn't noticed already (and how could you not?!) I am a complete Francophile - through and through, red white et blue, dyed in the wool, cut me and I bleed, erm, crème anglaise or summat.
At the age of five, my mother asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I replied 'I want to live in Paris, have a flower shop and drive a red Ferrari'. The bit about marrying a wealthy Francais clearly wasn't articulated at such an early stage, but there's not much money in petals, so how else was I going to bag those wheels?!
Since then I have simply adored learning and speaking French, eating French and meeting French. I'm not sure where all this came from but it's been there since the word go. My family and friends are quite aware of my deep rooted amour for the frogs, and tend to get a raw deal when I'm out and about and happen to bump into a Frenchie. I think the record was a 3 hour chat in the smoking area at Fabric - they almost just gave up and left me there, I was such a language limpet...
So what is it that appeals to me? Well, everything. The language is beautiful - sexy and cute in turns. I mean come on - pamplemousse? Barbe à papa? Amazing! The fashion, the food, the landscapes, the elegance, the arrogance... It's all so very French. Don't get me wrong, I love London. But Paris is where my heart really belongs. As soon as I step off that Eurostar and set foot on French soil, I honestly feel like I'm home. The view from Trocadero over to the Eiffel Tower, or clambering up the steps to the Sacre Coeur and gazing out over the sparkling spread of city lights... it's good for my soul. When I get back from Paris (even if I've been on a mad one) I always feel revitalised. I alwyas wanted to move to Paris, but reflecting on my most recent trip I now feel that maybe part of the reason I love it so much is because I don't actually live there. The little things always start to grate on you (slow service? dog merde?) so maybe for now I should just stick to my weekend love affairs...
Here are a few photos I took at the weekend using the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone...

As a little cochon, a weekend away in Paris mainly means a weekend of gorging...  and as this blog is about food and music, it would be foolish of me to not give you a run down of a few of my favourite French food fancies...

Confit de canard - duck melting off the bone, served with the classic accompaniment of potatoes cooked in duck fat and garlic. I had a fantastic example of this dish in a cute, reasonably priced resto called Le Poulbot, just off Place du Tertre in Montmartre.
Croque madame - basically croque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) with a fried egg on top, but when done well and served with salad dressed in vinaigrette the combo is just delish!
Crêpes - and no not those limp pathetic excuses we serve up over here. Proper delicately thin almost see-through crêpes sucrée (my favourite served belle Hélène style - sweet crepes with pears, chocolate sauce and chantilly cream) and the more robust, wheaty crêpes salées (perfectly folded into a square with a fried egg, ham, cheese and mushrooms inside. Yum.) Find a decent crêperie away from tourist hotspots, or grab a Nutella and banane to go from a takeaway stand.
Cassonade - this is just soft, crumbly, unrefined sugar but absolutely gorgeous on top of yoghurt or porridge. Try and buy a bag when you're next in northern France or Belgium.
Pâtes de fruits - sugar coated fruit jellies. Not the chewy kind found in the back of Granny's drawer. Really fruity soft squares, packed full of flavour and moistness. I found a great food blog on sweet things written by a guy called Sam, and you can find his recipe for homemade pâtes de fruits here. I'm not a fan of playing around with gelatine so I think I'll stick to buying mine but I can imagine the results would be divine... if you buy pâtes de fruits from expensive chocolate shops it costs a lot, but is well worth it. Select your favourite flavours.
Mille-feuille - a kind of vanilla slice, made up of layers of ultra fine pastry with custardy cream. The top is usually glazed with icing. Go to any patisserie and stock up! To sample some delicious French pastries in style, take tea at somewhere fancy. I adore Meert in Lille, or Fauchon in Paris.
Petit Ourson Guimauve - these are awesome bonbons, sold in all supermarkets and corner shops. Marshmallow shaped bears covered in chocolate. On one trip to Paris, I found about 5 different varieties (own brand vs established) plus some quirky spin offs (hedgehog shaped with rice krispies mixed in?!) Had a field day in the office taste testing!

I am a fan of anything apple based. For that reason, I was delighted to stumble across a wonderful restaurant in Paris called Pomze. Yes that's right. Every single dish on the menu had some kind of pomme element. The waiter was extremely knowledgeable and helped us choose a cider to complement each separate course of our dinner. Apple heaven.
proper chocs

plaisir sucré

l'heure de l'apéro

It's not just the food itself I love, it's the French attitude to it. People take time to prepare, cook properly and savour what they are tasting. A lot of French food is packed with butter, cream and sugar, yet the French do not have problems with obesity. That's hugely due to their healthy relationship with food. They don't overeat. They eat slower. They eat better. They understand food. You won't see an office worker grabbing a pre packed sarnie and packet of crisps to eat at their desk.
During my weekend in Paris, I stayed at my Parisienne friend Clara's place. We grabbed a bottle of wine to drink before going out on the town. Clara popped into the kitchen and threw together an apéritif - some salty pretzels, rustic bread, sundried tomatoes and salami. We sat drinking, eating, chatting like civilised people. And this is what young French people do, even students, yes even 15 year olds illegally drinking their cider in the woods will probably have a soft cheese on standby. We still went out, got tipsy and danced around to cheesy music, but the whole tone of the night revolved less around chinning your body weight in spirits. Why are English people incapable of doing such things? In England as a student you're more likely to down a washing up bowl of punch and have a cheeky pre-lash vom in the corner than look a bit of rustic bread in the eye.
I remember catching my last Eurostar home when moving back to England from France. I was sat behind two families. at two separate tables in front of me - one French, one English. The English family were overweight, clad in football shirts, munching on crisps and Haribo, swigging Coke and not speaking to each other. The French family were chic, bright eyed, having a good chat while nibbling on some homemade chocolate biscuits in the middle. Stereotype central I know, but je suis désolée, there's a reason they exist!

In other news, I've just booked tickets to Lyon (also known as France's gastronomic capital) for a weekend away in April... Watch this space!

Friday, 4 February 2011

homage to fromage

My cheese obsession really began about four years ago, as my then boyfriend was a huge fromage fan. Having gone to a boarding school, him and his mates lived obsessively for treats and various hampers sent from time to time by generous parents. This led to the creation of Cheeseday Tuesday, when they would cram as many different fromages as they could into a sandwich along with salad and relishes. When he first told me about this, I felt slightly ill - I hate combining more than one meat at a time, and it's the same with cheese (unless on a quattro formaggi pizza...) Why confuse the tastebuds? Let them savour the subtleties one at a time. But I'll hand it to him - he did know his cheese. He introduced me to some wide ranging combos of cheese, biscuit and chutney which now mean the cheeseboard is my favourite part of not only Christmas dinner but of a good meal out full stop. I would much rather sub dessert for some decent fromage.

Having lived in France, I can confess to being a bit of a snob - if I eat French I expect it to be done 'right'. Not the British idea of French food, but le vrai de vrai. I remember going to see the famous Neufchatel cheese, one of France's oldest, being manufactured in Normandy on a school trip when I was about 12. I was fascinated back then by the beautiful heart shaped crumbly cheeses, and brought some back, squishy and warm, to munch chez moi... When I taught English at a French lycée, I was amazed to see fantastic cheeseboards placed on the teachers table in the canteen every afternoon! I must admit I avoided the fluorescent orange varieties kept under a protective cone, but absolutely filled my boots elsewhere. I also fell in love with a fresh and mild fromage I discovered in my local supermarché, Caprice des Dieux. During free periods, I used to sit watching Inspecteur Barnaby (France's dubbed Midsomer Murders) with a whole baguette, tub of this baby and some butter. Absolutely divine - not so bon for the waistline... There is also something fabulously decadent about studding a camembert with garlic, leaving to warm in the oven and then dipping into the melty goodness inside with crudites and toasted breads. My favourite Christmas treat.
Although I do love quality cheeses, French preferably, there is still nothing that feeds my hangover so sweetly as a simple cream cheese and Marmite toasted bagel, with a bit of rocket on top, and a cup of tea. I went through an addiction to these and literally had one a day for a week. I had to stop myself buying bagels as it was getting a bit ridic...

It's a shame most restaurants in England still serve up sub standard cheese platters as an afterthought to the dessert trolley, but there are still some good gems to be found. In December I stumbled across a charming French resto in Covent Garden, Mon Plaisir, where myself and ma mère sampled a board of epic proportions. Here, the waiter heaved out a groaning tray of gorgeous cheeses, talked us through their origins, and cut us pieces as requested - served alongside some delicious bread and beurre, we were in cheese heaven, all for £8.95. And as luck would have it, just round the corner was Neal's Yard Dairy, where we could stock up on some key pieces to go. Smell my cheese!

In the office today for lunch we decided to go for it with a cheeseboard for everybody to pick at. Eight of us got involved, and at £4 a pop we could afford to serve up a top selection of cheeses including a soft goats cheese, Pié d'Angloys, Boursin, Cheshire, Red Leicester, Cheddar, Brie, Stilton, Wensleydale with cranberries and a whiffy wildcard from the deli, Bert Epoisse Bourg. Alongside tomato and chilli chutney, olives, red and white grapes and biscuits... Divine. I'm off to Paris tonight so this will line the stomach suitably for the indulgence to come...
bbc gravy train
cheese medley

Oh and as Valentine's Day is approaching... If your partner is a cheese fan (or foodie) why not purchase these gorgeous heart shaped cheeses - absolute winner in my opinion!