Thursday, 27 June 2019

Get that bread

In the modern world you don’t have to get someone to bare their soul to really understand what makes them tick, just look at their Instagram feed. It may seem obvious – an algorithm of things based on things you like and people you follow – but I can genuinely say I was absolutely fascinated the first time I noticed my friend scrolling through her suggestions and finding it was a list entirely populated by pugs and reality stars in bikinis.

Clearly my feed is far more prosaic; mostly featuring pictures of murky pints and a proliferation of carbs, but we do have my browsing history to thank for alerting me to the existence of the giant naan bread served at Taste of Pakistan.

Obviously I made it my priority to hunt it down and try it, although this wasn't going to be my first experience with the kind of naan that resembles a satellite dish. That award goes to the famous Akbars in Leeds, on a visit to see my aunt and uncle. Which is probably too far, even for me to suggest, to travel for a curry. 

That said, Taste of Pakistan is in an unlovable corner of Hounslow which, on a Sunday afternoon sitting on the M25, felt as if it took nearly as long to drive there as some of our trips up to West Yorkshire. 

Ever eager, we were the first to arrive - the closed sign was still hanging in the window as we rocked up, giving me momentary concern lunch was off -  but within about fifteen minutes of us being the first to sit down, nearly every table was full of Pakistani and Afghani families all ready to, literally, break bread.

First up, to keep the Ewing amused, came a plate of fresh salad and two silver jugs containing a spicy fruit chutney and a benign-looking, but also spicy, yogurt sauce. To drink, we ordered a jug of excellent mango lassi, which was even better than the version I had enjoyed the week before at Thattukuda.

Even more exciting than the prospect of the giant naan was the chapli kebab. Originating from the Peshawar region of North West Pakistan, it’s a flat patty of ground meat, usually beef or lamb, mixed with various other ingredients including onions, tomatoes, chillies, and herbs and spices. Traditionally they are deep fried in lamb fat, but vegetable fat may be used in some vague pretence of being healthy, and are served hot with chutneys and raita with rice or in a ‘bun kebab’, which is pretty much a burger by any other name.

While the city of Peshawar alone boasts over 2,000 kebab houses that serve the chapli kebab, it’s a rare beast here, often being overlooked for the better-known seekh and shami. Which is a shame, as the Taste of Pakistan version - a hefty, crisp-edged, well-seasoned disc of tender meat -  is an awesome thing. (oh yeah, I would definitely order this over the others if I had the choice - TE).

Sindhi biryani - originating from Sindh, one of the four provinces of Pakistan - managed to pack hugely complex layers of flavour into what appeared a simple dish. Glowing with the deep orange hue of saffron and studded with spices and chunks of meat, it made me reevaluate my usual indifference to rice dishes from the Indian Subcontinent (who would ever pick a pilau over a peshwari naan?).

Wikipedia reliably informs me that it's a dish served on nearly all Pakistan International Airlines flights, which I'm sure would be a huge improvement on the 'english breakfast' BA served to me recently. (anything would be an improvement on that - TE). 

The chicken karahi was the sleeper hit. A unprepossessing-looking dish – named after the metal pot it’s cooked and served in, cooked here over fierce flames that you can see in the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant  – this was one of the best things I have eaten in a long while. Even the Ewing, notoriously fussy when it comes to a chicken curry, declared this top draw and was thankful the molten hot dish made it difficult to access from my side of the table.

Wikipedia informs me the difference between a North Indian and a Pakistani karahi is the absence of green peppers and onion in the latter. Which can only be a good thing as there are no good uses for a green pepper, although this did contain delicious roundels of green/yellow chilli alongside the chunks of chicken. Buyer beware, there were some splintery bits to negotiate, but serving the meat on the bone kept it juicy and tender, contra to many chicken curries, full of lumps of tasteless cotton wool-esque protein.

And finally to the pièce de résistance, the duvet-sized naan - I certainly needed a lie down after eating it - served piping hot straight from the tandoor; theatrically impaled on a huge metal spike.

I have to be honest and say I don't remember Akbar's effort, to compare them - it was doubtless after an all day pub crawl around Leeds - but this light and fluffy effort was leagues ahead of some of the big breads I have eaten in the Balti Triangle, that more resembled giant Jacobs Cream Crackers.

I was too full to try their homemade kheer, but they kindly brought us complimentary Afghan tea - flavoured with green cardamom - and a dish of sugared almonds. Which, honestly, weren't really my cup of tea, but the Ewing enjoyed them and it made a nice way to ease the digestion before the long drive home. At least the journey back gave me plenty of scrolling time on Instagram to find the next carb-filled culinary adventure.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Fishy birthday biscuits

The first time I celebrated the Ewing's birthday with her we went to visit Stealth in London; she had pulled out all the stops - preparing a lovely meal and buying gifts and even planning a special magic show featuring the Ewing to act as her glamorous assistant. Or that was the idea, until we realised my wife hated being the centre of attention and was so overwhelmed with shyness, she couldn't even pick a card. Something that neither of us two showoffs had ever had a problem with.

Fast forward a decade and you would think I would have got the message. But clearly not, as on arriving at Saint Peter for the Ewing's surprise dinner, the maître d' came over to give us the wine list and have a chat - mostly with the Ewing, as I'm not very sociable - before casually announcing; 'so I hear it's someone's birthday'...(and I'm meant to be the one with the shit memory...TE)

At this point my ears pricked up, as the Ewing, wide-eyed looking very much like a rabbit in the headlights, mumbled an affirmative, while staring at me intently across the table. I inwardly groaned, as I remembered writing 'can you stick a candle in my wife's pudding, as it's her birthday' in the comments box on ResDiary, somehow thinking this was a great idea. And I was sober at the time.

Which is more than I can say for either of us when we arrived at Saint Peter, where chef Josh Niland showcases Australian sustainably sourced seafood. Voted both chef and restaurant of the year by Timeout and chef of the Year by Gourmet Traveller, and on the World Restaurant Awards short list for ethical thinking, I knew the Ewing would love it. At least I was hoping she would, right after she had stop glaring at me and kicking me under the table. 

Luckily my wine choice, the 2018 Chardonnay Savagnin, made by the ancestral (pet nat) method, using the original grape sugars and yeast, was a big hit. Crisp and dry, with a touch of fizz and bags of crisp apple and lemon, it was a real celebratory wine that edged me back into the good books.

The arrival of the food also helped, with a plate of beautifully iridescent sweet and sour hand filleted Yamba sardines making the perfect start to the meal. With more than a nod to a classic Venetian dish, sardine in saor, the spankingly fresh raw fish were served on a perfectly balanced bed of sauce that included slow cooked shallots, vinegar and tiny sweet currants. I could have happily eaten a shoal of these, accompanied by crusty bread to mop up every last drop of sauce.

Clarence river octopus with barbecue fennel, bulls kelp and white olive was a big, beefy dish where tender tentacles went toe to toe with the powerful seaweed and the slightly bitter note of the veg. I heartily embrace any opportunity to eat the cephalopod, and here was no different, although not for the faint-hearted.

Swansea bonito, bbq zucchini, bush tomato harissa and preserved lemon paired thick fillets of the tuna-like fish, chargrilled on the outside and almost raw within, with smoky veg and cubes of (I think) potato. A surprisingly delicate dish that carefully balanced all the bold flavours. Although, not known for my love of subtlety, I did find myself missing the zing of the advertised lemon and tomato against the fatty fish.

The crumbed corner inlet garfish, butterflied and fried with the heads and tails still intact, certainly looked the part. The richness from the golden carapace was perfectly offset by the tangy yoghurt tartare, a good squeeze of lemon and the thicket of fresh herbs including flat leaf parsley and dill.

Garfish have green bones, due to the presence of the same bile pigment that gives bruises their verdant hue, and while the colour didn't bother me, I did find eating them made me feel irrationally like the Queen Mother. Although I think I was probably suffering from fish fatigue from eating too much at that point.

While I had been uncharacteristically laid back about the rest of the ordering, I did pretty much insist on the fried brussels sprouts with fresh mint and native pepper as a side dish. 

The Ewing isn't really a sprout lover (I know, I'm not sure why I've stayed with her so long either), and this didn't do too much to change her mind. I however, was a big fan and, despite being dangerously stuffed at this point, found it very hard to resist the bowlful of crispy, charred veg that had been doused in plenty of vinegar before serving; another of my favourite favours.

And what about the birthday girl? After 'persuading' her to order pudding - there wasn't much doubt that she would - we decided to share the chocolate and Murray cod fat caramel slice, with burnt vanilla soured cream, grapes and macadamia sauce, replete with candle.

This was a divisive dish, not so much for the caramel element but for the shortbread crumbs served alongside, which our waitress told us hapuka Roe, making them taste strangely - and not all that appealingly - fishy. Thankfully the birthday girl enthused about it so much that she even managed to persuade her new friends on the table adjacent to us (having tired of talking to me) to order it.

Happy birthday to the Ewing. Here's to the next decade of celebrating with my favourite.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Harry and a curry

A cemetery in deepest East London might seem like a strange place to start this post, but I do have a life outside of taking pictures of my lunch. Even if it happens to be taking pictures of gravestones en route to taking pictures of my lunch. I promise, this does get better....

The reason for ending up in Barking on a sunny Monday Morning in June goes back a few years, to my previous incarnation working in public libraries. During that time I had become involved in curating an exhibition that commemorated the centenary of the start of WW1. A fascinating and sobering project that lead me to start to research something about my own family, culminating in discovering my great-grandfather, Private Harry Roscoe MM.

Harry was born in Wigan circa 1890 although, by 1914, he had ended up in Romford, married to my great-grandmother, Florence, and with a son, Alan. My grandfather. Alan isn't around anymore, and there is no one else left to ask how or why Harry ended up in Essex but, as my colleague so succinctly put it; 'in those days, it would be for work or a woman'.

In 1915 Harry had enlisted to the West Ham Pals, aka 13th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, and by the end of the year had been sent to France to fight. The battalion were involved in many battles of the Great War, including at Vimy Ridge, Cambrai and the Battle of the Somme, and it was here that Harry won the Military Medal for gallantry. Awarded for an act of outstanding courage or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.

The excerpt above shows the war diary from the week Harry was recommended for his honour. A scan kindly provided to me by Elliot Taylor, who has a blog and has written a book about the Pals.

Harry died in December 1918, a month after the war had ended, most likely of his injuries. A pointless loss in a pointless war. My granddad was four. My great-grandmother remarried the following year, and Harry was never spoken of again. As my granddad never really spoke much about the past, we don't even know if he knew about Harry, or where he was interred. 

While it's a bittersweet story, I have to say I felt quite touched to finally find Harry's grave - commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose work ensures that men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars are not forgotten - and be able to give thanks for the sacrifices he, and many others, have made for our freedom.

Of course, I couldn't go all that way without thinking about what I was going to eat next and fortunately Thattukada, one of Eater's recent recommended restaurants, was just two stops away on the District Line.

Thattukada is a basic no frills Keralan restaurant - with a nod to God's own country evidenced by the pictures of vallam kali, the state's annual snake boat race, that cover the walls - that offers a selection of home cooked favourites that brings homesick Keralans to eat from all across London.

I started with a mango lassi which, in the absence of a dessert menu, also served as pudding. There's nothing more glorious to accompany food from the Indian subcontinent (ok, maybe on par with an icy cold lager). Sweet and tangy and fragrant and providing a soothing balm for the tongue after a surfeit of chilli spice.

The chicken fry or, to give it its full name, the Thattukada Special Nandan (Traditional) Chicken Fry Half (Kerala Style) 10 pieces, is becoming a bit of a signature dish. A whole (or half) chicken is expertly cleaved into bite-sized chunks on the bone, before being marinated in a lurid spice paste glowing with chilli. It's then deep fried and covered in a dreft of golden fried onions.

This tasted as excellent as it looks. Crisp, hot, salty, spicy. It was surprisingly effortless to eat ten pieces to myself. Maybe because I'm some kind of heathen, I really wanted something to dip this in. Some kind of yogurt-based dip perhaps; or just a big squirt of mayo, if I'm honest. But then I do drown my KFC in the Colonel's gravy. So what do I know.

I almost passed on ordering the appam, which would have been an error as these were the finest I have tried. Spongy and slightly sour, the plain version - they are also available filled with condensed milk or a whole egg, steamed into the centre - are particularly good for helping scoop up curry with your fingers. As evidenced by many of the patrons who were there on my visit. Luckily they took pity on me and kindly also provided a fork without asking.

The utensils were something that was in everybody's interests, as my attempts to eat the fish moilee - a deep and fragrant coconut based curry with cashew nuts and tomatoes and a the beautifully cooked kingfish steak that fell from the bone - would have been less than couth with out them. Although, in all honesty, if no one else was around I would have happily licked the bowl clean.

Oh, and for the record, the long green things were not beans, but chillies. Something that I found out when I ate a whole one. And, for the second time that day, I had a tear in my eye. Good food and family; sometimes there is nothing finer.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Sangers (and not sangers) - the Oz version

Last year we travelled the west coast of America and I ate a lot of sandwiches. Then I came back and wrote about how much I loved eating sandwiches. This year, after our trip to Australia, I'm doing pretty much the same thing, my love of carbs undiminished. I'm nothing if not consistent.

This is probably also going to serve as a bit of a round-up post, so I can document as much edible stuff as possible before I forget/lose interest. Which means including anything tasty I ate that might (or might not) have a passing resemblance to a sandwich. All while inventing more and more outlandish caveats for it's inclusion; and for that I make no apologies.

The first entry may seem like a Not Sandwich, but actually it was a Sandwich. At least that's how it was described on the feasting menu at Nomad, a contemporary/middle eastern restaurant in a converted warehouse in swanky Surry Hills. In an ideal world I would have the time and patience to write about the whole meal I enjoyed here with the family - we had the feasting menu, and it was all excellent, but in the interests of brevity, and sanity, I will start (and finish) at the end.

On the menu the ice cream sandwich with olive oil parfait, halva crumble, pistachio and honey sounded nice enough, in reality it was pretty bloody amazing. I've just sat staring at the picture for a while, trying to think of superlatives, but for once I'm lost for words.

Smoky, nutty, sweet, creamy, crunchy; you get the general idea. The magical biscuitty stuff that sandwiched the ice cream was particularly good.  After the full meal that proceeded this, we all still hungrily wolfed down two sharing plates, fighting over the scraps. Which probably says it all.

If the dessert at Nomad self-identified as a sandwich, I have no problems naming Black Star Pastry's watermelon and strawberry creation a sandwich too. Although it has been named the world's most instragrammed cake (which kind of flies in the face of my sandwich assertion), I still maintain it should be included for the simple reason it does actually sandwich a layer of fresh watermelon between two layers of pastry cream and sponge. All topped off with dried rose petals and strawberries.

On the face of it, I have to say it sounded all kinds of wrong. Fresh melon abutting fresh dairy was already curdling in my thoughts. Bits of dead flower, looking like something my Nan used to give me for Christmas, strewn on top. Obviously I was very incorrect and the whole thing seemed to balance together beautifully, as well as looking utterly beautiful. Yes, of course I posted a pic for the 'Gram.

People often say surf and turf is overrated; people are wrong. And they certainly haven't tried the chorizo and prawn roll from the Mojo Picon stand at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney's Moore Park. My sister wanted us to go there just so we could try these, and it just proves good taste runs in the family.

This crispy roll, think Spanish bocadillo, is stuffed with grilled chunks of smoky fresh chorizo and topped with fat prawns, lime and coriander. I also added a healthy squirt of the eponymous mojo picon sauce, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, chilli and olive oil. This was so generously filled, the Ewing and I managed to share one between us and barely even squabble over who should get the errant prawns that had fallen overboard.

Is a pizza a sandwich? Lets be honest, definitely not (maybe, arguably, a calzone…) But with my sister moving house imminently, it was only right we should have one final pizza from RocketBoy, the pizza place that’s currently about 100m from her door. As you can see, we were certainly in need of some carbs, after a Monday beer crawl around Marrickville had left us in a rather parlous state.

My favourite of their pizzas is the the Malabar, topped with wild Aussie prawns, marinaded in chilli and coconut, plus chorizo, onion, parsley and lemon. Seafood is not normally my first choice on a pie (although who doesn’t love tinned tuna and red onion on deep pan after a night on the town) but it seems a rather apt choice when in Oz; well, in the absence of a Barbie to chuck the prawns on, anyway. 

It’s very good pizza, if perhaps not gold tier, but for a takeaway pizza it’s pretty decent, generously topped and fair value. Plus it’s proximity is a bonus. Although it seems my sister's new gaff also has a branch of Rocketboy around the corner (obviously one of the first things I checked). I’m going to overlook the fact everyone else ganged up on me and made me watch the Bachelor in Paradise when eating it. Although, even that couldn’t put me off.

Mr Crackles, on Oxford Street, Sydney’s main gay drag, has become a must visit on our trips to Oz, although I’ve still yet to visit while inebriated (draconian lock out laws currently prohibit most late night drinking in the surrounding area, but you can still get your pork fix until 4.30 in the morning on Friday and Saturday. Oh, and Mr Crackles is open too…).

They are best known for the ‘Classic Crackles’, a crispy baguette/ciabatta-ish hybrid with five spice roast pork belly, mayo and a Vietnamese salad. Which is what I always order, and this time was no different. Along with an extra cup of crackling, which we took to my sister as a reward for getting through a morning's shopping expedition with the kids in tow.

We also also tried the crackles salad, which is the same but no bread and more green stuff. It’s a majestic sandwich; crunchy and salty and fatty and enormously messy to eat while hovering over the high benches than run up both sides of the shop. Part of its joyous, unbridled, delicious appeal.

While it remained as delicious as ever I might have, wait for it, actually preferred the salad. It’s certainly easier to eat. The crusty bread, as good as it is (and it is good), can’t help but detract from the perfection of the wobbly chunks of pork belly and crisp crackling. While the bread may be dispensable, the one thing I think it does miss is a hit of chilli sauce. A little bit of zing would help cut through the richness nicely.

For the Ewing's birthday I took her on an all-dayer that ended up with dinner at Saint Peter (blog post to come) but started with an unexpectedly excellent lunch and drinks at the CBD branch of Continental Deli.

Known for their deli meats and cheeses and cocktails in a can, we both started with a Mar-tinny, which came with 3 green olives, plus an extra gilda (olive green chilli and anchovy on a stick) each, for good measure. An excellent start to proceedings.

As well as some outstanding Aussie washed rind cheese with rhubarb chutney, tiny little bitter olives and crackers, and a plate of wafer thin mortadella with picked chillies and cornichons we also had a genuine, legit sandwich in the form of their meatball sub.

This was a behemoth of crisp ciabatta bread, stuffed with a trio of giant balls, cooked in a tomato sauce and finished with a smattering of freshly grated Parmesan. Plus crisps, plus more pickles. This was a fine sandwich, although I felt the ethereal texture of the meatballs and the pillowy bread became a little samey. A situation that improved with the addition of some of the crisps to the sarnie.

Obviously there has to be a burger somewhere (definitely a sandwich), and this time we schlepped all the way over the Harbour Bridge to North Sydney to find it. Which also provided the perfect opportunity for a sun-kissed selfie or two.

Our destination was Five Points - only open for limited hours, Monday to Friday and offering a limited menu of five burgers, named after the five boroughs of New York, plus three milkshakes, and sides of chips and a green salad.

To be honest, when your burgers are this good there's not much else that you need. I chose the Bronx - a grilled beef patty, double cheese, bacon, onion jam, tomato sauce, pickles, american mustard, aioli and iceberg; and it was one of the best burgers I have had for a long time. Chips (a bit chunkier than fries, but still suitably thin enough to go alongside a burger) were also excellent, although the Ewing found her salted caramel shake a bit too thin and too sweet (even for her).

The lamington - a sponge cake dipped in a thin chocolate icing and rolled in coconut, often sandwiched with jam or cream - is a stone cold Aussie classic. It's also one of my favourite cakes and I had heard the best ones in town were to be found at Flour and Stone in Woolloomooloo.

The intel was right as this lamington was utterly outstanding. The Flour and Stone version is dipped in panna cotta (combating the potential dryness of the sponge and coconut, the greatest enemy of the lammo) before being filled with berry compote and rolled in dark chocolate and coconut flakes. The whole thing feels heavy in your hand but ethereally light as you eat it. Made even better if consumed to a back drop of sunny Woolloomooloo Harbour.

Another must visit since my brother-in-law took us on our last trip to Sydney is Marrickville Pork Roll; a tiny shop front in the Inner-West, with an almost constant queue outside, from where they deftly turn out what seems like an endless stream of what have been called the best pork rolls in town.

Essentially an analgised name for the banh mi, the pork roll is a Vietnamese sandwich that originated in the south of the country after baguettes were introduced in the mid-19 century by the French. Traditionally made with rice flour, which makes them even lighter and crisper, they are then stuffed with an array of ingredients that normally comprised of one or more meats (classically pork belly, pork sausage and pate), mayonnaise and salad including cucumber slices, coriander, pickled carrots and radish, and chillies.

While Marrickville is a little far flung from Central Sydney to come for a sandwich (they have an outpost in Steam Mill Lane now, and while I haven’t visited, I’m not sure I could be disloyal to the original), it makes the perfect stop on our (second) inner-west beer crawl.

One of my absolute favourite things to do when I’m in town. Certainly my favourite thing to do for six bucks. This time I think I enjoyed it even more than before; the airy baguette ably holding a full cargo of meat and veg plus a slathering of mayo and chopped chilli. This is truly one of my very favourite sandwiches I have eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches.