A new year's resolution: to try and eat our way around the world without leaving Greater Manchester...
by Liam Hetherington on March 21, 2009
Russia - 29/12/08This is how it all began.It was Christmas, and a group of seven, mostly old school friends, decided to take the opportunity to meet up for dinner while we were all in the same city for once. Ed was up from London. Ian had flown in for the festive period from his new life in Perth, Australia. So the only real question to answer was: where to meet? As several of the party had studied Russian at school the suggestion arose that we visit a Russian restaurant. I did not take Russian (I studied Greek instead), but I had been trying to find a Russian restaurant in Manchester ever since I had travelled along the Trans-Mongolian railway from St Petersburg to Beijing with Ed back in 2002. I had been shocked to stumble across just such a place back in February, St Petersburg on Sackville Street, but had not yet found time to visit, so this seemed the obvious opportunity. Moreover, the two cities of Manchester and St Petersburg are twinned.We had reserved a table at St Petersburg in advance. Paul had previously come on a Friday evening in December when the place was crammed and hopping with traditional Russian folk music and dancing. Yet arriving after work I found the place empty. Indeed, apart from ourselves no more than two more tables were occupied during our meal. But then, maybe a Monday evening in the lull between Christmas and New Year is not the best time to find a lively scene…The bar menu had over 70 individual vodkas of different strengths, brands and flavours. Not really the thing on a work-night sadly, so we tended to stick to the Baltika beer from St Petersburg itself (though sadly they only had Baltika No. 3, and not the entire range brewed under that brand). Actually, Ed did have a shot of krupnik (made with honey), but he maintains that this was purely for medicinal purposes!We were seated at our table (blue tablecloth, white cover, red napkins, echoing the Russian flag). The walls were decorated with etchings of Imperial St Petersburg in its fin de siecle grandeur; the modern day intruded through a muted TV showing a Russian news channel and Russian pop. The menu was very extensive. Just looking back at it now on their website reminds me that there were over 90 different dishes listed – certainly a banquet fit for the tsars! It was once we had ordered that I began to muse out loud. Just how many other national cuisines could we find in Manchester? It may be the UK’s second largest city and a famously cosmopolitan and tolerant place, but in world terms it really isn’t that big. Would it be possible to spend a year patronising separate establishments representing as many different countries as possible, all without leaving one’s hometown? Would it be possible to go Around the World in 80 Meals?The more we started to think about it, the more it seemed like an interesting proposition. If the credit crunch and an abysmal exchange rate prohibited foreign holidays, why not try to broaden our knowledge of foreign cuisines at the same time as we broadened our knowledge of what Manchester had to offer. Of course, it would be an uphill struggle. Manchester is no London or New York, cities in which I dare say we could complete the challenge without breaking a sweat. This would be a challenging New Year’s Resolution… but then aren’t all the best ones challenging…?On that cue the waitress appeared with our starters. I had been tempted by the Soup Gribnoy with mushrooms and barley, but in the end had opted for plain borsch, the classic deep red beetroot soup (£5.95). Since my last visit to the Neva in 2005 I had had to make do with packets of Polish borsch mix, but they were nothing compared to this chunky concoction with chopped veg. Paul went one further with Borsch Po Ukrainsky, where meat was added to the soup (£6.95). Ian had gone for the Vladivostok soup, a hot Oriental dish of noodles, prawns and chicken (£6.95). Without exception, I think we all thoroughly enjoyed our soups.After having our hopes raised, I’m sorry to say that some of us were a little disappointed by the main courses. Some were great – Ian’s seafood kebabs (Sablia Neptuna, £17.95) looked marvellous. But I was underwhelmed by my duck in plum sauce. This had been marked as a special on a loose piece of paper inside the menu. The duck breast itself was not a bad-sized piece of meat, loosely covered by its fatty skin. However, rather than being cooked in a plum sauce, the sauce came separate in a little pot, cold and jelly-like. The conclusion I drew – rightly or wrongly – was that this sauce was just kept in its pots in the fridge or freezer, and never actually met the duck until you added it on your plate. The few bits of salad that accompanied it seemed like an afterthought. And finally, the chips were still cold inside. Worse, Ana’s chicken was not cooked through fully either. The waitress did regain points for bringing her an entire new meal rather than just zapping the existing plate in the microwave, but really there is no excuse for not cooking a chicken steak properly in a restaurant – especially one that is not rushed off its feet.I would return to St Petersburg. I live in the hope that we visited on an off day. It is obviously a favourite with the ex-pat Russian community in Manchester, and it holds Russian parties on weekend nights which sound great. However, I have to say that my meal here was mixed – great soups and poor entrees. Would this set the scene for our revolutionary resolution?(For the sake of completeness, other ‘Russian’ thrills could have been achieved at Revolution. This is a chain of vodka bars that has spread out from Manchester – though the emphasis here is more on mixing and matching your flavoured vodka shooters and cocktails, rather than the classy stuff kept behind the bar in St Petersburg. Branches of Revolution can be found by Oxford Road station, in Deansgate Locks on Whitworth Street West, on Wilmslow Road in Fallowfield, and in Parsonage Gardens behind Deansgate itself. They pretty much gaurantee fun nights out, though I did once go to the latter branch for lunch with a friend – standard bar food since you ask – and I found the table service exceptionally slow)
Lebanon - 30/12/08The very next night I was meeting up again with Paul for drinks. Out of all the diners the previous evening Paul had been most enthusiastic about the mad-cap scheme to travel ‘Around the World in 80 Meals’ without leaving Manchester. So after a few pints we thought we might as well carry on and try to get through as many as we could while we had the chance. We were drinking in the Northern Quarter, still quite an ungentrified district despite the influx of cutting-edge bars. This district between Piccadilly Gardens and Ancoats sees vintage clothing boutiques nestle alongside the warehouses of the city’s once booming ‘rag trade’ and counter-cultural nightspots sit cheek-by-jowl with sleazy-looking ‘adult shops’. The bar in which we sat was a prime example. In a previous incarnation as The Kings it was a dodgy backstreet boozer with sticky floors, suspicious regulars, a pool table and apalling karaoke. We loved it. However it has now reinvented itself as The Northern a sleek bar with plush decoration, a gastropub-like menu, and a DJ playing classic Manchester tunes.I work not far from here, and often passed a Lebanese restaurant on Thomas Street. Walking back, we found The Cedar Tree open, so in we went. The décor could best be described as inimitable, with a fairy-lit green grotto running along one wall. Likewise the menu. It offered a great variety (the patron, Hassan, learnt cooking from his grandmother and can reputedly prepare over a thousand dishes). However, the menu itself was printed in Beirut and something seems to have got lost in translation along the way… in particular pay no attention to which dishes are marked as ‘suitable for vegetarians’ and ask instead as the green ‘v’s appear to have been placed randomly!Lebanese food has a good reputation. Principally it is famed for mezze, little starters and salads to share between a party like tapas in Spain. With there just being the two of us we went easy on the mezze – just some hummous (chickpea paste), baba ghanouj (aubergine puree) and some bread for dipping. I also insisted on some tabouleh, the parsley, tomato and cracked wheat salad to have with our mains. Each of these dishes cost around £4.00. We just had water to drink; the restauarant does not have a license, though it operates a Bring Your Own policy, charging £1.50 corkage.So far so good (and so zingy with lemon juice and Levantine herbs). Our main courses were more expensive, around £14.00 each. Paul had opted for Faroug Meshwi, a grilled baby chicken served with salad. It came out looking the perfect brown. Though essentially, Paul noted, all it was was a roast chicken, much as you could get anywhere, and hence he was left feeling slightly flat. I had been torn between several dishes, notably the shish tawouk (chicken kebab) that had proved a favourite in Egypt. However, I then noticed that for much the same price I could have a mixed grill, where the chicken kebab would be accompanied with shish kebab and a minced lamb kofta, so that was what I went for. The kofta was a bit so-so, but the two different kebabs were just lip-smackingly great with the flavours of lemon and coriander.Overall, the bill came to around £20.00 each – more than you would expect to pay for this sort of food over in the near east I’d wager. I was perfectly happy with my meal, while Paul was a touch disappointed.(Other Lebanese restaurants in Manchester include Fatoosh in Rusholme and Bawadi Café on Cheetham Hill Road. Having dined at Bawadi previously I can certainly recommend them both for the scope of the menu and their eagerness to please – and not forgetting their delicious flat breads!)
England - 04/01/09 What could be more English? A bite to eat in a pub after watching a pantomime. A roast beef dinner served with veg, a Yorkshire pudding and a pint of bitter. And doing it in a chain pub rather than an independent free house.The Waterhouse is one of the J D Wetherspoons chain, a chain that has spread across most of the UK in the last 15 years. Back in sixth-form Wetherspoon’s were an exciting prospect. They were rare (they had two outlets in Manchester), and they were very reasonably priced. Their bowls of ‘nachos grande’ were perfect for sharing with friends. Now I doubt there is a town of any significant size in Britain that does not have a Wetherspoons pub. Their purchasing power sadly undercuts many more traditional village pubs.Yet the story is not all bad. Wetherspoons has a history of selling local real ales alongside the John Smiths and lagers you can get anywhere (they often work in partnership with CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale). They bring interesting tastes to people attentions – they first introduced Kopparberg Swedish cider to the UK, and they often have bottled beers from Poland, South Africa and other more exotic locales on sale. They were the first pub chain to ban smoking. They can be very economical – the reintroduction of the 99p pint this year has brought people back to them (the last time I can recall a pint of beer retailing for 99p was probably back in 1998). And not all branches are big soulless barns where people stand up and steadily get drunk on cheap beer. Some of the more atmospheric would be the art deco Sedge Lynn in Chorlton, the cosy Ford Madox Brown in Rusholme, and the intimate Waterhouse on Princess Street opposite the Town Hall. I like The Waterhouse. It is a converted townhouse and named after Alfred Waterhouse, the architect behind the Gothic Victoriana of Manchester Town Hall and the Victoria University buildings on Oxford Road (and Strangeways prison) as well as the Natural History Museum in London. (Interesting sidenote – his brother is the Waterhouse in the global accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Walls still partition off rooms providing an intimacy often lacking in pubs. A grand staircase leads up to an upper landing, where there are some very swanky toilets (frosted glass walls and sandstone fire places). It was my brother’s choice to come here. I offered a meal wherever he wanted. His choice was Wetherspoons for their chicken tikka masala, an authentic-tasting dish served with pilau rice, a naan bread, poppadums and mango chutney. As it was a Sunday I went for their special Sunday Roast menu – a choice of either roast beef, chicken, pork, or the veggie option (a portobello mushroom, chickpea and pumpkin seed roast). My roast beef came with roast potatoes, a Yorkshire pudding, balls of sage and onion stuffing, gravy, and veg – carrots and peas. A drink was included along with the price, so I went for a pint of bitter. While it might not be the most authentic dining experience, and you may feel that you are subject to a one-size-fits-all dining experience, I have to say that in general you get tasty food in filling volumes for a decent price. Why else would it be my brother’s venue of choice for dinner? Why else would their Thursday ‘Curry Club’ be seen as a valid option for eating out by my parents? And why else would I feel no shame at listing a chain pub as my ‘English’ option in my quest to eat Around the World in 80 Meals?(Other suggested ‘English’ options? The English Lounge on High Street or Albert’s Shed in Castlefield. For further Victoriana try Mr Thomas’s Chop House on Cross Street or Sam’s Chop House on Chapel Walks. And how about The Battered Cod in Withington for traditional English fish and chips – or indeed Harry Ramsdens, possibly the most famous name in chippie history?).
Portugal - 15/01/09There were three of us dining. We had been lured in by Luso’s participation in the City Bites festival, where restauarants offered stripped-down menus. Here the offer was that from a set menu you could have two courses and a half-bottle of wine per diner for £20.00. (The choices of food are similar to those on the Preço Fixo menu that is offered for £22.00 every Tuesday evening and Sunday). The menu offered traditional Portuguese meals alongside those influenced from ‘the Portuguese colonial diaspora’ – Macau, Goa, Brazil, Africa and Japan. You can see the full menu on their website here. In short: what a fantastic restaurant.For starters both Bryan and I went for Sardines Escabeche. What could be more Portuguese than sardines I reasoned? However, there was a twist. These sardines had a real citrus zing – later investigation revealed that ‘escabeche’ meant that the ingredients had first been marinated in an acidic mixture. So linguistically it was similar to the seafood ceviche I had enjoyed along the Peruvian coast. The sardines here came grilled and served on toast with a side salad. A la carte price would have been £6.50. Paul opted for Caldo Verde, a creamed potato and cabbage soup which found favour with him too.As mentioned, the set menu included wine. We had been on the verge of simply ordering the house white when we recalled that if there is one wine Portugal is famed (and in my opinion rather unfairly maligned) for, it is rosé. What is it about pink wine? As men we would never normally order rosé in a bar or restaurant, but actually it is really nice, and we stuck with it all meal. In actual fact, we didn’t need to worry about the wine. Apart from champagne, all wines on Luso’s menu are sourced from Portugal – a choice in total of 12 whites, 12 reds, 3 sparkling Portuguese wines, and only two rosés. (They also have Portuguese bottled beers such as Sagres from Lisbon and Super Bock from Porto).We had all chosen different dishes for our main course. Paul had gone for the most famously Lusitanian dish, bacalhau. This came in the form of Salt Cod à Gomes de Sá, pan-fried salted cod in a potato and onion sauce, served with poached egg. It was good and cooked expertly, but to our tastebuds, raised on a diet where salt is very much seen to be a bad thing in food, it did taste very salty. I had gone for piri-piri chicken. Piri-piri seasoning originates from the birdseye chilis of southern Africa (notably the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola). So here the chicken breasts had been marinated in a piri-piri concoction which gave the meat a delicate spicy kick, but without being mouth-cauterizingly hot. If I’d wanted hot I would have gone for the pork vindaloo. Better known in Britain for being a famously hot curry, its name actually derives from the Portuguese words ‘vin’ (wine) and ‘alao’ (garlic), and it derived from their Goan colony on the west coast of India (and promised to be served with tandoori potatoes and raita). Served alongside the chicken were slices of plantain in a tempura batter, providing a nice link between the cuisines of Portugal, its African colonies, and its early interest in Japan. Bryan had chosen vegetarian paella, made with saffron rice and seasonal vegetables. We had enjoyed a really nice meal for £20 by this point – two courses and wine. Though the servings were not the largest in the world, they were tasty and different, and offered us a look into a too-often-neglected cuisine. In fact, we had enjoyed our meal so much we were keen to continue onto dessert. The menu listed a range that varied from the homely (plum and ginger crumble) to the exotic (vindaloo ice cream anyone?). I was lured in by a dish called farófias. This turned out to be a tall glass held pale vanilla custard, chilled and so with a semi-solid consistency. Atop it were fluffy marshmallow like objects – these were meringues poached in milk. And it was a wonderful finish to the meal - actually I’d say it was the part of the meal I enjoyed most. It cost £5.50 and it was certainly worth it!Much as I love port we made the decision not to go for a glass of the good stuff (and certainly not the full bottle of Colheita 1980 at a bargain £120.00). With tip it all added up to roughly £30.00 a head. Great bargain when you consider I’ve already looked up how to make farófias, and now understand the concept of escabeche. Would I go back again? Certainly. Would I have exactly the same dishes again? Gladly. Though I’d be keen to try something new and continue to expand my knowledge of the varied tastes and flavours that comprise modern Portuguese cuisine. This really is a cracking little restaurant.(Keen on Portugal? Why not continue to explore via Madeira Shop on Swan Street. Or if you like piri-piri you can find Peri Peri Chicken on Wilmslow Road in Rusholme. And of course the nationwide chain Nandos – found in the Printworks, the Arndale Centre, near Oxford Road station, and in Fallowfield – specialises in peri-peri chicken. But as they are a South African chain, founded by Portuguese emigrants from Mozambique and Angola I may well try to shoe-horn that into a different country write-up…)
China - 26/01/09According to my diary Monday 26th January was Chinese New Year. So what better opportunity to head down to Chinatown?Manchester has the second largest Chinatown in the UK after London. It occupies a rough six-block area bounded by Portland Street, Princess Street, Mosley Street and the back to the Hotel Piccadilly. Its main thoroughfares are Nicolas Street, George Street and Faulkner Street, the latter spanned by an ornate arch in red and gold (this was once the largest Imperial arch outside China, until Liverpool erected one an entire inch taller). Remarkably, Chinatown as such really only dates from the late ‘60s. The first few restaurants paved the way for more, and associated trades also moved in – cash and carries, bakeries, bookmakers, business, social and housing associations. Likewise, the earliest businesses were predominantly Cantonese, but it has now become a hub for the larger east Asian community – principally Thai restaurants, stores and karaoke bars along Portland and Charlotte Streets. It is still a community, and 50% of the faces you are likely to see on a trip will be Chinese. In many ways we picked the wrong day to go. We were going on Chinese New Year’s Day, rather than New Year’s Eve. And while there were major festivities planned with jugglers, acrobats, martial arts demonstrations and a lion dance, Manchester City Council had organised these for the following weekend in neighbouring Albert Square. However, the usual neon glare of Chinatown was added to by strings of lanterns zig-zagging along the streets, and a glowing red eastern dragon spiralled in the air at one corner.There are too many establishments in Chinatown to list. I did have one very bad meal there once where it took two hours for our meals to arrive and the proprieters then tried to overcharge us by around £100. As such I tend to play safe, and I knew The New Emperor as a decent, authentic, no-frills place where I had enjoyed meals previously, so we headed there.Inside, the New Emperor is a touch threadbare, though clean. The cavernous dining hall was busy even on a Monday night, with a good half of the diners being Chinese. There are lots of waistcoated wait staff and we were quickly seated and presented with the monster of a menu. Honestly, it is massive – and it does not even list English dishes. Chinese diners get the option of an even larger menu. We were brought bottlesof Tsingtao beer to drink while we chose.Like most Chinese menus, it suffers from ‘the blight of the banquet’ to a certain extent. The first five or six pages all listed different permutations of set meals. I tend to find these a lowest common denominator of cuisine and genrally uninspiring. The five of us were no strangers to Chinese cuisine, so we worked out that we would be happy just ordering a starter and a main from the menu. Starters run the whole gamut from soups to dim sum to shredded duck pancakes. One chap actually ordered a quarter duck. A big chunk of bird, roast until it was almost purple, was brought over, and the waiter expertly shredded it with forks before us. Both Paul and I went for Hot & Sour Soup. This is pretty much our acid test of a meal. We know where to get very good hot & sour soup, and so we were comparing the broth to that at our usual Thai restaurant. And it was perfectly fine. Not the best we had ever had, but certainly not bad. (In fact the only complaint we could make was that the waitress had muddled up our orders and originally only brought out one bowl, to Paul’s distress!).The options for main courses include more duck, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, fish, seafood, tofu… Pretty much anything, cooked in a wide variety of ways. We were brought vast tureens of boiled and fried rice to accompany whatever we ordered – we got nowhere near emptying them. I ordered pork char siu. I was surprised by quite how much meat was produced (I had to beg the other guys to help me out). The slices of barbecued meat were thoroughly red throughout – a worrying sign that food colouring had probably been used. However it was very nice and you could taste the distinctive honey, hoi sin and soy sauce.When it came to the bill we were able to chip in roughly £20.00 each – this was for two courses and a couple of bottles of beer each (obviously roast duck for starter costs more than soup). Not a bad deal. The worst we can say is that our waitress forgot to bring one of the soups and was a bit slow noticing us when we tried to order more drinks. But other than that the New Emperor cemented itself in my estimation as a good-standard authentic Cantonese restaurant with tasty and decently-priced cuisine, and it is on that basis that I recommend it to any visitors. Kung hei fat choy!(The most famous Chinese restaurant in Manchester is undoubtedly the Yang Sing on Princess Street. This is one of Manchester’s most historic Cantonese restauarants, and sets the standard for a high-class dining experience. The Yang Sing is where Cabinet ministers take people when they are in the city for party conferences. I have never been, though I have visited its younger sibling the Little Yang Sing, which I found very stylish – think the opening Shanghai nightclub scene from ‘Temple Of Doom’. Also in Chinatown, friends have recommended Red Chilli on Portland Street for fiery Szechuan cuisine. Away from Chinatown The Rice Bowl on Cross Street and Sweet Mandarin tucked away on Copperas Street in the Northern Quarter all come recommended. And when I’m home with my parents the Wing Wah on Old Crofts Bank Road near Davyhulme Circle is our Chinese takeaway of choice.)
Austria - 29/01/09I’m not exactly sure what qualifies Drucker’s as being Austrian other than the fact that the original Patisserie in Birmingham was founded by an Austrian emigre. The Druckers I visited is hence one of a chain of coffee-houses / cafes (I believe there is another branch in the Trafford centre). And while Vienna (and indeed much of central Europe) is famous for its coffee-and-cake-loving lifestyle, there was not much to suggest a Mitteleuropean ambiance. Which is probably well. Wood pannelling, curlicued seat-backs and an air of faded fin de siecle grandeur would look horrifically out of place in the perma-lit mall of the Arndale Centre. The glass curtain walls, chocolate and mint colourscheme, and gleaming counter are much more in keeping with the location.Unlike your Starbucks or Caffe Nero’s the clientele at Druckers upon my mid-week lunchtime visit was comprised entirely of pensioners. As well as the hot drinks on sale, they also offered hot paninis. But what caught my eye was the ‘patisserie’ section – a long chilled display cabinet stuffed with cakes and pastries. All of which, I have to say, looked pretty inviting. But where was the Austrian theme? Where was the strudel and the sachertorte? Instead was a rather generic display of the kind of cakes you could find anywhere. Determined to press on with my aim of ticking off ‘Austria’ I singled out the two most Germanic desserts as possibilities. And in the end the Black Forest Gateau lost out to a slice of Bavarian Apple Tart. This cost me £2.10 to take away (with VAT to eat in it would have been £2.45). It was packaged up in a rather nice looking chocolate-brown and mint-green box and a similar plastic bag – certainly no need to feel ashamed of turning up somewhere with a Druckers box!Back in the office it was time to see if the Tart was worth it. And the judgement is yes! The pastry was not soggy, the apple slices were tart and had a refreshing crispness, and the base had a light lemon-y flavour to it. All in all, a thoroughly nice piece of cake. And as someone who has munched cake from Salzburg to Sarajevo and Budapest to Krakow I can tell you this – the Habsburgs can rest assured that the legacy of Vienna remains in safe hands.
by Liam Hetherington on March 22, 2009
Malaysia - 29/01/09Ning’s catchline is ‘Oriental chic, Northern Quarter charm’. And it combines the best of both. The Northern Quarter has a counter-cultural style of its own, and Ning certainly looks the part with an eye-catching hot-pink-on-black logo mirrored in the underlit wallpaper inside the restaurant. Yet it also flies the flag for the East. Predominantly a Malaysian restauarant, you can also find dishes hailing from Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. While Thai restauarants are well represented in Manchester, Malaysian ones are not, which made this an intriguing prospect.I was not entirely sure what to expect from Malaysian cuisine. Thankfully here the menu at Ning explained what the dishes were, and what they were made of. The meal was further made a painless experience by a special offer menu, which gives you the chance to pick a starter, main course and accompaniment from a cut-down choice for £10.00 all in, or from a slightly wider selection for £12.50.Drinks vary from pots of green tea (which is what Paul went for) to regional beers. Sadly there were no Malaysian beers, and they were also out of Beer Lao. However, I did discover that Indonesia’s Bintang is a lovely refreshing brew. Much nicer than Anchor from Singapore that I followed it up with.As starter I chose Chicken Murtabak – street-food-y pastries of spiced chicken, onion and potato, with a sweet chili dipping sauce. Paul had hot and spicy Tom Yam soup. Bryan had Indonesian Gado Gado salad, a big piled-high heap of salad topped with home-made peanut sauce. One ingredient that all three had in common, and one which I don’t tend to associate with either Thai or Indian dishes, is carrot. I don’t know if this is typical of malaysian food in general, but I found it interesting.Forgoing beef rendang – the only Malaysian dish I had heard of beforehand – I was tempted by more chicken for my main course. Masak Merah came in a tomato, onion & chili sauce. I had egg fried rice to accompany it. The masak merah was not hot spicy – it was actually rather mild. Unlike the Nyonya lime curry that both Paul and Bryan had picked. This had a sharp citric bite and a picquant lemongrass aroma. In my view, the others picked better than I did!Despite this, all the separate components of my meal were very tasty – and for £12.50 I cannot argue with the price. For four of us it totalled £59.00, including drinks. I’ve already recommended Ning to friends, and I look forward to going again. And in the meantime…? Well, the courses they run in Malaysian cookery look very appetising… See their website for details.
Afghanistan - 03/02/09Hands up who knows what Afghan cuisine is? Well, it’s actually one of the most interesting cuisines I’ve come across so far…In ancient times the much-hallowed Silk Route lead to the wonders and spices of the east. In Manchester it is Wilmslow Road. Heading south rather than east you pass Manchester University and the Royal Infirmary. Before you hit the student area of Fallowfield you come across Rusholme. Here the stretch of Wilmslow Road is know as ‘the Curry Mile’ due to the concentration of curry houses, kebab shops, ethnic minimarts and associated businesses (tailors with windows filled with shimmering saris and salwar kameezes, music stores with Bangla beats and Arabic tunes drifting out through the doors, shops selling Islamic gifts, travel agents and solicitors). It is a vibrant, sparky neighbourhood where the very air is redolent of cumin and saffron, and it is where I lived for four years (and where Paul still lives). On the west side of Wilmslow Road in the heart of this hub-bub stands Afghan Cuisine. This is a new restaurant and only opened at the tail end of 2008. Downstairs it looks like just any other takeaway on this busy road, but it does have a ‘family sitting area’ upstairs with space for 60 diners and a great view over the neon-lit bustle of the Curry Mile. However, to order you do need to go to the counter downstairs. The menu offers the not-very traditional pizzas and burgers alongside a variety of kebabs – chicken and chicken tikka, lamb shish, tikka or chops, and minced kobeda kebabs. These range from £3.80 to £5.95 in price, depending on size. Ana went for a kebab, no more or less special than you can find elsewhere in Rusholme, served on a pretty massive naan bread with salad and yogurt and chili sauce to taste. More interesting to me though are the ‘Special Dishes’. Here you can find dishes such as boulani ("Freshly made folded dough filled with potato, coriander, mint, onions & herbs, pan-fried") or manto ("Steam cooked mince meat, and onions, yoghurt & lentil sauce on top").In for a penny, in for a pound. I ordered Qabily Pillow, which is apparently the national dish of Afghanistan. Now this is where it gets interesting. As a staging point on the Silk Route Afghanistan was a cross-road of cultures. You can see this in the food. Qabily Pillow is literally the ‘pillow’ from Kabul. And ‘pillow’ is basmati rice mixed with meaty chunks of lamb, carrots and sultanas for sweetness. This is the dish that would be known as ‘pilaff’ in Iran, ‘plov’ in Russia, and from where presumably we derive the phrase ‘pilau’ as used in Indian cooking. For £5.35 this was a decent-sized plate-full.Paul paid £5.95 for ashek. This turned out to be a dish of pasta dumplings stuffed with vegetables (onion and leek I think), and served topped with yogurt and a lentil sauce. The boiled dumplings seemed to be the missing link between Russian pierogi and Chinese won tons.Just because I am focussing on the excitement we felt in making the links between different cuisines does not mean that we did not enjoy the meal. Washed down with a kettle of mint tea the meal was very palatable – more so than I expected if I’m being honest! I can honestly recommend this little place for an insight into Afghan food – and a darn good meal too!
South Korea - 16/02/09Koreana has been a staple of the Manchester food scene since the 80s. Tucked away behind Kendals this family-run restaurant has hung on through boom and bust despite Korean cuisine never being as famous or successful in the UK as the omnipresent Chinese, Indians and Italians to be found on every high street in the land. Yet Koreana clearly does something right. Visiting on an unfashionable Monday evening we found the place over half full already with middle-aged diners, young trend-setters and Korean students. As well as Paul and myself, your two interpid culinary explorers. But as we found, Koreana’s success is nothing flashy. Its secret? Tasty food and some real bargain set menus!From the street stairs lead down to a room decorated with paper screens, Korean art and instruments on the walls, and with a Korean movie showing on mute. Menus were brough over as we ordered two bottles of Hite, a Korean lager. Now, I’m not by nature a lager drinker, but for the purposes of this experiment I’ve had to become one as British-style ales are not widely popular across the world. But even within lagers there are good and bad. I tend to look out for Budvar in the Czech Republic and Okocim in Poland. At Ning I was impressed with Indonesia’s Bintang and disappointed by Singapore’s Anchor. And I have to say that I wasn’t that keen on Hite, which I found bland and gassy even for a lager.For those unfamiliar with Korean food, the menu at Koreana is pretty thorough in explaining precisely what you will be ordering. In fact they even have an explanatory page on the ethos of Korean dining especially to help first-timers. For those new to Korean cuisine they recommend one of a range of set menus at very reasonable prices. For £9.90 you can pick a starter and main course. For £15.00 there is a ‘Korean Style Special Menu’ especially designed for sharing amongst a group. But we went for the Set Banquet. For this you get a choice of appetiser, soup, 3rd course, main course and dessert… and all for just £18.90! Good job we were hungry!There were four options for appetisers: dumplings, spare ribs, battered seafood (prawns, squid & mussels), and ‘Sa Jul Pan’. I opted for for the latter. Sa Jul Pan was described as a 4-sectioned traditional container holding pork, beef, chicken and prawns ‘as served in the ancient royal courts in Korea’. This came with a shallow trough of soy sauce flavoured with sesame seed and shredded bits of spring onion for dunking. Paul had gone for the shallow-fried dumplings filled with beef and vegetables (kun mandoo). Actually, at first the waiter brought us spare ribs in error, but speedily replaced them with the dumplings when we pointed out the mistake. So we then had a bit of a share around, Paul’s dumplings for some of my thin sliced beef and king prawns. This took some getting used to though, as our chopsticks were actually metal – stainless steel to be precise. We were informed that traditionally Koreans used metal chopsticks, the Japanese wooden, and the Chinese lacquered, but I don’t know how true that is! Regardless, I found it quite hard to get a grip with the metal if I’m truthful.But the dumplings I did manage to snag certainly made me happy, as I had ordered the Beef Dumpling Soup for my next course. This was a thin consommé, and at first glance looked rather watery. However it actually proved to be delicate and bursting with subtle flavours. In contrast, Paul’s hot and spicy Korean Vegetable Soup was very very fiery. Once again we shared tries of each other’s choice. So I would recommend that if you do the same, try to beef dumpling before the spicy veg, otherwise you will well and truly nuke your taste buds!Round three, and it was my turn to go for the hot option, as my Chicken Gochi Gui came with a spicy sauce. These were skewers of marinated and grilled chicken served with vegetables. Paul had gone for the fish option, Sengson Jurn a sizeable fillet of hot, flaky cod served alongside courgette in an egg tempura batter. I’m not a big fan of tempura, but at least here the batter was dry rather than oily. The fish was lovely though.By this point we were feeling quite stuffed, and we had not even received our main course. Here was the second occasion where we were brought the wrong dish. Paul had ordered the pork dish, Dwegi Gogi Bokum, but instead he was brought some seriously sizeable king prawns in a tempura batter. When we pointed out the error the owner graciously apologised, and left the prawns for us for free. The prawns were big pink ‘pull-the-head-and-tail-off’ critters, but again I thought the batter actually detracted from their appeal. Instead of just getting an explosion of hot prawn in your mouth, you also got a bit of an eggy aftertaste. In fact, the dish wasn’t really thought through, as when you peeled off the prawn carapace, you were also peeling off the tempura – so why bother with the batter at all?Paul’s pork dish was more successful. The meat came with mushroom, peppers and pineapple, all stir-fried in a sweetish but spicy sauce, more akin to a Chinese curry (but with more fruit) than anything else I can put my finger on. Served with sticky rice it proved a hit, as did my Beef Bulgogi. It sounded great from the menu: "This is a classic Korean recipe for meats. First we marinade the meat in our special combination of soy sauce, garlic, sesame, spring onions and pear. Next we thinly slice the meat and flame grill it for you. Served on a bed of vegetables with lettuce leaves and chili sauce for a lettuce wrap." With a description like that I could tell that this would be a dish that the restaurant were proud of, and that seemed as good a reson as any to try it. (And also, how many dishes do you know that use pear as a seasoning?).As it turned out my reasoning was good. So was the beef bulgogi. It might just be my mind playing tricks on me, but after having read the menu I was consciously trying to find all the different flavourings in the meat (particularly the pear) – and I think I managed it. This flame-grilled beef was so nice I was just eating it plain with sticky rice, rather than adulterating it with the thick chili paste that was served alongside. I think the general idea was that you were meant to add the paste to the meat and wrap in a lettuce leaf, but I didn’t bother. There was a big bowl of crisp freshly-washed lettuce as well, but feeling quite full we didn’t really make an impression on these. For an extra Korean twist, the beef came on a bed of kimchee. Kimchee is the Korean national dish, spiced pickled vegetables. This was mostly cabbage and carrot and – sorry – I didn’t think that much of it. The sour taste reminded me of the pickled salad that seems to get served as an accompaniment across central and eastern Europe, and so failed to provoke anything like excitement in me. Finally we pushed our plates away. It was then that our waiter reappeared to take our dessert order – we had forgotten that puddings were included in the price. Fortunately the servings that came were on the small side, and rarely have I been so relieved! Paul ordered a Korean sweet cake, a small spongy square dripping with a cinnamon and rum syrup. It was almost overpoweringly sweet. In contrast my plum wine sorbet was cool, refreshing, and quite heavenly. On the plate it did not look like much, but in the mouth it was delicious; delicate yet sharp, with a light plum flavour but a warmer spirit aftertaste. My relief at the size of the portion soon gave way to sorrow.All this food for only £18.90? Bargain! Obviously the beer was separate, but even so we had absolutely stuffed ourselves for £25.00 including tip. And in doing so, we had visited one of the real hiddem gems on the Manchester culinary scene. If you go I really recommend checking out the set menus. Regardless, the dumpling soup, the beef bulgogi and the plum wine sorbet are absolute musts. Long may Koreana continue for another 24 years!(I am aware of only one other Korean eatery in Manchester, Seoul Kimchi on Upper Brook Street)
Brazil - 23/02/09Nei, the patron of Tropeiro, told us a story. He had been working for a variety of Manchester’s premier restaurants since he arrived from Brazil, but always harboured a dream of opening his own establishment. He was alerted to an opportunity when a restaurant folded on Sackville Street. Visiting the location, Nei found that the entrance itself actually stood on the corner of Sackville and a shorter alleyway… an alleyway by the name of Brazil Street. How could he fail to turn his dream into a reality…?There are three Brazilian eateries in the city centre – Botego Brazil in the Arndale Market, Pau Brasil on Ancoats, and Tropeiro opposite Sackville Gardens. The latter two are churrasqueiras. Churrasco simply means barbecue, and flame-grilled meat lies at the heart of the dining experience here. It is a cuisine that descends from the cowboys or tropeiros of southern Brazil, and the interior décor of their namesake restaurant is decorated with frescos of these hardy individuals roasting joints of meat over their campfire.The prix fixe menu is £19.55. For this you can eat as much as you want (or are able to). Paul and I each ordered a bottle of Brazilian beer (Palma Louca, a brand I had not previously heard of). This was a pale, slightly hoppy beer. Its taste, and the fact that it was served in tall slim glasses, reminded me of kölsch, the characteristic beer of Cologne. As we drank the patron explained the concept. There was a salad bar from which we could help ourselves – but take it slowly he urged. We shouldn’t take too much as meat would be coming up fresh from the kitchen as soon as it was cooked. This is the concept of rodizio. Rather than cooking a discrete portion of meat – an 8 oz steak, say – the chefs would work on entire joints. When they were ready these would be brought up and carved fresh for anyone who wanted any. There were ten different types of meat on offer that day, so it was important to pace oneself.Wise words indeed. And the salad bar was tempting. It was not just salad, but cheese, a wide-range of beans, rice and potatoes. There were also tureens of stew. One I was determined to try was the Brazilian national dish, feijoada. This is a black bean and pork stew, and was an inky purple in colour. I can’t say I liked it. It was fatty and acrid to the taste. Apparently it dates from the colonial period, when meat was reserved for the Portuguese ruling classes only. Slaves, blacks, and native Brazilians were forbidden to eat meat. Hence, the ‘pork’ in feijoada came in the forms of fat, offal and the more unpalatable parts of the pig. I’m not sure how true this feijoada was to the traditional recipe, but I have to say it did not find favour with my palate. Still, worth a try!However, I ain’t no slave. So bring on the meat. And this they proceded to do. Every five or ten minutes a waiter in gaucho pants would emerge from the downstairs kitchen with a skewer of meat and a hefty knife to carve at your table. No sooner had we sat down than savoury pork ribs appeared, hot and lightly charred from the oven. I hadn’t finished mine when he was back again, this time with a skewer of sausages. Apparently these were traditional Brazilian sausages, linguica, but to me they tasted just like Lincolnshire with their herb-flavoured pork. These were followed up by chicken breast wrapped in bacon. This was a real success, as without the fat provided by the bacon the chicken could have been too dry on its own. Next to appear was beef skirt. This had been rather overcooked. I was disappointed in it. However, the waiter brought around a second lot of skirt later on and insisted that I have another piece as this had been prepared better. He was right; this was nowhere near as charred and was much more succulent. Also from the cow came a thick chunk of meat from the top of the rump. For me, this really was absolute top quality beef. As Paul commented, it had the "Wow" factor. There was nothing special about it, it was just a high-quality piece of prime rump, cooked to perfection. As our waiter carved off slices a cross-section of the joint appered before us – dark brown on the outside edges, fading through to progressively paler shades of brown, on to pink, and then a red core. In terms of texture and taste the contrast between the salted and flame-grilled outer and the liquescent heart was just superb. Top marks guys!The beef rib was a disappointment after this. His father’s costela, cooked slowly for six hours, was apparently what inspired Nei to be a chef. They came as big meaty bones, but they were just too fatty for my preferences, and I found myself trimming away half the meat. I know, I know – they’re beef ribs, what do you expect? So probably that was a comment more on my tastes than on the preparation of the dish. The leg of lamb (cordeiro) was another highpoint, marinated in garlic, rosemary and salt. (A warning – most of the meats had experienced being rubbed with salt before being grilled, so overall they had a tendency to be a bit on the salty side, certainly on the exterior of the joints. A work colleague who had previously been to Pau Brasil advised to sit as far from the kitchen door as possible; that way the salty rind will have ended up on someone else’s plate before they get to your table. So maybe a churrasqueira is not the place for someone with high blood pressure or who has been advised to cut down on salt in their diet). One final meat that came out did test the limits of what I was prepared to eat. The waiter approached with a fine skewer onto which small olive-sized bits were threaded. These were, he informed us, chicken hearts. Now I have a tendency to run from any bit of meat named after an organ, so I was more than willing to pass on this course until Paul forced me to have some. And in actual fact they weren’t bad, just a stronger, more intense chicken flavour. After all, the heart is just a muscle, he pointed out. Meat kept coming out in rotation, so I was able to get more than one helping of certain dishes. Plus the salad bar was always within reach. It was only when I had been eating for 1 ¾ hours and had used a toilet trip to surreptitiously perform a spot of ‘quantative easing’ of my belt that I had to raise the white flag. No more. I was stuffed. However, value fans, it is fair to point out that had I not been full to bursting I could quite easily have sat there all night and continued eating for no extra charge. I did have a yearning for an aperitif though, so I ordered a caipirinha to come along with the bill. For those not in the know, a caipirinha is a sweetly potent cocktail, and the national drink of Brazil. Its ingredients are simply lime, muscovado sugar, cruched ice, and cachaça, a spirit made from sugarcane and similar to rum. This proved to be both lip-tingling and pack a heck of a kick. This cost £6.00. With the beers at around £4.00 this meant that I had spent a tenner on drinks, but only £19.55 on the actual grub.So, who would Tropeiro appeal to? Or maybe it is easier to ask who wouldn’t it appeal to? With the all-you-can-eat salad bar even vegetarians should be able to stuff themselves silly. Though frankly the place is a carnivore’s paradise. Those who have been advised to cut down on salt in their diet should maybe think carefully about coming here, and it wouldn’t really be a great idea to come after a large lunch. But for everyone else I can certainly recommend a trip down to Brazil Street.An afterword: the next day the papers were full of pictures of samba dancers in the streets of Rio. It was Brazilian carnival, which maybe meant that it was an auspicious time to go to a Brazilian restaurant. Then I remembered the meaning of the word "carnival". Literally it means "a farewell to meat", and represented the last bout of indulgence before Lent. I'm not saying that I would give up meat for an entire 40 day period, but I did find that I did automatically spend the next two or three days on a vegetarian diet as I gave my gut chance to digest the rich meat I had consumed in such abundance...
by Liam Hetherington on March 28, 2009
Two months in, and it was time to take stock of my quest. What were the rules Paul and I were setting ourselves? Why were we doing it? And did we have a hope in hell of accomplishing it?THE RULESIn terms of duration I'm inclined to be lenient. I would like to try to get through all 80 within a year. However, it must be noted that the first two actually took place at the very end of December 2008. Really, I think the timeframe should be defined as 'a year(-ish)'. As long as we make an effort to keep the quest moving along, and try to aim to finish by the end of 2009 I don't think it matters that much if circumstances force us to roll over into 2010.Location-wise we were limited to Greater Manchester. Anything outside the conurbation would not count. Which proved to be a shame; during February I made a trip down to London (where I ate Turkish, Japanese & Thai), and another to Birmingham (where I had Indian, Malaysian [again], and Italian). They do not count. Otherwise I would just go down to London all the time and eat my way around their much larger and much more diverse food scene. On my February trip I was shocked to see a conglomeration of seven-or-so Vietnamese restaurants, where Manchester would be lucky to have one. Someone mentioned a Burmese restaurant, and I'm pretty sure there isn't one of those in Manchester. And I had eaten at a Peruvian restaurant on my previous London trip at the end of 2008; again, no Peruvians in Manchester. Yet...Okay then, so what counts as a 'national cuisine'? Just looking on Wikipedia was enough to make my head spin. Do you know how many countries there are in the world? No? Neither does the UN. Would the UK count as one nation, or could the four separate countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland count as four? What would we do for China - as a friend pointed out, Cantonese cuisine is very different from Szechuan, which is very different from Hunan. Essentially these are my rules, and I see fit to change them at any time, but really, if I'm saying an area is a country, then a country it is. So 'Chinese' would be one country (though 'Tibetan' could be another one). Palestine is not really a fully-functioning member state, but I would class it as a country, whereas I would not Northern Cyprus. The Order Of The Knights Of Saint John Of Malta has diplomatic recognition from more nations than Northern Cyprus, and even owns extra-territorial rights in places than Rome, but I wouldn't count that as a country either. This silly little new year's resolution has the danger of getting political, depending on what I preceive to be a country or not...WHY?To begin with I had two motivations. Firstly to increase my knowledge of the world and its cuisines. Secondly, to increase my knowledge of what Manchester has to offer. However, a third motivation has arisen - to do my bit to keep the restaurant scene in business. The recession has started to bite, and it has already claimed some scalps I was counting on - Che in Piccadilly (Cuban), Martin's Swiss Bakers (Switzerland), King Cobra in Rusholme, even Le Petit Blanc (French). There is a bit of enlightened self-interest going on here - try to keep the restaurants going through the lean years so they will still be here when the economy picks up again. It's not really the best time financially for me to be committing to eating out once or twice a week, but I encourage people out there to make an effort to keep eating out.IS IT POSSIBLE?Erm. Probably not. While Manchester is pretty multi-cultural and multi-ethnic it is no London or New York. Having had a search on the internet I could only come up with a list of 50 possibles (and that included King Cobra). We're going to have to play it smart and keep our eyes open. And - if it really comes down to it - cheat...Anyway, the journey continues here.
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