The quest becomes a race as we approach the end of 2009...
by Liam Hetherington on January 6, 2010
Singapore – 11/11/09It always pays to have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C. Paul and I had headed out for a bite to eat, only to find that our chosen destination only served food between 1pm and 3pm. Rapidly changing plans we decided to try somewhere else… only to find that it shut at 6pm, a mere five minutes earlier. Hungry and with time limitations we decided to eat anywhere nearby. We picked a noodle bar in Fallowfield by the name of Fuzion. I pass it twice daily on my bus route and had always fancied trying it; Paul had eaten there previously and enjoyed it. So in we went.Fuzion follows the standard set up of most noodle bars, pioneered by Wagamamas – long shared tables and benches, and a choice of various east-Asian fusion dishes, inspired by Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. It was only as I scoured the menu though that something in particular caught my eye - Singapore noodles. Unprepared, and quite by chance, I decided that this could be my meal no. 61.Paul and I both ordered Singapore noodles. Paul chose to have the traditional thin rice vermicelli noodles with his; I decided to try something different, noodles by the name of ho fun. These were very wide (wider than tagliatelle) flat ribbons of rice vermicelli. Over these was a mildly spicy mix of stir-fried red and green pepper, carrot, beansprouts, pork and prawns. For £6.20 it was a good filling bowl. My beer cost half as much again - £3.10 for a bottle of Tiger. Which, even though it is widely available in Manchester originates in ‘the Manchester of the East’, as Singapore was once called. And sitting on benches at communal tables in this modern and clean noodle bar slurping up noodles with chopsticks I was able to allow myself the brief fantasy that I was somewhere far beyond the sea. A fantasy that persisted until I stepped out into the litter-strewn streets. There would be no litter in Singapore…
Chile – 13/11/09The weather outside was distinctly chilly. But the welcome in Chile was warm. Hidden down an alleyway off Cross Street (between Subway and Johnsons, right by Albert Square) a doorway leads downstairs to this secluded restaurant. Like its near-neighbour the equally-subterranean Armenian Taverna, Leoni’s has been a fixture on the Manchester dining scene for decades now. But Leoni himself is long-gone; the cellar is now Chilean-owned, something which injects a touch of latin spice to an otherwise standard Italian menu of pizzas and pastas. The waiter hung up our coats and Paul, Ana and I were escorted to our table. Tango posters, panpipes and charangos hung on the walls… next to a large photo of Luciano Pavarotti, presumably here in this very restaurant. I hoped they’d had chance to restock since!The menu had something for everyone. Lots of it would be recognisable from your local Italian, with pizzas and pastas and familiar antipasti. But there is also a list of tapas available too. The main courses reflect this cross-continental fare – rib-eye steak sits alongside paella, meatballs alla Napoletana and king prawns piri piri. But there several dishes with a distinct South American heritage. Pollo Boracho (‘Drunken Chicken’) came is a sauce of cream, pineapple, and four different liqueurs. The Parillada was a mixed grill of rib-eye, lamb chops, marinated chicken and chorizo which cast my salivating mind back to the Argentinian steaks and Brazilian churrascaria I had enjoyed so far this year. At £19.95 though it looked a pretty substantial dish.Instead I ordered Pollo Andino (Andean Chicken). This was flame-blackened chicken breasts marinated in lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and ‘herbs from the Andes’. It could have done with a bit more of the lemon juice; as it was it tasted pretty like a chicken Kiev with garlic butter. But there was just about enough of a zing there to give it a difference. And its accompaniments were impressive – roast potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrot. Oh, and a little smattering of salad. And the veg was well cooked, not over-cooked. It was a very nice addition to the meal, and slightly unexpected. Decent value for £11.95. Paul had chosen Latin American-style lamb skewers (£12.95). This was actually just the one skewer, a wide, lethal looking bit of cutlery, threaded with sizzling cubes of lamb and slices of onion and pepper. It came with a timbale of rice and a pot of a chimichurri-like dip.The Italian section of the menu was explored by Ana. Her £9.50 calzone - essentially a filled and folded over pizza – was absolutely massive. Frankly I’m astonished she managed to finish it off!To accompany the meal Paul and I thought it was only fair to enjoy a bottle of wine. To reflect its dual influences Leoni’s has two different house reds and whites – an Italian and a Chilean. Of course, we ordered the Chilean, a £13.50 bottle of Santa Serena cabernet sauvignon-merlot. The rest of the named wines were a mix of South American (Chilean and Argentinian) and European (predominantly Italian and Spanish) vintages. After all that we were too stuffed for dessert. What I did do though was order a liqueur. I had seen that the menu boasted a home-made traditional Chilean liqueur called cola de mono for £2.95. Its name literally means ‘tail of the monkey’! Thankfully it didn’t actually taste like a primate’s derriere. Flavour-wise it was a vaguely coffee-tasting spirit, a bit like a Bailey’s Irish Cream but with a slightly sharper backnote. And indeed it is made from coffee, milk and grappa-like aguardiente (‘firewater’), flavoured with vanilla and cloves. It was quite nice. Which was a good thing as three more glasses came complimentary with the bill. And considering the fact that Ana wasn’t keen on trying hers that essentially meant that I ended up having three glasses of the stuff, on top of my half-bottle of wine. One would almost think they were trying to get me drunk. All the same, it certainly warmed me up prior to facing the chill of the streets again.Leoni’s is certainly somewhere I would visit again. They have now started aggressively marketing some good value offers – in particular a pre-theatre two course menu for £7.95, and a £4.95 offer of any pizza or pasta and a soft drink at lunchtimes.
South Africa – 15/11/09There was a man eating crocodile at Jabula.It was me.For at the South African owned and run Jabula you can not only eat South African meals, but you can also eat South African meats.Jabula is the only South African restaurant in the UK outside London, and conveniently located for Manchester and Liverpool in Ellesmere Port, at the River Dee end of the Manchester Ship Canal. As such it lies in Cheshire rather than Greater Manchester – my first foray out of the county, and something I had originally planned not to do. But it was so temptingly near – a bare ten minute drive from my girlfriend’s place in Chester in fact – that I would have kicked myself if I had missed out.The modern redbrick restaurant is located right by the National Canal Boat Museum (scene of many school trips in my youth!), and near the Cheshire Oaks Outlet Village. Arriving on a November Sunday evening it was already dark, and the lights of Stanlow twinkled prettily on the canal outside. Inside it was warm however, with dark wood African tribal carvings (some of which were for sale), animal print fabrics and some rather nifty indirect light fittings. We had pre-booked a table for six – myself, Rebecca, her sister and brother-in-law, and a real life tame South African friend of mine called Margaret and her husband Chris. The menu is heavy with South African cuisine. Actually, it would be said to be principally Boer cuisine: food of Dutch origin but adapted to make best use of the bounty of the region. Margaret nodded approvingly at the inclusion of frikkadel meatballs, Durban curry, Cape bobotie, potjie, biltong and boerewors sausage. The influence of British settlers – or indeed the indigenous pre-colonial inhabitants – was not incredibly apparent. I had more or less decided what I was going to have (frikkadel, followed by a bobotie casserole) when we asked what the specials were. These turned out to be dishes that I don’t think I could have envisaged trying anywhere else. So that completely changed my decision.So first, the soup of the day for £2.95. What was the soup of the day? It was mushroom, potato and crocodile. That’s right - crocodile-infested soup! It was a pale green colour, attractively swirled with cream. If I had not been told it contained crocodile (freshly caught outside in the canal according to the waitress) I would never have guessed. The main taste was of mushroom and potato as one might guess, but there were small bits of meat in there. Had I not known I would have presumed them to be chicken or turkey.So does crocodile ‘taste like chicken’ (a favourite phrase of mine, taken from Les Hiddens, the Australian ‘Bushtucker Man’ who, no matter what revolting bug he was munching on would utter "Mmm – tastes like chicken!")? Well no – as I found out with my main course. This was the Game Africa mixed grill – crocodile, ostrich, kudu, and that most South African of creatures the springbok, all served with your choice of sides. I’ll admit now there wasn’t a lot of meat on the plate – just two or three bite-sized pieces of each of the four. But it was a good starter to compare and contrast.Crocodile was easiest to identify as it was the only white meat. On its own it had a slightly-briney taste – it resembled a pan-fried scallop more than any poultry. And it was a bit of an acquired taste – I’m not sure I’ll be ordering a crocodile steak any time soon. Kudu, the second largest antelope, was a dark red meat, similar to venison in that respect. It had a quite distinctive flavour, rather like liver. Quite different to that of springbok, South Africa’s national animal. In fact, I was not entirely sure which meat came from the springbok and which from the ostrich. I suppose I was expecting ostrich to be a white meat like chicken or turkey (or crocodile). Instead it was just as red as the antelope meat, and is hence obviously more like duck in that respect. Both springbok and ostrich meat was very fine-grained, and sweeter than that of the kudu. Ostrich meat is apparently pretty much the lowest in fat and cholesterol you can buy, even though it has much more of a ‘red meat’ taste than poultry. Certainly something I will look out for again!To accompany the meat I went for potato wedges (in a southern-style coating obviously). And I also ordered (for £1.50) a pot of that most peculiarly South African condiment monkey gland sauce. To make it yourself, first, take your monkey… Or not. I think that maybe monkeys and glands are possibly the only ingredients the sauce does not contain. It seems, as explained to us by the waitress, to be composed of the left over dregs of practically any and all bottles and jars you might have in your kitchen – ketchup, soy sauce, Worcester sauce, red wine, port, fruit chutney, ginger, onion and garlic. The end result is a fruity brown sauce, quite sweet-and-sour on the palate. To be honest I didn’t need it. Trying four exotic meats for the first time I didn’t want to drown out their flavours, and the potato wedges had enough seasoning of their own. Still, a nice thing to investigate!To drink with my meal I was on beer rather than wine. The only South African beer I had ever drunk before was castle; this did not seem to be available on this visit however. Instead, when the waitress reeled off a list of available brews in her South African accent I decided I would have the beer called ‘Vinduk’. This was a mis-hearing on my part though: It was actually called Winhoek. And it came from Namibia rather than South Africa. Due to the German legacy in Namibia (formerly ‘German South-West Africa’) it was a clean crisp-tasting lager. When I fancied a second drink I thought I’d best choose a different (hopefully South African) beer. So I went for a Tafel Lager… which again proved to be a product of Namibian Breweries Ltd. Can I claim that country too do you reckon…?I would have been happy with all this as my meal. But Margaret was prodding for pudding. And indeed the chilled cake display did look very appetizing. So at her insistance (okay, maybe not that much persuasion was required…) I too ordered dessert. We both had a slice of melktert - or ‘milk tart’. This was a pastry base with a sweet creamy filling, made out of (I think) condensed milk. I think Margaret enjoyed it more than I did.If you are looking for something a bit out of the usual, then I think Jabula is the place for you. It’s certainly somewhere to impress your (non-vegetarian) friends. I would pre-book before you make the journey though – I can guarantee it’ll get busy during the World Cup next year! Oh, and while you are on the phone, tell them it’s your birthday…
Turkey – 19/11/09I was looking forward to my Turkish meal. I had not long returned from Turkey where I had happily chomped my way through the menu – sherberts and sweetmeats in Istanbul, manti in Göreme, pide in Niğde… and stomach cramps in Antakya! But closer to home I had no fears – I even took a date!As such, a visit to a cheap kebab take-away was out of the question. This suited me fine. So instead I made a booking at Istanbul Grill in Didsbury. This place had always looked classy to me, and so it proved. We were seated in comfy high-backed leather chairs and provided with a menu. The only problem was that there was too much on offer! So much so that we could not decide which starters we wanted. And so we followed the waiter’s suggestion to order the Karisik meze - mixed starters – for £7.50. This meant that we got a big platter of starters: creamy, nutty humus, tangy tabule, stuffed vine leaves (yaprak sarmasi), spicy Turkish sucuk sausage (similar to the sujuk Paul and I had tried further up Wilmslow Road at the Syrian Aladdin), fried hellumi goat’s cheese, feta cheese pastries (borek), and a rich, deliciously tasty tomato / aubergine dip, all together with pieces of pitta bread. This was a great introduction to Turkish meze, and I would recommend it. As far as I could see, there was only one dish missing for this mixed platter - imam bayildi. At core this is just an aubergine, stuffed with green pepper, tomato, garlic and onion. I had made a special effort to track it down when I was in Istanbul purely because I liked the name – literally it means "the imam fainted". And the authentic Istanbul imam bayildi had not disappointed me – at the time. But the Istanbul Grill version was so much better! Ordering it separately (£4.20) was a great idea. It really was a plump, saucy taste explosion. Frankly, if you are not an aubergine fan I would challenge you to come here, order this, and not be converted. It was super!Having shared the meze starter, Rebecca and I ordered separate main courses (though obviously we tried each others… in the name of ‘research’!). I had been tempted by the mixed chargrill, but was concerned that it might overface me. So instead I ordered kulbasti, slow-cooked paprika lamb (£13.95). The menu had promised that this dish would be ‘incredibly tender’, and so it proved – juicy chunks of lamb in a thick richly warming red ragu of paprika, red wine, and strips of sauteed onion. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my paprika lamb – but I think if I go back I might order Rebecca’s ispanakli tavuk (£12.95). This was chicken breast stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. It came with an orange sauce. I wouldn’t have thought this would have worked – sweet orange sauce, tart feta, peppery spinach? But it did work – it did work very well. The creaminess of the cheese and soft spinach ensured that the chicken was lovely and moist. If I have one complaint at all, it was that both meals were served with ‘Istanbul rice’. This was a small timbale of rice, and not really enough to go with either dish. But because they had been listed on the menu as coming with rice, we had not ordered any sides / accompaniments. My advice would be to order a side order of more rice for £2.20 to share between two.Otherwise, no real grumbles about Istanbul Grill. The food was good, the décor was smart, clean and understated, and the beer was authentic Turkish Efes (which I like in moderation, but which I find too dry and gassy for repeated drinking when on holiday). It cost £2.70 a bottle. So all in all, a very decent meal. Which in some aspects actually improved upon the food I ate in Turkey itself!(It was nice to find a restaurant named after the wonderful city of Istanbul. I had always suspected there was some civic ordinance that decreed that all Turkish restaurants had to be called either Efes, Bodrum, orTopkapi Palace. And while Manchester does have an Efes (Princess Street), and two Topkapis (a restaurant on Deansgate and a take-away just up Wilmslow Road in Didsbury) there isn’t a Bodrum that I know of. There is another classy Turkish restaurant on Bridge Street by the name of Café Istanbul – from where the owners and chefs at Istanbul Grill all seem to have originated.)
Italy – 26/11/09When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie - that's amore!Manchester is not short of Italian restaurants. Together with Chinese and Indian food, Italian must make up the ‘Big Three’ in cuisines in the UK – seemingly every village will have one or more of these eateries. Yet throughout the year I always knew that when I got round to my Italian meal there was only one place I was going to - Croma.Croma is a pizza restaurant. And yes, I know there is more to Italian food than pizza! Trust me – I’ve eaten my way through Florence, Sienna, Venice and Verona as well as Rome. Yet I have very rarely had pizza while in Italy. But Croma does pizza well, and it often does pizza with a twist.There are now three Croma restaurants in Manchester, all of which I have now visited this year. There is the original city centre branch off Albert Square (complete with tree), there is the newest restaurant in Prestwich, a dramatic split-level glass-fronted building where I saw in New Year, and there is the Chorlton branch, which is where Paul and I met up. It has a terrace out front for sunny days, big windows, sturdy wooden tables, and toilets hidden away up a narrow staircase. Its clientele on this visit at least was a cross-section of trendy Chorlton – families with well-behaved children, courting couples, smart media types, even a rock star (singer-songwriter Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column, Factory Records’ first signing). Paul and I obviously fitted in very well! (I believe that there is now a further branch in Leeds, as well as – peculiarly enough – two more restaurants in Boston and Plymouth. Massachussetts, rather than Lincolnshire and Devon…)As a rule of thumb, if you want to explain Croma to a Brit I would say "Think of Pizza Express" – a higher class restaurant based around pizzas, rather than a hole-in-the-wall takeaway. However, Croma still has a sense of individuality that I find lacking in the big national chain. The staff seem prouder of working here, the food is tastier, menu is more adventurous, and the prices are slightly lower.Paul and I ordered baked doughballs (£1.95), crisp yet lovely and chewy and dripping with garlic butter as we scrutinised the menu. I think I mentioned that they have an adventurous menu? Well, here they go far beyond the usual Margherita – Pepperoni – Hawaiian options. Try the Tandoori Chicken, with cashew nuts, coriander, lime, yogurt and mint dressing ans well as the strips of tandoori chicken breast – surprisingly this works! It’s one of my favourites. Or the Inglese, a pizza topped with English breakfast ingredients such as bacon, cumberland sausage, free range egg and Worcestershire sauce. Or the Anatra, with peking duck, plum and hoi sin sauce (a little too rich for my tastebuds). They also use good local ingredients, as seen in their Garstag Blue and Goat’s Cheese pizza.Paul ordered the Aglefino. This cost £6.95 and it was topped with smoked haddock, baby leeks, free range egg, emmenthal cheese, chopped parsley, lemon juice and crème fraiche. I’ve had it before, and it really is a smasher! It has a very light, refreshing taste to it – perfect for a summer’s day I would say.However, I wanted something a little more traditionally Italian. As such I went for the Chilli Salsicci (£7.75). Juicy Tuscan sausage, mozzarella, sun blushed tomatoes, robust parmesan shavings, a chilli jam (!), and then fresh rocket on top. This was not one I had tried previously, but it was very nice, with a sweetness and touch of heat provided by the jam bringing out the sausage. Nor was it over-hot. This was a much heartier affair than Paul’s, a winter warmer of a pizza rather than a summer refreshment.To a large extent I ordered the pizza I did simply to complement my wine – a Tuscan pizza to go with a Tuscan wine. Paul was driving, but I decided to try a glass of the famous Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. At £5.95 a glass was not cheap (you could get a bottle of plonk from a supermarket for much less), but you have to accept restaurant mark ups, particularly if you order by the glass, especially if you are ordering such a high class wine. The humourously idiosyncratic wine menu described the vintage as "drink me, oh drink me wine", and it certainly did not disappoint. It was a rich plummy gob-full of wine, a damson-garnet hue, with a deep autumn fruit taste – lovely!With Paul’s soft drink the price was less than £25.00 in total. Perfectly reasonable. This would be due to the value of the pizza – you would be paying just as much for take-away pizzas, and they would be nowhere near the calibre of the crisp and tasty offerings you get here.There may be a world of Italian cuisine out there, but I do not regret having focused solely on pizza. Frankly, if you are in Manchester, an evening in Croma is too good to miss!
Tanzania – 01/12/09It seemed that all the African restaurants I was finding in Manchester were West African – Nigerian, Ghanaian, even Ivorian. The British link to East Africa did not appear to be reflected in the Manchester dining scene at all. No Ugandan, no Kenyan (despite the fact that Jomo Kenyatta did in fact visit the city for the 1945 Pan-African Congress). And then we spotted Kilimanjaro Café in Moss Side. Its sign promised ‘East African food’. Of course Paul and I had to check it out!First visit was a bit of a busted flush. It turns out they only serve food between 1-3pm daily. At other times it seems to function as a bit of a social centre for local Africans – at any rate the place was crammed full of people playing and watching games of dominoes. Those serving times ain’t the most convenient in the world. So Paul decided he would pick up some food one lunchtime and then come over to mine to eat it. As Paul tells it, the lady behind the counter was very welcoming, and once he explained what our intentions were she picked out a variety of food for us. A quick zap in the microwave back at mine and we were ready to eat.The main part of the meal we decided was rice. They did some very nicely cooked rice, with multi-coloured grains, slightly sweetened with raisins, carrot and onion. Really, it was like a pillau / pillow. With this we had some lamb cutlets, and a root vegetable stew – potato, carrot, onion etc. It was in many ways quite like a Lancashire hash (but minus the corned beef). So far, pretty nice. Certainly nothing to scare the children.With this we were also provided a tray of pretty insipid salad. And also a tray of stewed spinach, almost identical to that I had eaten during my Eritrean meal. And also a little cup of a very vivid green puree. It looked like very finely pulped mushy peas in its almost fluorescent grass-green hue. But a sniff gave it away – this was a very strong green chilli sauce. A teaspoon sent us running for the taps to get a drink. It was hot!The last component to the meal was the ever present starch item. In this case it was ugali. This was a slightly translucent white mass made of maize meal that had solidified into the shape of its container. A blast in the microwave and mushing it up with a fork revealed it to be pretty tasteless, like overcooked white rice. Something I think I can probably survive without in my diet.Still, other than that, the food wasn’t bad, and we got a lot of it for £10. Again, it is another African venue that looks unpromising from the outside, but where the warm welcome more than makes up for any short-comings!
Luxembourg – 02/12/09Luxembourg is something of a surprise addition to this list. On a Thursday lunchtime I wandered down to Albert Square to have a quick nose around the Christmas Market (otherwise known as the ‘Christmas German Market’ – of which later…). This is now the eleventh year of Manchester hosting a Central European-style Christmas market, where food retailers and craftsmen from the continent share stall space with local small retailers. Many stalls I was pleased to see making a return visit; many were new to me. One of the latter caught my eye – a small sign advertising Delicacies from Luxembourg. Well there was no way I expected to come across Luxembourgian cuisine in Manchester, so I took my chance.The stall was, like most of the others in the market a wooden chalet style affair, its peaked roof decorated with yule wreaths.They only have four things on offer – gluhwein (not really appropriate when I had to get back to the office), warm croissants with crème cheese, warm pretzel sticks, and hot gulash soup. Now I thought that gulash was a Hungarian dish. I had a quick conversation with the lady at the stall. Gulash was, she assured me, a traditional Luxembourg soup as well. So I handed over my £3 for a mug of the stuff. It was much closer to my expectations of what gulash should be than the gulash Paul had bought from a Polish take-away a couple of weeks earlier – a thick paprika orange, with potato and pork chunks.To go with it I thought I should have either a croissant or pretzel stick – both were £2. The lady said that a pretzel stick would be more authentic. They heated it up in its wrapper in a little toaster and handed it across. It was a thick chewy doughy stick – like a very thick crust pizza. It was sprinkled with melted cheese and small cubes of cooked ham. And a glance at the wrapper revealed it to have been manufactured by a company called Ditsch, from Mainz in Germany.So how authentically Luxembourgian was this meal? A Hungarian soup and a German pretzel. Well, I suppose the Grand Duchy has a touch of identity confusion, sandwiched as it is between some of the most influential nations in Europe. In fact, I know a girl from Luxembourg, and while she is fluent in English, French and German (the last two being two of the three official languages of Luxembourg), she cannot really speak Luxembourgish (the other official language since 1984). She confirmed that she would class neither of these as being particularly representative of the cuisine of Luxembourg. Searching the internet turned up a revealing quote from the website of the 2005 Luxembourg Presidency of the EU: "Luxembourg gastronomy… offers no scope for exaggerated patriotism. There is not a single indigenous dish which can in all conscience be described as typically an exclusively Luxembourgian". Which is a shame. A nation with almost two centuries of independence does not have a seemingly unique culinary culture; compare that to another small European nation such as Lithuania, which despite a history of interference by other powers still manages to have a flourishing culture and culinary manufacturing industry.
Sri Lanka – 02/12/08The only Sri Lankan restaurant in Manchester I was aware of was King Cobra in Rusholme. Sadly it closed at the very start of 2009, seemingly closing off one avenue for me. Or so it seemed. Then Paul had the good sense to move house. And a street away from himself he found a shop by the name od Kamal’s selling Sri Lankan, south Indian and Malaysian groceries. And so a meeting was convened around his new house.In preparation Paul had been in to see Warran in the store and explained what we were doing. A few packs of frozen ‘short eats’ were suggested, and Warran’s wife Kamala offered to actually cook us some curries – they do catering as a sideline. And so Paul had not only some starters to cook, but also two massive trays of curry prepared to a Sri Lankan recipe to keep warm for my arrival. They all came wrapped up in a Tamil newspaper.‘Short eats’ is the name given to Sri Lankan snack foods. These are the equivalents of Indian samosas or Chinese dim sum. For starters we had two packs of short eats manufactured by a Middlesex company called Elakkia – vegetable rolls and some fish cutlets. These were to be fried. They came out crisp, but already surprisingly spicy. Sri Lankan cuisine, we would find, tends to be slightly hotter than the general jalfrezis and rogan joshes from the mainland. The veg rolls were like Chinese spring rolls, but the fish cutlets were hotter, balls of fish in a croquette-like coating. Kamala had prepared us two curries for our main course – a meat curry and a vegetarian one, both of which Paul served up with rice. The meat one contained beef, which I felt was worthy of comment – generally, with the cow being a sacred animal in Hinduism, beef is one meat you will not find in Indian curries (along with pork due to the pig’s unclean status in Islam). It was fierily hot. The vegetable curry was milder, but contained a strange mix of vegetables that one would assume might not automatically feature in curries back in Sri Lanka such as cauliflower and tomato. This then could be an example of cooking techniques adapting themselves to whatever vegetables were fresh in British shops. In both though the distintive taste of coconut milk could be discerned.While Paul and I had only recently accepted that we would have to visit general groceries for ingredients and cook them ourselves, Kamal’s provided a great half-way house, in that they provided outside catering for us. This was a great chance to sample traditional home-cooked Sri Lankan food, twinned with the sort of grub they manufacture for sale. As I understand it, they are happy to do this for anyone that asks. They were friendly and helpful throughout. If I’m in the neighbourhood I may well stick my head in at Kamal’s and see what else they have on sale.
Switzerland – 08/12/09One Tuesday evening Paul and I ventured out into the Christmas European markets together. As I had been nosying around the previous week – on the day I ended up having a pseudo-Luxembourgian lunch – I had spotted a stall selling Swiss vegetarian grub. We went to see what was on offer.The stall had been nicely tricked out with Alpine scenes, skis and Swiss flags, and the staff had been tricked out in blue embroidered smocks. It was doing good business. Switzerland of course lies at the meeting point of three great influences – those of France, Italy and Germany. And these could be seen in the various dishes on offer and the ingredients that went into them – cheese, pasta, and hearty potatoes. All three were evident in my meal of Aelpler maccaroni - Alpine shepherd’s macaroni. This was a mix of macaroni pasta, whole new potatoes, and onion, under a cheese and milk sauce. The whole was a rather mustardy yellow in colour. I had ordered a large plateful for £5.00 (a small plate was £4.00). It was filling, but the contrast of potatoes and pasta just seemed a little odd to me. But this use of potatoes seems to be usual – the other dish on offer was raclette (£6.00), which was new potatoes, pickled onions and gherkins, topped with raclette cheese melted with a special machine. Paul had a mug of soup for his meal. I had a pint of Swiss Ueli beer instead – a German-style lager. As is the case with the markets the price was much more than I would expect to pay in a pub: £4.00. You actually have to pay £5.00, as this includes a £1.00 deposit for the glass, which you can reclaim if you return it. There were also Swiss chocolates on sale; but both of us decided to pass on dessert. Still, a useful little stop enabled us to polish off Switzerland, a few mere yards from where I had eaten Luxembourgish cuisine. But I still had a third visit to pay to the markets, to take a tour of German grub.
Hong Kong – 10/12/09Even as soon as I ticked off my Chinese meal in January I came under attack from friends: how could I class China, with its incredible size and radically different cuisines as just one nation? Really, I was told, I should have split the country up and had separate meals for Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, Beijing and so forth. I had never been satisfied with the argument – though I did of course make an exception in the case of Chinese-occupied Tibet. However, being well into December and running out of options I finally compromised and decided to allow the semi-autonomous Hong Kong to represent a separate meal.Mainly this was because I only had a brief gap between arriving home from work and leaving for the theatre. So I decided that I would patronise the New Hong Kong takeaway just down the road from mine. I supplied Paul with a menu in advance, and then phoned in the order to pick up at 5.30. Where possible I tried to order dishes that were specifically Hong Kong-ese – or at least Cantonese. Which shouldn’t have been hard, as due to to the British link with Hong Kong most Chinese catering establishments in the UK are Cantonese owned and run (though there are places in Manchester specialising in the cuisines of Szechuan, Hunan etc). As ever I let Wikipedia be my guide. The complete order was for a won ton soup to share (£2.20), steamed prawn dumplings (£2.80), Hong Kong style Sweet & Sour Pork (£3.60) with crispy noodles (£2.20), and Chicken and Green pepper in Blackbean Sauce (£3.60) with plain boiled rice (£1.40) - £15.80 in total. As it was over £12.00 we were also given a free bag of prawn crackers. I’m not really a big fan of prawn crackers – they inevitably feel greasy and taste very artificial, but I would never look a gift course in the mouth, so I took them. There were actually quite a lot there, and we didn’t manage to finish them off. The won ton soup was enough to serve two once decanted into bowls. This was a clear-ish broth with Chinese leaf and irregular brain-shaped wonton dumplings floating in it. It was tasty, and at £2.20 great value. To coplete our dim sum course we had har kau, steamed prawn dumplings. These were six slightly translucent, the pink prawn and green scallion inside being slightly visible. With soy sauce for dipping in and chopsticks for dropping with these were another great value addition to the meal.My main course was sweet and sour pork. I tend to steer clear of sweet and sour dishes as I find the taste overpowering, but I thought I ought to become re-acquainted. Not only is sweet and sour pork known as a Cantonese dish, but the takeaway menu even helpfully stated that it was served ‘Hong Kong style’. I’m not sure how this was more traditionally Hong Kong than any other sweet and sour dish, as it seemed pretty similar to me – pork, onions, peppers, pineapple, sticky sauce. The sauce tasted very salty, which was an issue as my noodles were also very salty. I had ordered crispy noodles just to see what they were. I should have guessed – cooked noodles then fried so that they were hard and brittle. They were not ideal as an accompaniment to a dish though as they were hard to get in the mouth with chopsticks. As a side to munch on – much like crisps – they would be fine.Paul’s Chicken and blackbean sauce was fine. It was my error that got him this. He had asked for the new Chilli in Blackbean Sauce dish on the menu, but I think I gave the lady the wrong number over the phone. So he ended up with green pepper instead of chilli pepper. Obviously the resulting dish was not as hot as he would have liked. As a takeaway goes, I’m not sure the New Hong Kong has anything to make it stand out from the crowd. Prices are reasonable however, certainly for the soup and har kau. Price and convenience are always the key factors in the takeaway market. And as to how ‘Hong Kong’ the dishes were – well, Hong Kong has always been a melting pot of various influences. I’m sure that everything we ordered could easily be found in Hong Kong.
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