Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Celebrating Turkish Dalston

I blogged recently about Mangal, one of my most favouritest restaurants in the world and, happily, less than 10 minutes walk from my flat. That was, of course, before the riots of August 2011, which saw Dalston protected by the efforts of the local Turkish community, guarding their businesses foremost, but happily, stopping the looting from spreading west to Newington Green. The Saturday following was declared Thank Turk It's Saturday by a Facebook group, with over 6,000 'attending' and pledging to go and support the local Turkish businesses. I do anyway, but it was nice to have a more altruistic reason to do so.

That day, I went to my other favourite kebaberie, Yeni Umut 2000 on Crossway, where I celebrated last year's birthday and was also home to my first Dalston kebab experience a few years back. It's less well known and written about than the Mangals and is slightly more down at heel. The ocakbasi grill is in the middle of the restaurant with tables around, making for an intense and wonderful experience, with pally service and absolutely beautiful grills, all served with amazing bread and salad. I always order a plate of grilled onions in a tangy sumac dressing as part of the mix – onion breath is just not something I worry about!


Belinda, a superfab workmate and fellow Dalston/Stokeyite, has been banging on at me for ages to try Cafe Z Bar, further up towards Stoke Newington. Her recommended dish was the Mix Meneman, a Turkish scrambled egg dish. I love scrambled eggs and Turkish food, so surely the perfect brunch choice. I went a couple of weekends ago to celebrate the end of dissertation (I've been doing a lot of that actually – it seems to prefix everything I do) and it was worth the wait.

Mix Meneman is basically many eggs, chopped tomatoes, garlic, feta, Turkish lamb sausage and spinach leaves, all scrambled together and served in a metal dish. What can I say? It was delicious, maybe surprisingly runny, probably because it's quite heavy on the tomato, and perfect scooped up with fresh flatbread.

My friends shared some mezze dishes and found them to be tasty and exceedingly good value. My only complaint was that the service was a little surly and the music a bit random (early 00s chart) and loud. But the food/value ration definitely made up for it. I'll be back.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Persia via Peckham

A few weeks ago we took a little trip down to South East London. My London knowledge is very north-centric but I am routinely tantalised by blogs and reviews and tweets of SE London's burgeoning culinary offerings, but being wrapped up in my studies, I hadn't yet had the opportunity to visit this corner of town and sample it's greatest hits. On a separate note, as we consider our future housing possibilities, it is clear that much of North and East is becoming ridiculously pricey, even for people on pretty decent salaries, so a little cycle down south also served the purpose of exploring the side streets and high streets and asking 'Could I live here?'.

Top of my list was Persepolis – a Peckham cornershop specialising in Persian stock cupboard ingredients, fresh produce and cultural artefacts (shisha pipes, music and much more). Mrs Cornershop is Sally Butcher, who has published a Persian cookbook and is just about to bring out another: Veggiestan. She also runs a dryly comedic and insightful twitter feed that I've been following for a while, tempting me down to SE15 to stock up on rare ingredients. We also called in at Anderson & Co, a fancypants deli on Bellenden Road, a gentrifying strip of Peckham that estate agents will have you believe is some kind of urban shangri-la. And zipped rouund the streets of Peckham, Nunhead, Camberwell and Telegraph Hill. All surprisingly hilly.

So after a delicious slice of courgette cake with lemon frosting and a Square Mile coffee at Anderson & Co...

...we hit up Persepolis. It was beautiful inside: busy, colourful, lots of hand-written notices, many different varieties of pickles – pickles for all tastes and cuisines. Everything was laid out nicely and the selection was incredible. Pretty much any spice you could imagine was in stock, and in generous, well-priced bags. Most impressive was the selection of fresh specialist produce, including breads, vegetables and sweets that you would really struggle to find elsewhere. I just bought dried barberries, dried sour cherries, dried rose petals and a couple of jars of Persian pickled cucumbers, perfect for making Salad Olivieh.

I decided to try out a few of the ingredients in a Persian meal at home, and particularly practice my tahdig – the classic Persian way of cooking rice. I served with a tangy lemon chicken and a simple salad of tomato, cucumber, herbs and pickles. The tahdig can be made various ways and every Persian cook will insist their method is the best. I did a bit of googling to try and work out a relatively straightforward method for my first – it went a little bit like this:

  1. Rinse the basmati rice you need (at least 75g per person – this is pretty tasty, and people will want more!) several times until the water runs clear
  2. Soak for at least an hour in lightly salted water
  3. Drain and place in boiling water - boil until cooked (maybe 8 minutes or so – don't want it to be mush)
  4. Leave to drain; meanwhile, in a thick-bottomed saucepan heat a bit of oil or butter, enough to coat the bottom, maybe add a sprinkling of sugar.
  5. Once the oil is hot, tip in the cooked rice, but don't stir! Just make 4 thin wells into the rice and cover with a tea towel, then a lid (wrap the flapping bits of tea towel into the handle.
  6. Take a few strands of saffron and put in half a cup of boiling water – allow to diffuse for a few minutes, turning the water a light yellow, then pour into the thin wells. Carry on cooking for up to an hour, but 30-40 minutes should be fine.
  7. You will then have a beautifully fragrant rice, with a caramelly, perfumy, crispy base. Mix it up a bit and serve!

I mixed in dried barberries, which I'd soaked in soaked in water and then caramelised in butter and sugar before putting the boiled rice into the saucepan with oil. From googles, it seems like chicken and barberry rice is a classic combination. I used this recipe for the lemon chicken – the sauce was AMAZING. I couldn't have enough of it, so lucky I made too much.

So I'm definitely sold on Persian cooking, and look forward to developing my repertoire further, especially for veggie friends once my copy of Veggiestan arrives. On South East London, I wasn't fully swayed, but having such a brilliant food store nearby is definitely a big pull-factor!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Back. This time properly.

So I'm actually back this time. Having spent the summer turning out an epic dissertation for my Masters and working on the policy report for a major campaign for Shelter, both of which culminated last week. So the summer of writing about policy is over, and it's time to do other things and write about them again. I did spend a lot of time eating nice food - it was my reward for every epic day in the office or the library, and so have many food stories to tell.

Let's start with the burgers. Because 2011 has been the summer of the burger. But it's not the first burger renaissance in recent foodie memory. About 5 years ago, 'gourmet' burgers were all the rage. A rash of new mid-market chains popped up in middle-class high street locations, including the Fine Burger company, gourmet burger kitchen and Ultimate Burger, all with largely similar menues putting a 'spin' on the traditional burger - sweet chilli sauce, portabello mushrooms, thick cut fries, served in sanitised settings. The message was think again: burgers can be posh, don't you know. When the recession hit, many stores shut up and people were inundated with 2 for 1s (a personal hate) to get them to buy up the ailing brands. These chains are still going, but relegated to the naff of the O2 and shopping centres.

The arrival of Byron Burger a few years ago re-ignited the burger debate. But this time it was more about how simple you could make your burger and how well you could do those few simple components, with a paired down menu consisting of a few classic variations of the burger - cheese, bacon, cheese and bacon - and classic sides, fries, onion rings and courgette fries. Tasty. Byron has quickly expanded across central and yummy London and their restaurants are always busy.

The 2011 twist is even more back to basics, taking the Byron simplicity, but ditching the chic interior design. Well, just ditching interiors altogether. It's all about the BURGER VAN.

Meatwagon have arguably been at the vanguard, developing a cult following with their van dishing out amazing burgers to South East Londoners for the best part of last year til it got stolen. Their stint in the upstairs room while the Goldsmiths Tavern was being renovated whipped the kids up into a frenzy, with bright young things journeying to New Cross from all over to sample the #Meateasy speakeasy burger dining. It was literally amazing. We turned up at 6pm on the dot and already a sizeable queue was lined up. By the time we left at 8pm, the queue snaked right down the stairs, out the door and halfway round the block. Some of those people would be waiting for 3 hours for their burger.

I ordered a Dead Hippy Burger, which is The Meatwagon's spin on a Big Mac. Two juicy, meaty burgers, still light pink inside, smothered in mustard, served in perfectly light buns with cheese and gherkins. Boyf ordered one with cheese and bacon. And we had sides of fries and onion rings, which it turns out was a bit on the conservative side. City boy types sitting next to us ordered buffalo wings, chilli cheese fries and hot dogs in addition to their burgers.

Truly amazing though. The Meatwagon is coming to the end of a summer residency in Peckham Rye, as well as doing a number of festivals and one offs, including a night at Dalston Roof Park. Nothing quite like a burger and a pale ale, sat on synthetic grass, gazing over the rooftops of Dalston. Oh yes.

Last week I finally tried got to go to Lucky Chip, a slightly less well-known and hyped burger van that has been stationed just off London Fields this summer. Open from about 6pm in Netil Market, a goods yard with a bike workshop in an old bus parked there too, Lucky Chip just does burgers, hot dogs, fries and onion rings. No satay sauce or raita and lamb burgers, but classic ingredients, piled copiously together between buns. Oh my. Pete ordered a Selleck, which had burger, cheese, a colossal beetroot dipped onion ring and a hefty pineapple ring. Now try fitting that in your mouth in one:

I opted for a slightly more classic Sheen - cream cheese, smoked bacon, mature cheddar and caramelised red onions. Still absolutely massive, and utterly artery clogging, but an absolutely perfect combination of ingredients. We munched silently, apart from sporadic groans of pleasure and sighs of eating exhaustion.

The sides were also delicious. The beetroot flavoured onion rings were...huge. And maybe a little on the salty side, but you could ask for them to hold the sea salt if you were concerned. The chips were tasty too - hand-cut, skins on, and organic, apparently. Our chosen combination of dips weren't available, so the kind guys gave us little pots of home-made BBQ sauce (hickorylicious), deep garlic aioli, wasabi sauce and sweet chilli sauce. Just wow.

We cycled back to Newington Green, worrying that the frames of our bikes may crumple underneath us. But intensely happy.

It's not just vans that are in the burger market - posh restaurants are also spinning a good line of burgers, and Young and Foodish has just updated their Top 10 burgers in London list. Many burger opportunities await. Anyone fancy a burger odyssey?