Sunday 31 January 2010

Beijing Dumplings @ Jen Café (Chinese), London

Jen Café is a Chinatown institution and has been on its corner site on Newport Place for as long as I can remember. It's very much a caff reminiscent of the cha chaan tengs of Hong Kong serving a wide choice of hot drinks and breakfast stuff like toasted sandwiches. Whilst the bulk of the menu consists of siu mei (Cantonese BBQ) served with a choice of rice and noodles, there's only one reason why you come here and that's for their hand-made jiaozi or Beijing dumplings.

These dumplings remind me of Shun Yi Fu in Beijing and you know they're hand-made as you can see the ladies making them in the shop window. I ordered the jianjiao or fried dumplings (£5/8 pcs) but you can also order boiled dumplings (£4.50/8 pcs). There was a bewildering choice of drinks but being a bit of an old git, I ordered a tankard of hot chrysanthemum tea (£1.20).

The dumplings were perfectly pan-fried with a nice char on the outside. As these are Northern Chinese dumplings, they're more rustic than Cantonese dim sum but what they lack in delicacy they make up for in taste. The filling of pork, spring onion, chives, and Chinese leaf was juicy and was complemented well by the traditional vinegar dip.

I liked these dumplings so much that I decided to take some uncooked ones home with me. These cost £4.50/8 pcs and I was told to boil them for 10 minutes. After cooking, I dressed these with soy, sesame oil, chilli oil, garlic, ginger, and spring onion. As you can see from the photo above, I have a great future in plating-up !

Verdict: Jen's handmade dumplings make for a great snack or to share as a side order with a one-plate meal.

Other Stuff: They also serve veggie versions of the dumplings as well as Fuqing fishballs which I understand are the same as these.

Jen Café on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Dinner @ Empress of Sichuan (Sichuan), London

There's no doubt that the Chinese dining scene in the UK has been reinvigorated by the spicy flavours of Sichuan. You should know by now that my fave is Chilli Cool but there are loads of Sichuan eateries across London with Soho's classy Bar Shu being the most renowned. More recently, I've tried Red 'N' Hot, which also has outposts in Birmingham and Manchester where it does battle with the highly acclaimed Red Chilli mini-chain. Even Chinese restaurants that aren't ostensibly Sichuan have dishes from this part of South-west China on the menu.

Now you'd think I’d be well chuffed that Sichuan cuisine is taking off but truth be told I'm worried as I fear it may go the way of many culinary trends with places serving up dumbed-down and inauthentic dishes. So would Chinatown newcomer, Empress of Sichuan be a welcome addition to the growing ranks of decent Sichuan restaurants or would it be a cynical attempt to cash-in on the latest trend ?

First impressions of this Lisle St restaurant were strong – I liked the classy look of the dining room although the retro photos of Cliff Richard & The Shadows and Tom Jones bemused me. If this incongruous décor sounds familiar, that’s because this restaurant has retained the fixtures and fittings of its predecessor, the short lived Taiwanese seafood specialist, Keelung. In actual fact, the management is still the same and the only thing that's changed is the menu and the name of the restaurant !

Joining me for this meal was fellow blogger, Luiz aka The London Foodie and his partner in crime, Dr G. We were going to go for a burger but Luiz twisted my arm to come here instead. And you know what, I'm so glad he did because any fears that Empress of Sichuan might not be up to scratch were soon dispelled when our order arrived:
  • Beef slices in extremely spicy soup aka water-boiled beef or shui zhu niu rou (£12.50)
  • Fragrant chicken with dried chilli pepper aka la zi ji (£13.00)
  • "Farmers Fish" – baked fish with spring onion, cumin & black bean (£21.50)
  • Spicy green beans with minced pork & preserved veg aka siji dou (£8.50)
  • Dan dan noodles (£4.80)
The classic beef and chicken dishes did not disappoint - they were both gutsy with the chilli and Sichuan peppercorn taking centre stage. The beef was very tender and the 'spicy soup' seemed more refined than I was used to, well as refined as a giant vat of chilli oil can be. La zi ji – chicken bits tossed with dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorns – is probably my favourite Sichuan dish and it was as good here as I've eaten inside or outside of China. This superior version of the dish was the real deal with the chicken served on the bone. 

So far so good but things got better with the star dish of the night, "Farmers Fish" which was the one dish that was new to us all. I'd love to take credit for ordering this but actually this was the one dish that I didn't order. In an attempt to shake off my control freak tendencies, I let my dining companions choose a seafood dish and Dr G certainly came up trumps with this choice. The fish was perfectly baked with the flesh flaking off under a coating of spring onion, cumin and black bean. Whilst this combo sounds full on and potentially overwhelming, the three ingredients combined well and extra rice was ordered to mop up this moreish coating.

Spicy green beans are a staple order at Sichuan restaurants and as you can see from the main photo, they were beautifully cooked here. There was more minced pork than other versions of this dish and you could also pick out the distinct taste of preserved vegetable too. We also enjoyed the dan dan noodles – more soupy than I'm used to but with the trademark Sichuan flavours.

Service was very good, probably because there were surprisingly few diners on this Thursday night. We were brought some tea after the meal and had a chat with the friendly head waitress. She explained that the head chef was from Chengdu as was most of the kitchen crew and that there was a 20% discount for the month of January. This discount will continue in February until St Valentine's Day (weekends excepted). Together with steamed rice and a couple of rounds of beer, the bill clocked in at £81 for three including service and the 20% discount. Even without this discount I would have happily paid my share of the £100 or so bill.

So how does this newcomer compare to other Sichuan restaurants in the capital ? As Empress of Sichuan is an elegant upmarket restaurant, I think comparisons with Chilli Cool are facile as the latter serves up rustic, almost home-cooked food in humble surroundings. Its main rival is therefore Bar Shu but I can't really make a comparison, as I haven't eaten there in years. That said it'd have to be pretty special to best Empress of Sichuan.

Verdict: If I eat a better meal this year, Sichuan or otherwise then I'll be a very lucky man. My only reservation is whether Empress of Sichuan can consistently deliver such high standards when it gets really busy. 

Other Stuff: The people behind this restaurant also operate Leong's Legends (Taiwanese) and Golden Harvest (Cantonese / Dim Sum) in Chinatown as well as the contemporary Chinese restaurant Goldfish in Hampstead.

Empress of Sichuan on Urbanspoon

{Update March 2010 - On a subsequent visit, I really enjoyed the starters of lamb skewers and a cold dish of cucumber marinated with garlic and sesame oil. Of the mains, I was a tad disappointed with the duck in beer & chilli sauce but only in comparison with the rest of the meal. But the coup de grace were the complimentary pumpkin pancakes and before you ask, no we didn't blag them as bloggers.}

Sunday 24 January 2010

World of Noodles

Despite my moniker, I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud calling myself Mr Noodles. My blog is a bit crap compared to some of the stuff out there on noodles. In particular, I love blogs that 'discover' new types of noodles as well as those that have great recipes. Here are a couple of my faves that I'd like to share with you.

The incomparable Eating Asia, which I have followed for a long time, is one of the most fascinating blogs around. Most recently, they posted about a noodle that was new to me, the amazing palm noodles (shouzhang mian) from Sichuan.

With so many food blogs around, it takes a very special one to catch my eye. 3 hungry tummies from Melbourne is more than very special and their post 'The wonderful world of Asian noodles' is essential reading. If that wasn't enough, their recipes are to die for, in particular the Chinese and East Asian dishes.   

Thursday 21 January 2010

Dim Sum @ Harbour City (Cantonese), London

I couldn't write about old school dim sum without actually going for a big blow-out. The obvious venue was Chinatown – home to many old school joints – and I decided to check out Harbour City. I hadn't been to this Gerrard St stalwart in years but my curiosity was aroused by Bellaphon. For this post, I decided to draft in some expert help in the form of Helen aka World Foodie Guide. Sadly, Helen doesn't blog anymore but her guide on where to eat dim sum in London remains essential reading.

Now you might think Chinatown is the place to go yum cha but those days are long over. Nowadays, London's best dim sum is found elsewhere, my regular haunt is Phoenix Palace whilst Helen favours Pearl Liang. That said, it's handy to have somewhere in Chinatown to fall back on for dim sum - would Harbour City be that place ?

First impressions weren't great. Whilst I didn't mind the slightly dated interior, I did mind not being asked what tea I wanted. In fact I think they poured it before I even had a chance to take my coat off. We also seemed to have walked in on a staff training session as a Cantonese speaking waitress was training up a Mandarin speaking waiter when taking our order. I'm not sure why they don't have the 'tick sheet' menu common in most dim sum places – it would have made life much easier. That said ordering wasn't too much of an ordeal as the menu was bilingual and from it, we went for a mix of steamed dishes, fried snacks and the rest.......

Har gau (prawn dumplings) are usually a good indicator of the quality of a dim sum restaurant. The wrapper should be thin and translucent whilst the prawn filling should be well seasoned and not be minced too finely so as to retain some 'bounce'. The dumplings here just about pass the test, if anything the wrapper was too thin as it broke on contact with the chopsticks.

Cha siu bao is a classic and like most dim sum, you get three in a portion. But Helen and I are old enough to remember the golden age when these steamed bbq pork buns had a more generous filling and were so big that the basket could only fit two buns. Whilst the buns here were larger than what passes for average nowadays, they were sadly more bao than cha siu. Steamed whelks in curry sauce were quite moreish although like the rest of the steamed dim sum, nothing special.

Moving onto the fried snacks, these were competently executed with none of the stale greasiness that afflicts some dim sum places. We ordered wu gok (yam croquette), grilled bean wafer with minced prawn paste filling (of our order, this was Helen's fave – it was bit like a large spring roll made with a bean curd skin wrapper) and mak yu beng (fried cuttlefish cakes). There wasn't much wrong with these snacks but I thought they lacked finesse.

In particular, I couldn't help but compare the mak yu beng to Phoenix Palace's version which is studded with finely chopped water chestnuts that give it crunch as well as bounce. I realise how ridiculous that last sentence reads and you're probably thinking 'what a fussy ****' – well you’d be right but that's what eating dim sum for over 30 years can do to a man !

Cheung fun is a dim sum essential and my favourite is zhaliang – in my opinion, this was probably the pick of the bunch as there were signs of delicacy absent from the rest of the order. The fried dough stick wasn't greasy, the rice noodle wrapper was silky smooth, and the soy was served on the side to prevent the dough stick getting soggy. Its dishes like these that underline the superiority of the old school.

A dim sum session isn't complete without siu mei and noodles so I killed two birds with one stone by ordering three roasts with fried noodles (sam siu chow mein). There were no complaints about this healthy portion of cha siu, siu yuk, roast duck, and pak choi sat atop crispy fried noodles.

The dim sum is very cheap here with prices starting at £2.10 and the damage was roughly £28 for two including tea and service – although the bill was presented in that typically opaque Chinatown way. I did over-order and I bagged up some of the leftovers to take home so if you ditched the noodles, you could probably get away with spending around £10/head. Service wasn't bad by Chinatown standards – let's put it this way, my only real grumble was not being offered a choice of tea.

I can imagine if you were a long time regular at Harbour City then you'd feel quite at home but unfortunately I'm not. Both Helen and I thought it was distinctly average and whilst the dim sum was far from bad, I'd be hard pushed to think of anything that would lure me back.

I also realised over the course of this lunch, how much I missed the bells and whistles of high-end old school places like Phoenix Palace. It wasn't just about the better food and service, I also missed the small touches like being able to choose your own tea, the little name label on the teapot lid, and most importantly, the water chestnuts in the mak yu beng.

Verdict: If you happen to be in Chinatown and have a sudden dim sum craving then Harbour City is a cheap and cheerful option. That said I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here.

Other Stuff: Helen recommends Leong's Legends as the go-to place for dim sum in Chinatown although I've yet to try it.

Harbour City on Urbanspoon

Monday 18 January 2010

Matthew Norman - WTF ?

The last thing you anticipate from even the finest Chinese chef is the showing of respect to the veg. Here, though, the french beans were "wonderful. All spicy and ­perfectly crunchy," cooed my friend.

The above quote is from Matthew Norman's review of My Old Place from the Weekend Guardian magazine (16 January 2010).

So yet again, a 'professional' restaurant critic comes out with complete bollocks about Chinese food. Has this idiot never tasted Cantonese stir-fried pak choi with garlic or sampled fish-fragrant aubergine (yu xiang qiezi) from Sichuan ? Or perhaps, he thinks the chef isn't showing enough respect to veg when putting together lo hon zai or monk's vegetables - a complex dish comprising up to 35 ingredients eaten by Buddhist monks.

Well all I can say is that 'the last thing you anticipate from even the finest British restaurant critic is the showing of respect to Chinese food'.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Old School Dim Sum

Dim sum has been around in Britain for years and not just in London. My parents worked in a dim sum restaurant when they briefly lived in Birmingham in the 1960's and my earliest restaurant memories are of eating dim sum in Manchester in the 1970's. In those days, it was mainly eaten within the Chinese community but in the last decade it has become trendy and mainstream.

So when did it get trendy ? I guess it was in the early-noughties when hip London restaurants that served dim sum in designer surroundings opened up. Places like E&O and its siblings and Alan Yau's pair of Michelin starred restaurants, Hakkasan and Yauatcha. These places were soon followed by cheaper chain knock-offs like  Dim t and Ping Pong which took dim sum into the mainstream.

The literal meaning of dim sum is 'to touch the heart' and figuratively speaking, you'd be hard pushed to think of a more apt description as dim sum means much more than just food. Without sounding too mawkish, the best dim sum does touch the heart but on the rare occasions I've been to these trendy places, the only place they touched was my wallet.

At best you'll get high quality imaginative dim sum in opulent surroundings with prices to match. At worse, you'll dine on mass produced dumplings in a chain version of a designer dining room. But irrespective of the quality of the food, there's something missing from when eating out at these places that I can't quite express.

When pushed, I say it's because I like old school dim sum. But other than sounding like an embarrassing uncle trying to be cool, what do I actually mean by 'old school' ? That's the question I'm going to attempt to answer with my 'old school' rules.

Is Granny there ?
It's an old cliché that the best Chinese restaurants are those where the Chinese eat. This may not always be true but I think it applies to dim sum restaurants at the weekend, especially if granny is there. You've definitely landed in an old school joint if it has more than its fair share of Chinese matriarchs. But what does granny look for in a dim sum joint ?

zhaliang (cheung fun filled with fried dough stick) - Harbour City

Check out the menu
Loads of places sell the more common dim sum such as har gau, siu mai and cha siu bao but since these can be bought in frozen, it isn't really a sign of the real deal. You have to examine the menu closely and look for the following:

Chinese language menu – some places have their menu in English only which isn't much use to granny who can only read Chinese. An old school place will have its dim sum menu in Chinese usually with imprecise English translations and occasionally pictures.

Cheung fun – these steamed rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings are a dim sum essential which begs the question why some new school places don’t sell it ? That's because you need someone who can do more than watch over a steamer with a timer to make cheung fun – someone like a trained dim sum chef.

The hardcore – esoteric delights such as chickens' feet (fung zao) should be on the menu with extra old school points if the likes of steamed tripe (ngau pak yip) and ducks' tongues (aap lei) are available.

The sides – no dim sum feast is complete without side orders of Cantonese siu mei such as roast duck and noodles like beef ho fun. You should also be able to order congee or juk.

Tea always tea
Yum cha is the Cantonese term used to describe the act of going out to eat dim sum. Please note the literal translation is 'drink tea' and not 'drink lychee martini' or any other cocktail. Granny might let the young 'uns have a soft drink but cocktails are not old school.

By tea, I mean proper Chinese tea like tieguanyin, pu-erh, and oolong served in a pot with unlimited refills. What I don't mean is a big jasmine flower served in a glass that is too bloody hot to hold for the duration of the meal costing upwards of £3. And before you ask, a green tea cocktail does not count.

Regardless of who's paying, granny won't tolerate poor value for money. She'll approve of Chinatown dim sum prices which start from around £2 per portion. She may make a fuss at classier old school places like Royal China and Phoenix Palace where prices start from £2.60. But you'll never hear the end of it if you pitch up somewhere where the cheapest dim sum cost upwards of the £3 mark.

I don't mind paying a bit more for quality dim sum but there are some places that really take the piss e.g. Ping Pong charge £3.99 for cha siu bao which is double the price in Chinatown. But that's nothing compared to the £6.50 that Min Jiang charge for a portion of three xiao long bao. I've heard these are excellent but are they really that much better than those at Yum Cha that cost £2.40 ?

Anything else ?
Lest anyone be confused I'm not harking back to a bygone age where the dim sum is on trolleys and there are no gweilos around. Nor am I saying that dim sum shouldn't evolve and must be authentic. It's worth remembering that some dishes that are now considered staples are less than 25 years old and there is some great fusion dim sum e.g. wasabi prawn dumplings. On the downside, there are some shockers like Ping Pong's satay chicken spring roll with pineapple – whoever invented this car crash is a total knob.

wasabi prawn dumplings - Phoenix Palace

Nor does old school necessarily mean eating in a dining room that is conspicuously 'Chinese'. Whilst I admit I can be wary of trendy interior design, I don’t really care as long as a place fulfils the criteria for being 'old school'. For example, Pearl Liang is very stylish with its modern art, trendy wallpaper, and big purple cushions, yet for all that I'm happy to eat there as it ticks all the old school boxes.

The last word
This is a personal view and isn't meant to be a dig at anyone who got into dim sum through places like E&O and Ping Pong. Having said that I hope you understand why I like my dim sum old school but if you remain unconvinced just ponder this, who would you rather trust when it comes to Chinese food ? A Chinese matriarch or a lychee martini drinking fashionista ?

Thursday 14 January 2010

Shopping Pit-stop @ Cammasan (Pan-Asian), Kingston

{Update Apr 13 - Cammasan has been replaced by Oriental Kitchen. The concept and the menu remains very similar, though i.e. Pan-Asian}

Christmas shopping is torture. Unfortunately, you have to do it and that's why I spent one Saturday wandering aimlessly around the Bentalls Centre and John Lewis in Kingston-upon-Thames. I wasn't making much progress on my shopping so I decided to have a pit-stop for a late lunch.

Like most British high streets, chain eateries dominate in Kingston so it's heartening to see indie places like Cammasan in the town centre. This noodle bar and restaurant is located in the Charter Quay development with a full service Chinese restaurant on the first floor and a more modest noodle bar on the ground floor.

I plumped for the ground floor noodle bar and was handed a couple of menus, one was in English listing a selection of pan-Asian greatest hits from China, Thailand and Malaysia – stuff like sweet & sour pork, tom yum soup and laksa. The other was a bilingual menu with Cantonese one-dish meals and side dishes that wouldn't look out of place in a Hong Kong café.

It was from this second menu that I ordered Cantonese braised beef lao mein (£4.50) and a side of pak choi with garlic (£3.50). The classic dish of braised beef brisket (ngau laam) served on top of boiled noodles was simply luscious. The brisket was coated in rich star anise infused gravy and it simply melted in the mouth. I could've eaten this all day and it was a shame there wasn't more gravy for the noodles to soak up. The pak choi was perfectly stir-fried - a great accompaniment to the noodles.

However, there was one thing that let this dish down and it was the noodles. This dish should be served with fresh noodles (san mein) like the ones you get in proper wonton noodles. Instead Cammasan use 'dried san mein' - I know this is a bit of an oxymoron but these dried fine noodles (example pictured below) are similar in texture to san mein when refreshed.

I don't want to be a total arse about this as I like it here but it's a bit of a shame that such excellent beef brisket was accompanied by slightly inferior noodles. For all that there's nothing actually wrong with the noodles they serve and I understand why they use them. Without being patronising to Cammasan, they probably don't sell enough san mein dishes and it makes more sense to use dried noodles rather than waste unsold fresh noodles.

Together with green tea and service, the damage came to £10 – not bad value at all. Service was efficient although the communal benches aren't very comfy when it gets busy.

Verdict: If you find yourself in this part of deepest darkest Zone 6 then I'd recommend Cammasan. Based on the quality of the beef brisket and the pak choi, the kitchen certainly knows how to knock out classic Cantonese staples.

Other Stuff: In summer, there's an outdoor seating area which is a better option than the arse-numbing communal benches.

Cammasan on Urbanspoon

Sunday 10 January 2010

Dinner @ Bangalore Express (Indian), London

The weeks leading up to Christmas are a time for catching up with old friends but when you get to my age, it's hard to do two big nights out in a row. So after a Friday night that ended with dinner at Rasa Sayang, the last thing I wanted to do was to have a big Saturday. Mercifully, my mates El Greco, Nuf and The Ref weren't too keen on a big night either. So it was with great relief that after a beer or two, we left the Fire Station for a bite to eat. It was cold and we were lazy so we just crossed the Waterloo Road to try Bangalore Express.

It'd be fair to say that this is a trendy casual Indian gaff and Nuf had it spot on with his comment that it was Wagamama-esque. Modern art festooned the walls although it just about stayed on the right side of not being pretentious. On further reflection, it's also similar in concept to Masala Zone. We were seated at the end of a long communal table although there were also non-communal tables and double-decker booths.

It wasn't easy to order as the menu is frankly all over the shop – I can't even begin to describe how confusing and disjointed it looks – it's probably easier to check it out on their website. To confuse matters further, many of the dishes had lengthy descriptions and don't get me started about the inappropriate use of the word tapas in a non-Spanish context.

Once we got over the menu confusion, we ordered some poppadoms (£2.50) which were cracking and the following dishes from their 'tapas' and 'tandoori' sections to start:
  • Chicken tikka masala cocktail sausages
  • Tandoori lamb chops
  • Golden fried tiger prawns with chilli jam
  • Onion bhajis
These all cost £4.50 each but were largely disappointing. The sausages were particularly piss poor, I couldn't tell that they were made of chicken and I'm not sure what made them tikka. The Ref remarked they could have come from Iceland but I'm pretty sure not even Kerry Katona would've served these up. The three lamb chops were tough and overcooked to oblivion whilst decent quality prawns were murdered by a thick, soggy, and claggy batter. The pick of the bunch were the onion bhajis but there would've been something seriously wrong if they managed to balls these up.

Ignoring the gimmicky post-modern Indian spin on fish & chips, burgers and calzone, we plumped for more orthodox fare for our mains. Nuf went for a large dosa (made with chilli hot batter) filled with tandoori chicken, grilled peppers and masala mash. The rest of us used the menu grid to create the following 'big plates of curry & rice':
  • Chicken – jalfrezi – chickpeas & spinach – pilau rice
  • Chicken – dhansak – sweet potato mash – pilau rice
  • Chicken – tikka masala – potato & sesame salad – pilau rice

All our mains cost £8.50 and thankfully they were much better than the starters although that wouldn't be too hard. Nuf's order was the pick of the bunch – a well made giant dosa with a tasty generous filling although I thought the accompanying dahl was too salty.

Our big plates had a fresh clean taste although we all agreed that they it lacked zing (including my supposedly hot jalfrezi) with El Greco describing the spicing as 'tourist strength'. Other minor complaints included the chicken breast being a bit dry, not enough curry sauce and over-salty spinach. On the plus side the naan breads (£2.50 each) were really excellent, in particular the garlic naan.

For desserts, Nuf and The Ref ordered the Bangalore express sundae (£4.25) which they thought was too sweet. The total bill was pretty reasonable at £93 for four including 12.5% service – although it should be noted we didn't order many drinks. Service was unobtrusive, sometimes overly so as we had to remind the waiters of our drinks orders and missing cutlery.

Although the food was a mixed bag, it was a top night as the guys all got in touch with their inner foodie. Throughout the meal, they chipped in with insightful comments and whilst some were tongue in cheek, most of them were on the money.

For example, Nuf suggested that I blog about Sri Lankan cuisine as they use noodles in the form of string hoppers. Whilst El Greco despaired at the poor standard of meze served by chains like Tas and how they just don't measure up to proper Greek meze.

However the biggest revelation of the night was The Ref. Considering his favourite eateries number KFC and Kebab King, he really embraced the esprit de blog. All night, he came out with brilliant one-liners whilst doling out imaginary yellow cards to the waiters for any sign of poor service. Not content with giving Giles Coren a run for his money, he even came up with some ideas for future blog features. Unbelievable !

Verdict: Maddeningly inconsistent – it's hard to believe that the same kitchen that knocked out the excellent dosa and the naan were responsible for the poor tapas and the crimes against lamb chops. I wouldn't hurry back here but I might pop in for a dosa if I happened to be out and about in the Waterloo area.

Other Stuff: There's a branch of Bangalore Express on Gracechurch St in the City and I wouldn't surprised if it develops into a mini-chain.

Bangalore Express on Urbanspoon

Thursday 7 January 2010

Post-pub Dining @ Rasa Sayang (Malaysian & Singaporean), London

I've never understood why the Straits cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore isn't more popular in the UK. Given the popularity of Chinese, Indian and Thai food, you'd have thought it'd be a winner especially as it has much in common with all three.

Whilst Indian is the traditional choice for post-pub dining, I reckon Straits cuisine would make for a great way to end the evening. To put this theory to the test, I met up with my old mate, the Italian Shetland Pony, his missus and a few other muckers on a pre-Christmas Friday night out.

Now ISP and I have been mates since I first moved down to London from the North in the mid-90's. But it's funny how things turn out as he's recently made the opposite journey – this proud son of Essex now resides in England's finest county, Lancashire.

Anyway, this makes the rare nights out all the more special and after a few beers in Soho – all in the cause of research – we pitched up at Rasa Sayang sometime after 11pm. I've blogged about this place before as part of my soup noodles odyssey but the prawn noodles I had weren't the best choice so I thought I'd give them another post as I do like it here.

Being a bit of a control freak, I took charge and ordered some sides to share - three portions of roti canai, a portion of curry cheung fun (both pictured above) and two portions of spring rolls. The coconutty curry sauce in the first two dishes was really zingy and I wish I ordered more of the cheung fun as these rice noodle rolls were very more-ish.

For the mains, I let people order their own - I had beef rendang (pictured above) – spicy yet with the taste of the coconut milk coming through. ISP ordered a giant bowl of curry laksa (photo at top) and I guess he enjoyed it as he soon polished it off. Other mains included nasi lemak, another beef rendang and a couple of dishes that I didn't make a proper note of – one was a stir fried noodle dish of Hokkien origins and the other was a chicken curry served with roti.

At this late hour, detailed analysis of the food was always going to be a big ask – 'it's all good' and 'this is tops' were the level at which most of the comments were pitched. The only decent attempt at proper critique was by ISP's better half on her chicken curry – 'it's got potatoes in it' and 'it's hot but in a nice way'.

A great end to a great night out – Rasa Sayang is ideal for late night dining be you sober or drunk. It was definitely superior to your average late night ruby and was great value at a mere £14/head including service and a round of drinks.

Postscript – you're probably wondering how Italian Shetland Pony got his nickname. The fact is that the ladies on my section at work gave him this nickname as let’s face it, he was no stallion. To this day ISP is adamant that I invented this nickname to curry favour with the ladies. But really what kind of a mate would do that ?

Rasa Sayang on Urbanspoon

Monday 4 January 2010

Cooking with Nissin Ramen

Although Japanese in origin, Nissin Ramen or to give it its Cantonese nickname – 'gongzai mein' (lit. cartoon character noodles) has become a Hong Kong staple. Consequently, it's also popular amongst British born Chinese and entire shelves are given over to these packets of instant soup noodles in Chinese supermarkets across the UK.

These were probably the first noodles I ate and whilst these heavily processed treats aren't particularly good for you, they are very addictive. Back in the day, there was one flavour – 'original' which came with sachets of MSG soup base and sesame oil. Nowadays, there are loads of flavours such as chicken, spicy, tokyo shoyu, and my favourite, XO sauce seafood.

So what's the big deal about these 35p pack of noodles ? Well I think they were responsible for me becoming Mr Noodles. Like many a student leaving home, I was given a care package. Unlike most of my peers, it included a big box containing 30 packets of chicken flavour Nissin Ramen. I lived off these humble noodles and before long they gained a cult following amongst my friends.

Giant batches of noodles would be cooked to round off a night down the pub or a poker session. I started to experiment adding various ingredients to the mix although I soon realised that my special of beer noodles was a waste of both beer and noodles. I guess there's a reason why Nissin HQ in Tokyo never came up with Newcastle Brown Ale flavour ramen.

To this day, I keep a supply of Nissin Ramen in the store cupboard. After a long day at work, you can rustle up a meal in 3 minutes after the kettle has boiled. The thing is though a bowl of just soup noodles is a tad boring and not a very balanced meal.

So how do you go about pepping it up ? The easiest way is to throw in some vegetables when cooking the noodles – pak choi, watercress, and baby leaf spinach work particularly well. I also like to poach an egg atop the noodles in the saucepan. Another option is to add leftover siu mei or roast meats to the noodles. Whatever you end up with, garnish with spring onions and voila a quick TV supper after a crap day at the office.

Now the sachet of flavouring is not to everyone's taste. It is mainly MSG and whilst for most people, a little won't hurt from time to time, that's not an option to those who are allergic to the stuff. My tip is to cook the noodles without adding the sachet of soup. Having discarded the cooking water, dress the noodles with soy, sesame oil, chilli oil, ginger, garlic, and spring onion and you have a simple lo mein as a side dish.

Friday 1 January 2010

New Year's Resolutions

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Happy New Year ! Like most people, I'm crap at keeping my New Year's resolutions but this year will be different as I have my blog to keep me on the straight and narrow. So as my personal resolutions fall by the wayside, the blog will be doing its best to stick to its resolutions which are:

More Noodles
Considering my blog is called 'Eat Noodles Love Noodles', it's pretty poor that so little has been written about noodles over the last couple of months. This is going to change and the blog will refocus on noodles which means I'll be back on the trail of London's best noodles. I'll also be taking the blog in a new direction by posting about different types of noodles and how to cook them.

Global Noodles
I'll be tracking down noodles from different parts of the world. Up to now, I've only looked at noodles in East Asian cooking. Of course, there's pasta but I want to cast my noodle net outside of the traditional strongholds of the Far East and Italy. I've started my research but I have no idea where this will lead !

Cooking ? You have got to be shi.....
I'm a bit nervous about this as I can't believe that I'll be giving tips on how to cook on the internet. Whatever next, Roy Keane writing about anger management ? I'm not quite sure how this will pan out but I won't be using recipes – think of it as punk cooking – well something like that anyway. Truth is I'll be making it up as I go along.

Eating Locally
I live south of the river on the boundary of Zones 3 and 4, not that you'll know from my blog. The fact is I've been concentrating on Zone 1 eating and whilst I'll continue to write about central London, I'm going to start spreading my wings to all parts of this great city.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / HBO

My Code
Like Omar from The Wire, I have a code except mine is to do with blogging rather than stealing from drug dealers. I know there's a food bloggers' code of ethics out there but that’s too restrictive for my liking. I mean who has time and money to go to a restaurant more than once before writing about it. So here is my code:

Try to be fair – reviewing restaurants is highly subjective and so many factors can affect your experience. I like to think I do this anyway but I will explain in detail why I dislike a place and whether there were any particular circumstances that might have influenced my opinion. This also means ......

Full disclosure – by this I don't just mean letting you know if I get a freebie (see below). It also means informing my readers whether I'm a regular at a certain restaurant or whether I've had bad experiences at a place in the past. And whilst we're on the subject of full disclosure, you should know that I'm not always consistent.......

Consistency – I'm a sucker for a certain type of eatery – you know the ones – places like Hung's, Song Que, Ramen Seto, and Chilli Cool where the kitchen takes precedence over interior design. Rightly or wrongly, I know I will give these places an easier ride than posh glitzy restaurants and shiny boxfresh chains. I know this isn't consistent with trying to be fair but at least you now know where I'm coming from.

Freebies – I've yet to be offered any freebies from any food-related PR peeps. Anyway, if I do get one then I'll fully disclose the fact and will try my best to review it as if I'm a paying customer. By the way, if Marcus Wareing’s PR is reading this, please can you let the great man know that dinner at Petrus remains one of finest meals I've ever had. Although it was nearly 10 years ago, it feels just like yesterday. Frankly, it's a travesty that he hasn't got his 3rd Michelin star yet. Well you never know who's reading......