Monday 31 October 2011

Almond Cookies 杏仁酥

杏仁酥 hang jan sou are crumbly crunchy almond cookies with a salty-sweet contrast in flavour that I adore. These cookies could pass off as western snacks (西餅) but they are very much considered Chinese (中餅).

Hang jan sou are often handed out as gifts during festive periods, such as Chinese New Year, which is why I guess they come in the most environmentally unfriendly packaging ever.

I bought these cookies at Loon Fung supermarket in London's Chinatown, where a single pack of ten cost £1.59, or you can do as I did and buy two packs for £2. If you see them then I do recommend buying a pack – they make a great snack.

For those keen bakers out there, Pig Pig's Corner has a great recipe for these cookies. If you like almonds then there's another famous Chinese snack you could try called 杏仁餅 hang jan beng. And finally, if walnuts are more your thing then there's a similar cookie called 合桃酥 hap tou sou.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Beijing Dumplings @ Mama Lan

In Chinese, they are called 鍋貼, pronounced guotie and wor tip in Mandarin and Cantonese respectively. In English, they are known by various names such as: pot-stickers, grilled dumplings, or pan-fried dumplings, often with the prefix Peking or Beijing to denote their northern roots. And the Japanese, having stolen subsumed these dumplings into their own cuisine, call them gyoza.

Irrespective of their name, these dumplings are the calling card of Brixton Village's Mama Lan. If you're looking for the gossamer thin skins of Cantonese dim sum then this isn't the place to come. These Beijing-style dumplings have thicker skins, largely because the northern Chinese have fat fingers and generally lack the dexterity and grace of their southern compatriots. I am, of course, joking; the skins are thicker because the base of the dumplings is pan-fried.

In its short life, Mama Lan has had mixed reviews from critics and bloggers alike. And truth be told, I was prepared to be disappointed. However, I am pleased to report that the dumplings were pretty decent. I particularly enjoyed the pork & Chinese leaf dumplings (£4), which were juicy, flavoursome and nicely charred on the base.

I was less taken with the beef & carrot dumplings (£4) although I understand it's a Beijing favourite. In my opinion, the carrot should be ditched, and a new partner be found for the beef. If it was up to me, I'd consider leek, maybe ginger & spring onion, or my personal favourite of dried citrus peel (guo pi 果皮).

Positives? The dumplings benefit from being freshly made and cooked to order. And it's good to see that the meat is sourced from The Ginger Pig.

Negatives? I'd like to see the dipping bowls come with slivers of ginger to add some heat and depth to the vinegar dip. The individual dumplings could also be a bit bigger, although at £4 for a portion of five, they are good value.

Whilst I wouldn't go so far as to describe Mama Lan as a destination in itself, I'm pleased that there's a Chinese presence in Brixton Village. And even if you don't pop in for a full meal, I think it's well worth a visit as part of a Brixton Village crawl. For instance, I can easily picture a trail that encompasses dumplings from Mama Lan; a pizza slice from The Agile Rabbit; samosa chaat from Elephant; gelato from Lab G and a flat white from Federation Coffee!

Update 8 Nov 2011 - I've been back to Mama Lan for some beef noodle soup, please click here for review.

Mama Lan Supper Club on Urbanspoon

Mama Lan, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PR
Nearest station: Brixton

Extra Helpings
Beijing pan-fried dumplings are found everywhere from the local takeaway to high-end Chinese restaurants. The best that I've come across in London are the fried watercress meat dumplings (西洋菜煎餃子) found on the dim sum menu at Pearl Liang.

Otherwise, Jen Café in London's Chinatown is famous for its hand-made dumplings, which are available boiled as well as pan-fried. Uncooked dumplings can also be bought as take-away.

For those of you lucky enough to visit Beijing, a trip to the legendary Shun Yi Fu is a must. Its selection of dumplings is second-to-none, and the menu is in English as well as Chinese.

Thursday 20 October 2011

The Debate: When Bad is Good

Good food and bad food are such absolute terms. Nevertheless, there are those who might deem sourdough bread, mature Cheddar and pata negra to be good whilst condemning sliced white bread, American cheese slices and processed luncheon meat (Spam) as being bad. That would be a mistake, as without the so-called bad stuff, some of our favourites wouldn't be half as tasty. Not convinced? Well, let's look at some classics that are enhanced by being a little bit bad.

Bacon Sandwich
Foccacia is my favourite bread, but I'd never dream of using it in a bacon sandwich. And nor should other posh breads like sourdough and ciabatta ever be used. Brown bread? You will be if you try using it in a bacon sarnie that I'm going to eat! That's because bacon sandwiches should be made with soft white bread that's pre-sliced and comes out of a plastic bag. At a push, soft white rolls, such as baps or barm cakes, are allowed too.

Amongst burger die-hards, only one cheese belongs in a cheeseburger: American cheese. That's right, those processed cheese slices (like Kraft Singles) that many people don't actually regard as being cheese. So whilst many cheeseburgers may use mature Cheddar, Stilton or Brie, the burger fundamentalist will ignore these real cheeses in favour of their beloved American cheese slice.

Chinese Hot Pot
There are few finer foodie sights than watching a Chinese hot pot in full flow. As a big cauldron of broth bubbles away, all kinds of goodies are thrown in. My favourites include crab legs, prawns, fishballs, thinly cut beef, enoki mushrooms, pak choi and, of course, noodles. However, many hot pot aficionados will eschew these treats, and make a beeline straight for Spam. I'm not kidding; many Chinese prefer Spam (or the Chinese branded Ma Ling Luncheon Meat) above all else in their hot pot.

In terms of these 'bad is good' examples, there is only one that I believe 100% in: the use of soft white bread in a bacon sarnie. When it comes to cheeseburgers, I happen to prefer American cheese but that's only because I'm partially lactose intolerant, and I have trouble with some real cheese. Otherwise, I couldn't give a toss what cheese is used. On the matter of Spam, I'm afraid I'm a bad Chinese in that I'm utterly indifferent to its charms.

Anyway, what do you guys think? Is my stance on bacon sandwiches, complete bollocks? What about the burger fundamentalists and their insistence on American cheese? And then there's the question of Spam – although, personally, I'd sit that one out. The Spam lobby are a vociferous, and at times scary, bunch. I'm more frightened of them than I am of the burger mob! Oh, and whilst we're at it, I'd also love to hear of any further examples of when bad stuff makes good food taste better.

Friday 14 October 2011

100 Up @ Kaosarn

[Update Oct 12 - a second branch of Kaosarn has opened in Battersea and is reviewed here.]

Assuming my maths isn't wrong, Kaosarn has the proud honour of being the 100th London eatery to feature in my blog. And it's entirely fitting that somewhere like this Thai café gets that accolade. Whilst I really can't be that arsed to write about eating out in London nowadays, I will always blog about inexpensive unpretentious indies like Kaosarn. Especially when they have noodles on the menu!

I did consider going for Kaosarn's signature dish of gai yang khao neaw som tum (£11.50) – but I wasn't hungry enough to take on this combination of half a grilled chicken, sticky rice and som tum. Instead I plumped for soup noodles in the form of kuay tiew tom yum Bangkok style (£6.90).

The most important aspect of any soup noodle dish is the soup. And in this case, the tom yum soup was bang on the money, with deep hot and sour flavours seemingly sans any artificial enhancements. After that, it's imperative that the noodles are properly done, and I'm pleased to report that the slippery smooth kuay tiew rice noodles were.

The toppings of deep-fried king prawns, fishballs and minced pork were also pretty good. My favourite were the prawns, and if you order this dish, do polish them off before the batter gets soggy. The fishballs were bought-in, but don't be put off by that, as few places make their own – that'd be akin to a gastropub making its own sausages. All told, one of the best noodle dishes that I've eaten in London this year!

Not everything was just so, though. For instance, one of my dining companions was less than enamoured by his pad Thai w/prawn (£6.90). Having said that, he didn't mind his starter of coconutty chicken soup aka tom kha gai (£4.90).

My other dining companion plumped for khao pad kra-proaw w/pork (£6.90), a very home-style stir-fry with chilli and holy basil. It was nothing special, but I liked the fact that it came with a runny fried egg – a very east Asian touch.

We also shared a side of som tum Thai (£4.90); this papaya salad is often dumbed-down and disappointing in London. This one, I'm pleased to report, was the real deal with a proper fiery kick.

Whilst not every dish was a winner, there's more than enough promise at Kaosarn for me to return. Ironically, the only thing working against this superior Thai joint is its location in Brixton Village. As any foodie knows, there is so much choice in this complex that it could be a while before you return to the same place twice! For example, in addition to Kaosarn, I've 'done' Elephant, Honest Burgers, Federation Coffee and Lab G, and on top of these joints, there must be another dozen, if not more, places to check out!

Kaosan on Urbanspoon

Kaosarn, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PR (Tel: 020-7095-8922)
Nearest stations: Brixton

PS: Special thanks to Kay for reminding me that my blog was coming up to a century of London eateries!

Sunday 9 October 2011

The Debate: Why Does Japanese Food Cost More Than Chinese in London?

I recently mused, on twitter, why Japanese food in London is pricier than Chinese. There were some good points raised in response, but the thing is twitter's 140-character limit doesn't exactly encourage in-depth nuanced debate. So, I've decided to transfer the discussion to this blog post.

Now, let's get the bleeding obvious out of the way. Of course, a posh Japanese sashimi set will always be more expensive than an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. That's not what I'm driving at. The point I'm making is that, in London, a decent Chinese joint will invariably be better value than its Japanese counterpart. Not convinced? Well, let's look at a real life example.

Udon @ Koya
The other week I had lunch at Koya, the acclaimed Japanese udon specialist. I ordered a bowl of soup noodles with duck aka kamo atsu-atsu udon (£11) with a side of skate wing tempura (£7.70) and batter scraps aka tanuki (60p). I drank tap water but with a 10% service charge, the bill still came to £21. The food was excellent, and whilst I wasn't exactly hungry after this meal, I was far from full.

Dim sum @ Princess Garden
Later that week, I went for dim sum at Princess Garden of Mayfair, a classy Chinese restaurant. Between the five of us, we probably ordered in excess of 20 dim sum dishes, and together with tea, some soft drinks, and (an eye-watering) 15% service charge, the bill came to around £100 or £20/head. The dim sum is amongst London's best, and I was stuffed. We actually over-ordered, and the leftovers were taken home in a doggy bag.

Now some might think that I'm equating value to how full I was, but that's only half the story. The thing is Koya is a casual noodle bar, and it doesn't seem right to me that a quick lunch there should cost a wee bit more than a lengthy dim sum session at a proper restaurant like Princess Garden. By proper restaurant, I mean that Princess Garden has a cocktail bar, the management wear suits and there's table linen i.e. these are overheads it has to cover that Koya don't.

I appreciate that this is just one example, but there's plenty more instances that I can cite. So why is Japanese food more expensive than Chinese in London? Many theories were posited on twitter – and here's a summary of some of them.

Some believe there is a price premium for Japanese food because it's considered trendier than Chinese. I'm not so sure, after all, Vietnamese cuisine is very trendy, and that's cheap as chips. Some of you are of the opinion that Japanese food is better. That's subjective, and although it's not a view I share, it is one that many believe. Mind you, that isn't really a reason why Japanese food should be pricier.

After some further twitter exchanges, some pointed out that there is a perception amongst the Great British public that Japanese food is classier than Chinese. This is a theory that I can subscribe to, but why? After all, both cuisines have a long and proud history, so why should Japanese cuisine be considered posher? To answer that question, we need to consider the respective histories of Chinese and Japanese cuisines in Britain.

Although, there has been a Chinese presence in the UK for well over a century, significant migration only occurred post-World War Two. This generation, of which my parents are part of, came to these shores to better themselves and their families. And through their self-reliant industrious enterprise, many opened take-away shops and simple restaurants all across the land. These places served a hybrid cuisine that can be characterised as 'half chips-half rice', and as such a 'cheap and cheerful' image became associated with Chinese food. An image that persists to this day.

However, not all Chinese restaurants were cheap westernised joints. At the same time as Chinese food reached the mainstream, authentic restaurants sprung up, sometimes in Chinatowns, serving the Chinese community. Some dishes on the menu, such as abalone and lobster, could be expensive but prices, in the main, were reasonable. In particular, dim sum was especially good value.

By contrast, the Japanese first came in numbers to the UK in the latter part of the 20th century. Most were business executives, and Japanese restaurants soon sprung up to cater to this crowd. As the clientele were well remunerated, these restaurants could charge a little more for a reminder of home. Moreover, these were places where Japanese executives did their business entertainment. On expenses.

Nowadays, the divisions are less clear-cut. There are high-end restaurants that serve Chinese food and there are cheaper Japanese eateries, but by and large, Chinese restaurants remain better value. Anyway, that's my theory, but I'd love to hear your opinions on this matter. Especially, as I'm thinking of having more debate-based posts on my blog.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Off The Blog 6: Curry Special

The food of the Indian sub-continent that is served up in London is often inauthentic and formulaic. However, there are an increasing number of eateries breaking free from the shackles of tikka masala to offer more interesting fare. Here are three of them.

Samosa chaat
Brixton Village's Elephant styles itself as a purveyor of authentic Pakistani street food and its short menu certainly hits the spot. A starter of samosa chaat, with its abundance of chickpeas, would do as a light meal in itself.

Vegetarian thali
For something more substantial, I recommend going for a thali. I liked my vegetarian thali so much that I actually forgot that cauliflower is on my list of verboten veg! Drawbacks? The naan was a tad anaemic but I can forgive them this given the limitations of the tiny kitchen.

Elephant. on Urbanspoon

Elephant, 55 Granville Parade, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PS
Nearest station: Brixton (BR, Victoria Line)

Next stop is Isleworth where I enjoyed a fantastic meal at the Cinnamon Lounge. I can't take credit, though, for uncovering this gem. All the kudos must go to the Mysterious Mrs A who put her foot down when her hubby (my old mate) El Greco wanted to go to a bog-standard curry house.

Chicken methi, jeera rice & garlic naan
The great thing about this restaurant is that they consign many of the 'curry house standards' to the back of the menu. Instead they focus on starters such as machli amritsari (fish fillets with ajwain) and mains like murgh kalimirch (a black pepper based chicken curry).

The consensus around the table was that there wasn't a single duff dish. But don't take my word for it; much of the clientele was south Asian including a fair sprinkling of matriarchs who are notoriously hard to please.

Cinnamon Lounge on Urbanspoon

Cinnamon Lounge, 181 Twickenham Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 6AB
(Tel: 020-8560-8995) Nearest station: Isleworth (BR)

Salaam Namaste
One could also be forgiven that Bloomsbury's Salaam Namaste was a run-of-the-mill joint especially as it serves a lunch buffet. However, scratch beneath the service and the à la carte yields many a delight. From the specials board, the duck kebab was a winner as was the spicy soft shell crab from the regular menu. Onto the mains and there are unusual choices like wild rabbit achari and narangi duck. My personal favourite is the Goan green chicken curry and my friend enjoyed his Keralan monkfish curry.

Salaam Namaste on Urbanspoon

Salaam Namaste, 68 Millman St, London, WC1N 3EF (Tel: 020-7405-3697)
Nearest station: Russell Square (Piccadilly Line)