Monday, 18 April 2011

Eating 'abroad'

Having just got back from a weekend in London I've learned a couple of things about their restaurants based on two things that ‘make’ London: multiculturalism and creativity.

1. Multiculturalism.

London’s cultural diversity is one of its major attractions and provides constant opportunities to shoot the shit with a plethora of earth's inhabitants. This is what makes it such a great place to escape to when the mundane becomes mundane.

That said, when eating out if you dare step away from ordering anything other than something you can point to on the menu you're screwed…

Some pals and I headed to a Chinese restaurant in Balham yesterday evening. I really fancied ‘something’ in black bean sauce so I asked the waiter for tofu, stating I was a vegetarian; he shook his head and offered me chicken or beef and this is when my heart sank. After a lot of gesturing and pigeon English I thought I'd succeeded. 20 minutes later, my food arrived: a plate of vegetables in black bean sauce with an explanation of 'we've sold out of tofu'. We were the only ones there and they had only been open for an hour. Really it was 'I'm not sure what you were on about so, here, eat something you didn't order'.

2. Creativity

Food, cooking and creativity, to my mind, must co-exist. In terms of my experience in London the three are clearly interchangeable.

The example here came from a visit to an Italian restaurant in East London. The creative side being the menu only. The menu scriber clearly had talent, the food sounded amazing. I opted for tagliatelle in a tomato pesto with chilli, almonds and pine nuts topped with smoked ricotta. 'Wow', huh?

That was where the magic ended, I got a plate of tepid pasta in an insipid sauce with a few bits of chopped almonds and chilli flakes. It could have been so good! Now I'm all for well executed food writing, obviously, but at the end of the day it is the food that matters - the writing is just there as a means of describing how great something was or is going to be. In this instance the creativity ended when the writer hit 'print' and I was forced to douse my plate in salt and pepper and nick a slice of pizza from my friends.

And to finish, some humorous menu misspells:

- Tomato and chilly sauce

- Sweat and Sour Vegetable

- Steamed white rise

…lovely stuff!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

I should... writing a short fiction piece as part of my creative writing portfolio for Uni. I should have also showered, put some washing on and be making my way to my parents’ house to wait on my mama. However food, the little minx, is distracting me again.

Each Sunday the cursed cursor on the screen of my laptop clicks the web-address box (I dunno what it's called!) and insists I check out the recipes and reviews featured on The Guardian's website. I hold two men responsible for this: Jay Rayner and Yottam Ottolenghi. The former is (alongside Nigel, Nigella and Tamasin) responsible for my obsession with food writing, the latter: cooking and eating. Imagine my excitement this Sunday morning when I find that Rayner has reviewed Ottolenghi's new London restaurant, Nopi.

Jay, Yotam and Lucy, the perfect threesome - in the context of scribing and eating that is.

In the review one of Rayner's main points is one I am already aware of, Ottolenghi is a vegetarian food wizard! The things this guy can do without meat are astounding! As Rayner put it in his review: 'Ottolenghi is brilliant at arguing against the imperative to eat meat'. Being someone who has prepared many of the recipes featured in Ottolenghi's 'The New Vegetarian' series in The Observer I agree with Rayner here. To borrow a term from one of my creative writing lecturers: 'show, don't tell'. Ottolenghi does not, now I need to tread carefully here, 'preach' about the virtues of eating veggie but instead provides stunning examples of why it is not essential to eat meat in the search for great food. This is my sentiment exactly and one of the reasons I started the blog. I am not here to convert anyone, I am not here to provide statistics and 'horror stories' regarding intensive farming and the environment but I am here to offer insight into what it really is, or can be, to eat veggie. It really isn't all nut roasts and lentils.

I visited London 2 weeks ago and intended to visit Nopi or any of Ottolenghi's deli-cafes but, alas, Camden would not release me. In honour of Ottolenghi, though, I cooked myself one of the recipes taken from 'The New Vegetarian' on Friday. In my previous post I prattled on about not eating exciting foods until my Uni. work was done; that lasted a few days. We all have our vices.

Don't let the grimace-inducing word 'tofu' put you off here, I don't like it in its natural state it either. However, in this recipe it is cooked in a way that makes most things desirable: it's deep-fried.

Black Pepper Tofu by Yotam Ottolenghi

800g firm, fresh tofu Cornflour, to dust the tofu

Vegetable oil, for frying

150g butter

12 small shallots (350g), peeled and thinly sliced

8 red chillies, thinly sliced

12 garlic cloves, crushed

3 tbsp chopped ginger

5 tbsp crushed black peppercorns

3 tbsp sweet soy sauce

3 tbsp light soy sauce

4 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp sugar

16 small, thin spring onions, cut into segments 3cm long

Cut the tofu into 3cm x 2cm blocks and toss them in cornflour, shaking off the excess. Pour in enough oil to come 0.5cm up the sides of a large frying pan, and bring up to frying heat. Fry the tofu in batches in the oil, turning the pieces as you go. Once they are golden all around, and have a thin crust, transfer to a paper towel.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan and throw in the butter. Once it has melted, add the shallots, chillies, garlic and ginger, and sauté for about 15 minutes on low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the contents of the pan are shiny and totally soft. While you wait, crush the peppercorns, using a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. They should be quite coarse.

When the shallots and chillies are soft, add the soy sauces and the sugar, stir, then stir in the crushed pepper. Warm the tofu in the sauce for about a minute, then add the spring onion and stir through. Serve hot with steamed rice.

If the words 'deep fried' did not persuade you then here are some more:

The crisp yet tender tofu grips onto the flavourings with both hands. The spicing is interesting too, the red chilli is keen and racy, the crushed black pepper has a resonant haunting depth; whilst eating you are intermittently hit by both. Nigel Slater refers to eating something spicy, such as chilli, with something cooling, like yogurt, as a 'whip and kiss'. This recipe could be described as a 'whip and whack'. It is bawdy but if you eat it with some steamed rice then you may be afforded a little smooch.