Monthly Archives: April 2013

Punjabi food in Leicester

A typical Punjabi breakfast of mooli paratha and thick yoghurt.

A typical Punjabi breakfast of mooli paratha and thick dahi.

Although it was the Gujaratis of East Africa who first made their home in the Belgrave area of Leicester, later waves of immigrants from India-proper, especially from the Punjab, arrived to the city, bringing with them their own regional dishes and ingredients. Though Punjabi food is perhaps best represented in Southall  (a kind of mini-Amritsar in the heart of suburban West London), you can still enjoy authentic versions of this famous Indian cuisine amid Belgrave’s myriad Gujarati-owned paan, farsan and thali outlets.

For an authentic, worker-style breakfast, (known in Punjabi as nashta) I opted for Punjab Palace, an unassuming little café diner run by a friendly elderly couple cooking up traditional fare out of what looks like their home kitchen. Here I went for a simple mooli paratha with dahi, a thick, low-fat yoghurt, and a sweet masala tea. Hearty and filling, this was the sort of solid, starchy breakfast designed to keep you going until lunchtime.

Chole bhatura at Sharmilee in Leicester.

Chole bhatura at Sharmilee in Leicester.

Despite feeling happy and full, I was already eagerly planning my next meal, which I’d decided was to be the iconic vegetarian dish chole bhatura, a medium-spicy chickpea curry served with bhatura, a puffy fried bread rich in carbs and calories. For this, I headed down the road to Sharmilee, something of an institution in these parts and popular with local Punjabis and non-Punjabis alike. Doubling up as a caterer for lavish Punjabi wedding feasts, the place is packed pretty much every time I walk past, and the plates of food always look copious and appealing. Indeed, chole bhatura was hearty and delicious, and exuded a rich, satisfying home-cooked flavour.

As a way to round off my brief foray into the cuisine of the Punjab, I couldn’t quite resist a couple more snacks back at Punjab Palace. First, a papdi chaat, basically a plate of Indian crisps and chickpeas blended with a spicy tamarind and yoghurt sauce, and a cloying cham cham sweet to round off yet another wonderful culinary adventure.

And a sickly-sweet cham cham to finish.

And a sickly-sweet cham cham to finish.

 

Punjab Palace
131A Melton Rd
Leicester
LE4 6QS

Sharmilee
71 Belgrave Rd
Leicester
LE4 6

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Ghanaian Food in Nottingham

Scrumptious sea bream, banku and peppers.

Sea bream, banku and peppers.

The food of sub-Saharan Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in general for that matter, has long been uncharted territory for me. Not that I’d ever sneered at the idea of eating fufu and searing hot peanut soup with my bare hands (they’ve already developed thick callouses from the innumerable Indian curries, chapattis and rice I’ve eaten anyway), I’d just never really found an opportune moment to do so here in the UK.

Many of the West African eateries back home in London tend to double up as community hubs for the sizeable Ghanaian and Nigerian populations you find, particularly in places like Hornsey and Tottenham, so entering one of these busy establishments would make me seem like a bit of an interloper in their affairs– something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with and the sort of nervous situation hardly conducive towards experiencing, let alone digesting a good meal. Maybe this was all in my imagination, but I knew one thing – my first taste of the rich, time-honoured cuisine of Ghana in particular (a cuisine popularized in foodie circles by Spinach & Agushi, a successful street food chain based in London’s trendiest neighbourhoods), had been long overdue.

While I’d casually strolling along multicultural Alfreton Road among the various Turkish convenience shops, Caribbean bakeries and Kurdish tea houses, I came across a utilitarian, white tile-adorned café festooned with Ghanaian flags and Fulani-style fabrics. It had barely passed noon, the place was empty, but looked oddly inviting and the small menu promised a generic but entirely authentic selection of Ghanaian dishes for budget prices.

With a slightly devil-may-care attitude, I entered A Taste of Africa and was promptly greeted by a smiling, gregarious waiter keen to find out what had brought me here and to gauge my knowledge of Ghanaian cuisine. To my credit, I was actually able to reference several key features of the cuisine (peanut, or groundnut soup, jollof rice, fried plantains and tilapia, as well as the propensity for Ghanaian men to down unholy amounts of palm wine). Also impressed that I knew his hometown of Kumasi to be the second city of Ghana, the waiter (who was also head chef that day) promised to whip up a delicious feast of fresh sea bream, banku (a fermented cassava dough, similar in consistency to fufu) and a selection of fiery red peppers. By this time, my taste buds were positively tingling with anticipation.

While waiting for my meal, I was accompanied in the small seating area by a Ghanaian mother and her adorable little children, all glued to the huge plasma screen showing indigenous TV from back home (in this case, a hammy melodrama involving a heady mix of black magic, internet scams and sordid love affairs – not exactly child-friendly material, but hey, at least the kids were settled).

As soon as my food arrived, I felt my stomach rumble, which I knew to be a sign a good meal was to be had. Indeed the succulent white fish fried mixed with the two sweet yet fiery hot sauces was near-perfect, and the doughy, starch-filled texture of the banku equally delightful. By this time, the lady next to me had also received her food – a steaming hot bowl of meat stew (possibly goat) with a two round balls of omo tuo, or rice balls, floating in the middle. It smelled divine, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous of what she was eating.

Still, there’s always next time I guess…

Taste of Africa
160 Alfreton Road
Nottingham
NG7 3NS

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Pakistani Food in Nottingham

Nihari - one of Pakistan's signature dishes.

Nihari – one of Pakistan’s signature dishes.

If you’re a confirmed carnivore and lover of meat in all its wonderful manifestations, from spicy grilled lamb skewers to succulent tandoori chicken, you’re bound to delight in the diverse and meat-centric cuisine of Pakistan. Unlike neighbouring India which is predominately Hindu and therefore a vegetarian culture by-and-large, Pakistan goes all in when it comes to eating animals (provided of course the animals have cloven hooves and are slaughtered in the correct way, as per Islamic edicts).

Although Nottingham’s Pakistani community isn’t as large as say Birmingham’s or Manchester’s, it’s still reasonably well-represented both culturally and gastronomically, especially in the Hyson Green neighbourhood where various Islamic cultures from Kurds to Kashmiris live side-by-side. Here you can find a pretty decent selection of shops selling a dazzling array of electric-coloured mithai to satiate all your sweet cravings, and the usual tandoor and grill specialists like The Khyber Pass and Royal Sweet Centre, both claiming to offer ‘a true taste of Pakistan’.

To experience the full spectrum of Pakistani dishes, including more home-style specialties, it’s worth heading to Desi Express, a small and very popular chain restaurant frequented mainly by British-Pakistanis. In this lively, slightly chaotic institution, customers tend to bring huge appetites prior to ordering a cornucopia of grilled meats cooked on the onomatopoeic takatak grill. The grill selection includes the usual lamb chops, sheek kebab and tandoor-style chicken, as well as all manner of innards and extremities, including brains and testicles (stuff that is conveniently omitted from the restaurant menu, but which can be ordered upon request).

However, it was the celebrated Pakistani classic Nihari was what I was actually here for, and Desi Express seemed to be the only eatery in town where I could once and for all taste this beloved national treasure of slow-cooked lamb shank in thick meaty gravy. As soon as the dish was served up to me, I just knew it had to be good. The lamb meat mounted in a rich sauce with glistening globules of fat, was falling off the bone and looked insanely appetizing. By the end of my feasting, every  morsel of tender meat and every drop of delicious sauce was mopped up with every inch the generous hunk of hot naan provided. Salted lassi, a refreshing yoghurt-based similar to Turkish ayran drink, cleansed my pallet nicely and provided a perfectly cool accompaniment to the fiery green chillies in the dish.

Lamb's testicles from the takatak grill at Desi Express.

Lamb’s testicles from the takatak grill at Desi Express.

But the meal wasn’t over just yet. As I’d been sitting tantalizingly close to the takatak grill throughout the duration of my meal, I’d been inhaling the ethereal fumes of marinated mystery meats and this piqued my curiosity to venture into parts unknown, or so to speak. Moreover, the notion of putting balls in my mouth for the first time (something I recall Bourdain raving about in the Morocco chapter of ‘A Cook’s Tour’) was simply too good to resist…

The young, 20-something waiter looked slightly bemused as I tried to muffle my order of “grilled lamb’s testicles”, in a restaurant rammed with punters sitting cheek-by-jowl, but reluctantly agreed, much to the bemusement of the tough-looking grill cooks proudly manning their station. While surreptitiously exchanging words in Urdu and throwing the odd haughty glance in my direction, the cooks whipped a portion of the lamb’s extremities noisily on a searing hot plate and before long my balls were served to me in a bowl, in a manner of speaking.

Much to the cooks’ collective astonishment, I gleefully scoffed the entire bowl of tender meaty chunks which were served this time in a more delicate ginger-laced sauce which was really flavourful. The balls were awesome – better than I had imagined in fact, and well worth the initial embarrassment of ordering them.

Despite waddling home after the colossal amount of food I’d had at Desi Express, I felt uniquely satisfied, and beaming with the sort of happy smile one displays has after having indulged in such carnivorous excess. And the price was none-too-shabby, either: two mammoth dishes, copious naan and a half jug of lassi all for just under a tenner. Perfect.

Desi Express
113 Radford Rd
Nottingham
NG7 5DU

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Afghan Food in Nottingham

Ashak - Afghan-style dumplings.

Ashak – Afghan-style dumplings.

A culinary grey area for the majority of Britons and certainly one of the most underrepresented of Middle Eastern cuisines here in the UK, the food of Afghanistan certainly isn’t the easiest to come by. If you live in Nottingham however, and are prepared to venture into the edgy, multicultural shopping hive of Hyson Green (essentially the city’s hub of Islamic and Asian culture), there is one place where you grab an authentic slice of a cuisine borne of cross-cultural pollination along ancient trade routes between West and East.

Kabul Express, a small unassuming takeaway/café-style eatery with the patina of an ordinary kebab joint, offers authentic Afghan dishes for modest prices. But for Kabul being in the name, you wouldn’t necessarily know this specialised in an array of dishes reflecting Afghan’s diverse ethnic tapestry and the rich history of a nation forged through centuries of internal upheaval and conflict.

Aside from familiar meat-on-a-stick offerings (which though still awesome, represent a tiny part of this nation’s cooking), I was unaware of just how refined and sophisticated the cuisine of Afghanistan really is. From what I’d read prior to venturing into Hyson Green, Afghans evidently put special value on meal times – food, and copious amounts of it, being at the centre of family and social occasions in a nation where good hospitality is everything.

Qabli Pulao - the signature dish of Afghanistan.

Qabli Pulao – the signature dish of Afghanistan.

Contrary to what I had assumed, the cuisine has less in common with the food of neighbouring Pakistan and owes far more to its westerly neighbour, Iran. The flavours, much akin to the ancient cuisine of Persia, are nuanced and subtle, the spice blends being based on a canny interplay of sweet and sour rather than being full-on and fiery.

While I couldn’t resist the temptation of a slab of freshly barbecued meat from the grill (in this case, beautifully tender lamb chops in a spicy yoghurt marinade), the dishes that impressed me most were indeed the less familiar, but quintessentially Afghan specialities. The signature Afghan dish, as I was told by the friendly and obliging owner of Kabul Express, is Qabli Pulao, a deceptively simple dish of rice, carrots, sultanas and lamb originating from the country’s capital. The depth flavour in this dish is quite something, with the rich, savoury lamb-infused rice cut by the sweetness of fried sultanas and thin carrot strips. Similar to biryani, the rice is hearty and serves as a perfect standalone dish. I’d imagine this, served alongside curries and the ubiquitous naan breads, would be the ultimate comfort food for home-sick Afghans.

As a side dish I ordered Ashak, or leek dumplings, which clearly have their origins in a neighbour slightly further to the East. Served in a delectable meat sauce with an attractive yoghurt swirl and fresh herbs, they were simply some of the most appetising dumplings I had ever eaten. The dish was simply exquisite, and easily the highlight of the meal. Afghan chai, or Kahwah, a sweet, cardamom-infused green tea was equally equisite and a perfect way to round off a wholesome and delicious dining experience, which was positively enhanced by the warmth, hospitality of the owner who delighted in my enthusiasm for the food of his country. Acting as a de facto cultural ambassador for his nation, which many of us associate merely with grinding poverty and terrorism, he was keen to promote his hometown of Kabul as a potential tourist destination, citing its stunning ancient Islamic architecture and picturesque snow-capped mountain scenery.

While I won’t be holidaying in Kabul any time soon, or at least until it becomes safe for Western visitors, I can at least make regular excursions to a mini Kabul right in the heart of the East Midlands. This really is a unique culinary offering, extremely rare even in the UK’s larger cities and something the people in Nottingham should be proud to boast of.

Kabul Express
64 Gregory Boulevard
Nottingham
NG7 5JD

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