About saramoreni

An Italian living in London. Always thinking about food.

Chronicles of an Italian ordering a (chicken tikka) Domino’s pizza

One of the things I am most interested about, when it comes to food, is authenticity and food purism – because it’s this over-used, prosaic notion, and ultimately little more than a fabricated concept, a made-up law enforced by self-appointed keyboard vigilantes (have you ever seen the Italians mad at food page?)

I studied linguistics. Something professors of linguistics will do their best to drill in you is that linguistics is a descriptive subject, not a prescriptive one. It does not order, it observes. It’s not the stern father, more like the tolerant great-aunt. You can correct other people’s mistakes as much as you want, but the truth is that languages are alive and are only a reflection of people who create them and speak them. They fill a need and bend to that need’s evolution. There is a reason my first language isn’t Latin. Trying to stop a language from evolving is a little like trying to get clouds to stop shifting their shapes.

I think food should be descriptive as well.

I remember a flatmate offering me a cold slice of her Domino’s, the cheese congealed, the sparse pepperoni looking a little lonely, and saying “Oh, sorry, that must be very offensive to you”.

Of course, that’s silly, isn’t it? The idea that because of its very existence, by virtue of being a different matter to the pizza which was invented in my homeland a few hundred years ago, this innocent pie, flat bread and melted cheese and tomatoes, could be offensive.

Being a food purist is a thankless, futile task, yet I am still ultimately one. A reformed food snob, but it’s very much a process. I won’t order a pizza if the menu has the sort of typos on it which make it blatant that no Italian was involved or even within a 1-mile radius when they wrote it up. No chicken or beef on a pizza. No pineapple. No cheddar. The list goes on.

On a Friday evening, in an important milestone in my journey away from food snobbery, I text my boyfriend: “If I get a Domino’s pizza and it turns out to be gross, will you eat it?”

“Yes!!” (two exclamation marks)

“Even if it’s got chicken on it?”

“Yep”.

So I do it.

Of course, I go for half and half. Because while I do have my insurance in the form of a non-fussy all-eating boyfriend, I cannot stand the guilt of creating two 9-inch perfectly round abominations (I’m working on less judgemental language). One will suffice. The improbable toppings I am yet to choose will have to fight for their spot on the plate.

Scrolling down the pictures to choose my left half, I notice how plasticky the meat is, all pink and shiny and sweaty, a little pool of oil collecting in the middle of slightly concave slices. I like ham on pizza, but this ham – too pink, too uniform, like it didn’t come from the leg of an animal but was condensed into reality out of a crayon drawing.

You can choose the crust. I go for regular, because my heart cannot take a crust stuffed with “mozzarella” cheese. I can also choose the sauce. There is innocent, “Domino’s own” (as if that was a great stamp of approval in the world of tomato sauces) sauce. Or, errr, barbeque sauce. The gloopy sugary stuff, you know, that you dunk your McNuggets in when drunk and full of self-loathing.

Look, I go for barbeque sauce. I can also add three toppings for free (bargain). I go for the ever divisive sweetcorn, mushrooms and chilli peppers in the hope they will distract me from everything else that’s going on. Some of the toppings are confusing (ground beef – why? Domino’s herbs – which herbs?), others just wrong (more on that later).

It’s time to choose my right half, and really I feel like I’ve been playing it safe. Sure, the barbeque sauce was a bit of a curveball, and one I’ll probably regret later when I’ll inevitably have to pop to Tescos to buy all their Gaviscon. But I don’t feel like I have quite reached my full Domino’s potential.

I get the tandoori hot pizza, registered trademark even (how did they manage to do that), but quickly remove the red onion because I have to draw the line somewhere. I do add the generic “herbs”, because I just need to know what that pile of dusty-looking dry greenery in the picture actually is.

I get an email asking me to get myself ready for “pizza heaven”. I am shocked by the sheer hubris.

The delivery tracking device, starting up with a number of ’70s sci-fi sounds is bound to be a jumpy person’s worst nightmare. He is, I can only assume, a millenial anthropomorphic pizza-shaped AI with sad eyes. He’s called Dom (get it?) and takes ages explaining how basic colour-coding works.

When he’s not talking to you (and he talks a lot), the screen becomes a series of pizza and smiley emojis with some sort of dystopian grainy filter. It’s as disturbing as it sounds. Dom enjoys puns and tells dad jokes before flashing “LOL”. Two jokes in, my pizza is already in the oven. It spends quite a while there.

How do they even bake an half-and-half pizza? Do the toppings not spill, or slide scross the other side while baking? What happens to the rogue toppings?

The  pizza shows up. I am filled with a sense of shame as I go to the front door, a sense of shame which I truly cannot explain as I have numerous times had McDonald’s delivered late at night even though my closest joint is a five-minute walk away (my order is a single cheeseburger and a caramel sundae). The pizza smells good. Genuinely good. Charred peppers and cheese. Good.

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Remember my question about how toppings stay put in a half-and-half? They don’t.

I have to spoon back toppings, carefully trying to discern which half is which (turns out barbeque sauce looks deceivingly like tomato sauce). In the end it becomes a little of both, corn and red tandoori chicken pieces mixing and melting into a single cheesy mess.

The crust is soft and fluffy, less bready than real pizza, fattier and more supple. The barbeque sauce is genuinely not bad. It’s just sugary sweet. The cognitive dissonance is painful but in a world of waffles with maples syrup and fried chicken this is not the most adventurous contrast out there. The cheese is barely-present and so uniformly laid I can only assume a super-intelligent machine did it (Was it you, Dom?), but there is innocent sweetcorn, well-charred chilli slices, pickled japaleno lending some much-needed acidity. The slivers of chicken, fiery red and cumin-heavy if a little dry, make the tandoori half taste a little like a kebab.

I enjoy it. I enjoy as something different to the pizza I grew up with. It also goes really well with some very cold Peroni in the glass bottle. But then, few things don’t.

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I also never really find out what the “herbs” were.

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Mentaiko spaghetti

I have spoken before about the pain, the suffering of the self-imposed food puritanism and rigidity that comes with being Italian, in a world of teriyaki chicken pizzas and hot-dog stuffed crusts and canned ravioli.

Of course, there is a danger with a food culture that it’s as romanticised as the Italian one. It’s easy to succumb to a specific kind of snobbery, forgetting that, you know, Italy is an ever-changing industrialised country where people have 9-to-5 jobs and have to pick dinner on the way home, like everyone else. Of course, as a country blessed by the sun, the choice of locally grown produce is staggering compared to Britain, and a trip to the  greengrocer brings back bountiful paper bags of fat, ripe tomatoes, bitter leaves, pink-hued radicchio and red-skinned potatoes. And yes, if I look back at my summers growing up, I could fool myself into believing that our life was at one with nature. July in the Alps, creamy polenta and hearty stews, blackberries picked from the garden and eggs collected from the pen, still warm, the yolks beaten with white sugar eaten while sheltering from the summer storms. And the late August days spent in the Marche region, in a lonely house in a village of little more than a dozen lonely houses, the wind suddenly becoming chilly in the evening, lunches and dinners in the garden holding onto the paper plates to make sure they didn’t fly out. We’d pick thick-skinned, knobbly small cucumbers from the plant and lazily chew on them while granny heated up plump cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach; the tomatoes picked from the vine, crimson-red, would become a simple salad or be roasted in the oven with a filling of breadcrumbs and herbs. The adults would drink acrid-smelling wine which my granddad used to make and then mix with a generous dose of soda. In August, passata would be made for the year. I remember the garage, a pot as big as a bathtub, the grown-ups sterilising beer and wine bottles, and then the enticing smell of soffritto and tomatoes, my granddad and uncle standing around the pot, my granny stirring with an oversized wooden spoon, the orange and yellow plastic funnels, hundreds of bottles being filled and capped, and ending up in boxes in the back of our car for our trip back to Rome. We would never buy passata; it would always be in the pantry in label-less beer bottles.

At the same time, there were a lot of foods in my childhood and teenage years which were far less pure and virtuous. There were icy Calippos in the summer, melting into sickly, sticky syrup; frankfurters in tomato sauce served with pasta; gloopy burrito sauce from a jar for our “Mexican night”. Friends’ parents have made me the sort of pastas which, if presented as a video recipe on a Facebook page, would lead to an uproar of outraged, angry Italians (think tuna and parmesan). For dinner, we had sofficini and fish fingers with frozen peas. And one of the first dishes I ever made was pasta with sausage, cream and mushrooms. Yes, you heard it. Cream.

Cream is a bit of a controversial ingredient for us Italians. If you’re from Northern Italy, chances are you have at least dressed your tortellini with it; if you’re me, you’ve spent the last few years in a relentless battle to explain to the world that CREAM-DOES-NOT-BELONG-IN-CARBONARA. But, guess what? You can put whatever you want in your pasta. It’s yours to make and shape and transform and enjoy.

I’ve recently watched Ugly Delicious on Netflix, a documentary which has left me with more questions than answers about the idea of “fusion” food. More than anything, it’s made me realise that especially with something so integral to issues of class and race, our relationship with authenticity is flawed and full of contradictions. In the first episode, an Italian-American pizza maker claims not to care that a pizzaiolo from Naples would not see his “pie” as proper pizza; he is however outraged when David Chang orders Domino’s. Also, he says “pie” a lot. A lot. David Chang himself sees no issue deconstructing European food and creating whatever food he likes, but is far more reticent when it comes to kimchi appearing in mainstream restaurant menus. We’re ok messing with other people’s food; we’re unhappy if someone messes with our food. And as much as Italians are culprit of this, remember when the Brits kicked off because Americans though they had invented the sausage roll?

So today I am going to mess with my own food. There is a particular kind of Japanese food, called “yōshoku“, which literally means “western food”. It has spun universally-loved dishes like Tonkatsu, but also to a whole variation of spaghetti which would give your average Italian goosebumps. While I was not quite ready for the ketchup-and-sausage “Naporitan” spaghetti, I attemped Wafu Mentaiko pasta, which pairs spaghetti with – yes – cream. Oh, and cured cod spicy  roe. Shiso leaf. Seaweed. You know, the lot.

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Pasta with fish roe is not unheard of, and bottarga is very commonly used as a pasta sauce. In this case, because I could not find mentaiko, I opted for a vibrant orange fish roe and added some chilli flakes for a punch of heat. The result is creamy and delicate, with the beautiful texture of fish roe almost popping under your teeth, and the aniseedy brightness of shisho. I adapted the recipe from a couple of websites, like this and this, but have decided to use a more traditionally Italian technique by making the sauce on the heat rather than adding it to the cooked spaghetti still cold.

Mentaiko Pasta

(serves 2)

Mentaiko (spicy code roe), or any kind of small fish roe+chilli flakes
A little butter, or a mild olive oil
3 tablespoons single cream (you could substitute some more butter)
A little soy sauce
200 grams of spaghetti
Ground black pepper
A couple cloves of garlic
A couple slices of shiso(rolled then sliced thin)
Nori(cut into strips)

Cook the pasta as per packet direction in a large pot of salted water. In a pan, heat up some butter or olive oil, add the garlic and roe and let it fry lightly for a minute or so. Add the cream of extra butter, a dash of soy sauce, and some black pepper; mix well and remove from the heat.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pan with the sauce, on medium heat, until it’s well coated. Garnish with some extra roe, the shisho and the nori.

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Where to eat in Seville

Of course, this should really be called: where I ate in Seville, rather than where to eat in Seville. I have not, by all means, tried all (or most) restaurants in the colourful, sun-dappled city and determined with scientific rigour the best restaurants in Seville. Nor have I spent a particular long time here (four glorious days). I have however received recommendations from websites and guides and locals alike, and mainly from my sister, who has been living in Seville for the past six months. Here is a list of little gems I have encountered and loved.

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La Brunilda

Bright, simple decor, and traditional food with an inventive twist. The place is popular and had a queue before even opening, mainly with tourists bubbling with excitement. We had jamón croquettes, the filling smooth and creamy if maybe a little too innocently plain, and crispy buñuelos de bacalao, little fried pockets with a fluffy and savoury salted cod filling. Micas, literally “crumbs”, an Andalusian speciality, came with bright, tender grilled octopus, and a myriad of other ingredients: the bread crumbs were seasoned with scrambled eggs, bits of crispy chorizo, little extravagant pearls of caviar. It may not have been especially clever food, but its simplicity and unfussiness made it a perfect stop for our first lunch.

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Eslava

When trying to reserve a table over a week before my arrival, the restaurant was already fully booked. We made our way early (ridiculously early, by Spanish standards), set on getting a seat at the cheaper, less formal tapas counter, but really only managed to conquer a small patch of the restaurant where we ate standing. Eslava is a pretty tapas restaurant, with fairy-tale blue walls which have given every single one of my pictures an otherworldly feel, and a wooden counter decorated with sleek-looking wine bottles (they know how to pick a font) resting in buckets of ice, fresh flowers, jars of clams. They serve more contemporary takes on Andalusian classics, with food that feels classic but is also a little luxurious and decadent. We started with a slow-cooked egg yolk, sticky and silky, running atop a perfect round of springy bizcocho (a sweet sponge cake) in a dense mushrooms and truffle sauce. They have a very flattering picture of this dish on their website. It was delicious, earthy and sweet, if tiny, but a close-to-perfect morsel of food. We followed with a whole artichoke, served on a plate like a bloom and dressed with fried garlic. Their signature dish, a cigar shaped pastry which most definitely looks like something else, was filled with some sort of buttery cheese and squid ink filling, so rich it was almost hard to finish, and was maybe my least favourite dish of the evening, although still quite delicious.

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The salmorejo, thick and creamy cold tomato soup, heady with garlic, decorated with chewy-crispy chopped serrano ham and boiled egg, was so addictive I ordered two bowls. We enjoyed a carillada, pig’s cheek stewed in Pedro Ximenez sherry, savoury and fall-apart tender, before deciding we were too full to order the very attractive ribs which seemed to be on everyone else’s plate.

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Bodega Santa Cruz

When I first walked past this place, it was incredibly busy, buzzing with people spilling onto the pavement, the street, and then the opposite pavement. A staple of Sevillan life, it’s a small bodega which serves incredibly delicious, unpretentious, cheap food to hungry people. If you wish to sit down, it’s best to go between lunch and dinner hours, maybe around 4pm. But I think their food is maybe best enjoyed by one of the little tables outside, under the relentless Sevillan sun. This is were I tried my first pringa, which has since become one of my favourite foods in the world. It’s roast pork, slow-cooked with sausage, black pudding and more rendered fat for good measure, cooked until it falls apart  and resembled the texture of pâté, and encased in a small toasted sandwich. Warm, meaty and savoury, maybe akin to a liver on warm bread but slightly less gamey.

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They serve a variety of montaditos, small sandwiches, filled with all sorts of cured meats, cheese and fried fish. We enjoyed estufado, stewed meat in a bright orange, simple and comforting; a beef filet with stick and almost unappealingly dark pedro jimenez sauce; a montadito with morcilla (black pudding); garlicky, dense salmorejo; a firm, savoury tortilla. Servers are funny, loud, friendly, joking with patrons, screaming “caballero” across the street, writing your orders on the counter in chalk, and will genuinely throw your food on the plate with a handful of crisps or picos and serve you as quickly as they can. It’s not a place that bothers with presentation, but its simple food, and glasses of cold beer, were enough to warm my heart.

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Bar Alfaalfa

A small, endlessly  charming bar, packed with ancient, dusty wine bottles adorning the walls, where I felt very Spanish while sipping on Manzanilla and enjoying some jamón on bread.

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Dúo Tapas

Dúo Tapas, in the Alameida quarter, is proof to me that: 1- Seville does not concern itself with “instagrammability” (yes I hate myself for using that word, too), and 2- Food tastes good even when it doesn’t look good. Maybe even better.

Serving tapas with an Asian twist, it’s another busy, lively place which makes Spanish classics contemporary. There was a tuna tartare, glistening pink, served simply with a cracker and some mashed avocado. Funny-looking prawn spring rolls, long and thing with a tapered end, encased in crisp pastry, the filling so delicious and fresh it made me realise I had forgotten what fresh prawns taste like. A carrillada in a parmentier sauce, fall-off-the-bone tender; their rendition of the salmorejo, made with green apple and celery, creamy, sweet-tart and refreshing; and huevos rotos, fried eggs which were very much not concerned with the way they looked, a delicious mess of runny yolks and crisped-up whites, chuncky golden potatoes, and thick slices of savoury blood pudding. Which made me wonder, why are restaurants are so shy with blood pudding in Britain? It would be a pretty good addition to any fried egg, even the cookie-cutter prosecco-filled brunch kind, the perfect cloud of white with a shiny round yolk bang in the middle which looks a little like a drawing. In fact, couldn’t we also let our eggs get a little messy?

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Bar El Comercio

I don’t know how a pile of huge, warm churros to be dipped in a cup of dense hot chocolate passes for breakast, but I’m in. The churros here are delicious but it’s worth popping in for the atmosphere alone, the hustling and bustling behind the counter, elbowing your way to the counter during busy times, and the steaming-hot, crunchy and doughy churros.

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Las Piletas

There just is something about Spanish bars and breakfast, but I don’t quite know what it is. A wooden counter, tiled walls, patrons standing at the counter, knocking back their coffee, the noise of spoons clicking against glasses, the swift service. It’s just like nothing else. It made me imagine a life in which I quickly pop to Las Piletas for a tostada con jamón and a cafe con leche before, I don’t know, going to the market and buying beautiful ripe tomatoes. You know, tourist fantasies.

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Las Piletas is popular for their savoury breakfasts and the pan con tomate was delicious, in itself a perfect example of when a very simple thing  becomes much more than the sum of its parts, when those parts are soft, doughy bread; crushed tomatoes; fruity and peppery olive oil.

Bartolomea

A much more contemporary-looking space (not a tile in sight), white bright blue walls a tropical colour scheme, picture perfect tables and the sort of chairs you’ll find yourself longing for on Pinterest.

The first dish we tried, a ceviche, came in an over-sized martini glass with yukka chips adorning the rim. Queue to eyeroll (mine). But of course it’s silly to judge its book by its trying-too-hard cover, and the ceviche was delicious, tender but firm chunks of fish in a bright, creamy milk. The dishes that followed all had me considering ordering a second portion. We shared a butterfish tataki, fresh salad piled high on top of the fish, singy chuncks of grapefruit and little pools of soya-flavoured mayo, a roasted note in the savoury, creamy sauce. I especially loved the focaccia, with a pillowy layer of their “guacamole”, really a smashed avocado with smoky paprika, a grilled sardine fillet, oily and satisfying, and a delicate garnish of fish roe and sun-dried tomatoes. There was something in the combination of soft springy focaccia and all its layers that made me infinitely happy. It was the sort of dish that you would want to eat every day, all the time.

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We finished with a dessert. I’m not normally a dessert person. I love pastry and sweets, and have eaten frankly embarrassing amounts of ice cream in my life, but I never really want a heavy dessert at the end of a meal. Their dessert list was enticing enough to challenge my stance and preconception that it’s hard to get depth of flavour with something that’s just, well, sweet. We had ginger bizcocho, soaked in an intensely sweet custard which reminded me a lot of my granny’s egg yolks beaten with white sugar (what passed as a nutritious snack back then), similar to Italian zabaione. And on top, a sphere of saffron ice cream, bright yellow and aromatic with the medicinal sweetness of the precious red stems.

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We ate at Bartolomea on my last day – had it been my first, I would have come back. Maybe more than once.

A review of Lao Café, London

It’s cute. Pale blue, with a stripped-down industrial-chic interior, a colourful mural, wooden benches in shades of brown and pastels. I first came across it in a review in Good Food magazine, which praised it for its authenticity, the punch of all things spicy and fermented, the use of ingredients like ant eggs and bugs, which may put off some eaters. To me, it’s just one of my favourite places in London.

The name is Lao Café and the cuisine is Laotian, which is a word I can genuinely never pronounce. Think Thai, but somehow even punchier; there are papaya salads, crispy rice salads, grilled meat skewers. Salt-baked or deep fried whole fish that look like prehistoric creatures. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. And yes, if you wish, you can have some ant eggs on your curry.

I’ve been to Lao Café in all seasons. I’ve sipped on brightly hued, sickly sweet pink ice tea during a heatwave; lost all feeling in my mouth after ordering a salted egg  salad “medium hot”; ladled warm, cloudy sour soup in a tiny china bowl while the last of the London snow was slowly turning muddy and brown.

Because it’s a cuisine that’s designed for sharing, it’s perfect for a small group of people.

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Parts of the menu changes regularly, but if you can get salt-baked fish, order it: wonderfully delicate steamed flesh, with an addictive fermented aubergine sauce and white vermicelli to accompany it. The salads, tart with lime, sweet with palm sugar and savoury with fish sauce, come with a variety of accompaniments and are light and hearty, satisfying and fresh at the same time.

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While I have loved almost every item I have ever had, I have favourites. The simple, yet ingenious pork skewers, so savoury their flavour is reminiscent of Italian sausage, tender under a caramelised exterior; and the stir fried noodles, a generous pile of thin and sticky rice noodles with chunks of fried eggs and slivers of grilled pork, of which I could eat entire plates to myself.

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On a recent visit, the offer of a pot of soup was too enticing to pass. The hot pot comes to the table in a very theatrical clay pot, to be carefully ladled into delicate china bowls. We went for chicken and black sesame and it was rustic, cloudy, chock-full of aromatics, with fat collecting in droplets on the surface. A savoury, sour, just-spicy liquor with bits of meat you had to work for, bones and all, so nourishing and warming it put us in a sleepy daze.

If you, like me, believe that ice cream is the only appropriate way to end a meal, they have homemade ice cream in three flavours: coconut, matcha and Thai milk tea.
I have of course never attempted to order anything but Thai milk tea because where else can you get it? It has a subtle roast flavour from the tea, and it’s as creamy and sweet as, well, Thai milk tea. If you have inadvertently asked for any of your dishes to be spicy, despite the alarmed look of the waitress who probably warned you that it would be “Thai spicy, not English spicy”, the ice cream will be all the more welcome.

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Lao Café
60 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HG
London

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(If you wondered about the pink ice tea I mentioned at the beginning, here it is in its fuchsia glory. It tastes like melted bubblegum.)

Apollo Banana Leaf, London – a review

I’d never even had Indian food until I was twenty years old. Chinese, that I would have quite often, in large restaurants with bronze etchings on the wall and rotating trays on tables. Pineapple chicken, fatty dumplings, deep-fried Nutella to finish. I discovered Japanese food when I was sixteen, at first sceptical, then taken aback by the soft texture of the sticky rice, finally in love via my sushi equivalent of a gateway drug, one of the most westernised sushi rolls out there – tempura maki with a hearty dose of mayo.

But Indian, that was new. I was twenty years old and went to this beautiful restaurant, deep red walls, heavy curtains, folding screens shaped like the silhouette of the Taj Mahal, red table cloths. We were greeted with a few thin, crispy flatbread which I did not recognise, and three little silver bowls filled with sticky, jammy chutney and pickle. There were bowls of water with floating flowers in them. I’d never even heard the word “poppadom”, or seen any of its spellings, but I was delighted. I think I ordered tikka masala, and a dahl, all fluffy and creamy. The menu largely made little sense to me – madras and vindaloos and masalas, what was the difference? Before then, the only “curry” I’d had was my mum’s rendition made with supermarket yellow curry powder and double cream. I didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like.

Of course, living in Britain, Indian food is as ubiquitous as, I don’t know, chips. I have since had a lot of North Indian, South Indian, Pakistani food. I’ve had mediocre, bland meals and fiery, delicious feasts. I’ve had it in front of the television or in a white clothed restaurant. I’ve had warming bowls of lentils and squidgy paneer in creamy spinach, tikkas and lamb ribs and dry meats, soupy and sweet lentils, chewy parathas and jewelled pilau rices. And I always crave more.

Apollo Banana Leaf is a South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant in Tooting, an area famous for its great curries and home of some of London’s Mayor’s favourite restaurants. It’s BYO and very busy in the evenings, but much quieter around lunchtime. Service is warm, friendly, genuinely happy, in a way that I hadn’t experience in a while. The space itself is quite small, ornate with huge photographs of landscapes, deep hues of blue and green against the warm yellow walls.

We started the meal with a mutton roll, a delicately spicy croquette filled with mutton meat, its pancake coating bright and crispy. Then an almost lacy dosa, a kaleidoscope of texture, soft and chewy and crispy, the batter a little tangy and nutty, to be dipped into sambar, a tame tomato chutney and an especially delicious coconut chutney.

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Then came my personal highlight, devilled mutton; a generous pile of tender but sturdy mutton chunks which was fiery and addictive. A perfect balance of heat and acid to liven up the meat. And the aubergine curry, delicate slivers of the nightshade swimming in a sweet, creamy, mild curry, to be spooned over fluffy pilau rice.

As full as we could be, but planning another visit to try the seafood dishes, came the bill: at £13 each, Apollo Banana Leaf wasn’t just serving delicious food: it was almost laughably good value.

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Apollo Banana Leaf

http://apollobananaleaf.com/

190 Tooting High St, London SW17 0SF

What I ate in Japan – part 2

This is the second instalment of What I ate in Japan – read the first one here.

Traditional Ryokan food

After a spectacular rope-way trip over a volcanic valley, overlooking a bare mountain with thick steam rising from the surface, we made our way to our ryokan in Hakone, in the lush Japanese countryside. A traditional hotel, with tatami floor and sliding doors, the hotel also had a beautiful onsen (a natural thermal pool by a river, enveloped by nature) and a very gorgeous dinner served in our rooms and eaten on your knees (cramps).

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As much as the food was strikingly beautiful and perfectly constructed, it was bland. So, so bland. There was some sort of very delicate soup with chewy noodles and pheasant, squares of sweet omelettes and taro dumplings, boiled prawns, edible flowers, and pheasant sashimi. Yes. Raw poultry.

Raw poultry dressed with radishes so thinly sliced they were transparent and edible flowers, but raw poultry nonetheless. I had all sorts of alarms going off in my head. I’m sure it’s fine, I told myself. Be adventurous. You eat raw egg all the time. You’ve had raw pork. What’s the worst that can happen?

Curious to know what it tasted like? Me too. Because I did not have it.

In fact, scarred by this near-raw-poultry experience, when served the phaesant table barbeque I cooked the hell out of it, until it was tough and barely edible. Sorry, phaesant, you died in vain. This barbeque course (below), also involved some unseasoned leeks, some unseasoned mushrooms, and a single unseasoned slice of pepper.

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There were some lovely pickles and rice, but you catch my drift – there was no oil, no salt, no soy sauce, no yuzu, no ponzu sauce. Ingredients were left alone to shine and fell flat. That being said, looking up reviews online I seem to be the only person in the world who strongly disliked this, so I believe it’s my fault. My palate is not quite delicate enough to appreciate a single warm (did I mention unseasoned?) leek.

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Breakfast was considerably better, with some grilled salmon browned and caramelised, a salad with juicy prawns, and warming miso soup and rice. We took a bath in the enormous stone bathtub, hot water coming directly from the onsen, and enjoyed the view below.

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Bentos

I thought I was familiar with the concept of a bento – essentially, a packed lunch. But bento boxes come in so many shapes and price ranges: homely portions of just-sticky rice with creamy curry, or beautiful wood-like boxes with a myriad of tiny bite-sides dishes each occupying their perfect little square. There are bento shops in every station, and the choice can be overwhelming, but they quickly became one of the highlights of our Shinkansen trips.

The one below, which costed about £10, featured chewy taro dumplings, crunchy tempura prawns, savoury mussels on seasoned rice, a sweet, fluffy pillow of omelette served with fresh lotus root, and a variety of geometrically shaped elements which I could not quite recognise. But to me, bentos are all about the symmetry, the care for the detail, the dignity given to a train lunch. A world away from a ham sandwich and a packet of Quavers.

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CoCo Curry House

Japanese curry, the mild, sweet brown gravy often served with pork cutlet and chubby chunks of carrot, bears such little resemblance to its South East Asian homophone, that it never occurred to me that they could even be related.

In fact, curry was introduced in Japan by British Navy officers, who had adopted the dish from India. In its current form, it’s one of Japan’s favourite dishes and can be found pretty much everywhere.

A few people had recommended CoCo Curry House, a curry-dedicated chain whose brown sauce is close to addictive. Their motto is “good smell, good curry” and you will not get it until you realise that a CoCo Curry joint mysteriously projects an enticing smell which betrays it every time. Once you recognise it you will always know whether you are in its proximity.

The curry can be made of chicken, pork or beef, and can be served with anything from traditional fried cutlets to frankfurters, fried cuttlefish, natto and even just cheese (it is a very, very long menu). Most aspects, such as sweetness, spiciness, and toppings, are customisable.

Let’s talk about spice. I had never had a Japanese curry that was actually spicy before. Sure, it was spiced, but never hot. When choosing the heat level, looking for a hint of warmth more than anything else, we went for 2 out of 10. It was hot. Not painfully hot, but runny-nose teary-eyes swollen-lips hot. I’m not quite sure what a 10 would taste like, but I decided to keep that a mystery.

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As toppings, I particularly loved the soft-boiled egg, a quivery cloud of barely cooked egg, so borderline-raw that I wondered how they even managed to break the shell. I loved how the creamy yolk mixed with the dark pork curry sauce. I also liked the potent garlic bits, and the sweetcorn (a local obsession I unabashedly embraced during the trip).

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Or, fried stuff on rice with a barely-cooked egg (Japan really does not fear raw egg). This was from a small counter-only lunch restaurant full of people eating on their own while reading papers. I picked at random and received some huge, juicy prawns, pork and beef (yes – deep fried beef). The man next to me observed me for a little, a sceptical look on his face, then pointed to the jar of pickles, which I obediently added to my bowl. The acidity really lifted what is essentially, did I mention, fried stuff on rice.

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Sake

The perfect accompaniment to delicate flavours, sake is like a supremely clean-tasting white wine – a delicious palate cleanser between bites. We had an incredible experience at Osaka’s Sake Bar, a beautiful standing bar with an impressive selection of huge sake bottles and an English-speaking bartender who asked if we wanted it dry or off-dry, medium or full bodied, and offered us glasses upon glasses of the stuff. It was delicious, and I discovered I was partial to an off-dry sake as a nightcap.

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This is not, of course, everything we ate and drunk. We had disgustingly sweet matcha beers and whiskey highballs. We ate fatty chicken skin yakitoris in the Golden Gai, drank beer in smoky hole-in-the-wall bars, had takoyaki in markets, thick sashimi in izakayas with ice-cold dry sakes in a wooden box. And we loved all of it.

 

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What I ate in Japan – part 1

Not to blow my own horn, but I am normally quite good at planning where to eat on holiday. I study guidebooks, blogs, websites; I plan itineraries around this fried fish joint in Malaga or that Souvlaki place in Rhodes. I go back home comforted by the thought that yet again, I have eaten and drunk everything worth eating and drinking.

Of course, in a city like Tokyo, this is impossible. Not only because the city itself stretches over  a surface of over 2,000 square kilometres, but because it has the highest concentration of eating venues I’ve ever experienced. There are no-frills counter seating eateries, Michelin-starred restaurants, bakeries, yakitori joints where beer and sake are drunk around the griddle, izakayas where the food complements the drinks, noodle places with their little vending machines from which you order, performance restaurants, street stalls, markets. And all these seem to all sit on top of each other, there to confuse you with enticing smells and Japanese-only menus.

On top of this paralysing choice, Japanese addresses are near-impossible to understand and Google maps can be a little useless. At times, we would circle a road for a while before giving up, baffled at the fact that Google Maps had promised us that the restaurant would be there, on that very road, but was nowhere to be found. Some of these places remain a mystery; others, we realise, where simply inside buildings: there seem to be a number of buildings which only house eating and drinking places. Finding what floor the place you want to go to is, is a whole different story.

So there was a lot of improvising, and a lot of restaurants whose names I could not note down, where we stumbled upon hungry and frustrated after not been able to found the supposedly great okonomiyaki place round the corner. They were all truly great.

Convenience stores and bakeries

Kombinis, convenience stores, adorn every street corner and they are so wonderfully Japanese, you could forget they are American chains. The ready-to-eat foods are cheap and lovely: fat onigiris filled with anything from grilled salmon to fish eggs to sour salted plum (umeboshi, my favourite). Katsu (cutlet) sandwiches, in the whitest, crust-less bread, and ready-to-eat soft boiled eggs. You can also buy all sorts of snacks and crisps and bakery items. Sweet melon pans (covered with a cookie crust which makes them look like melons), buns filled with red bean paste, airy baked cheesecakes, chewy chestnut mochi. The drink section also features pretty much everything you can think of: cold green teas, sugary milk teas, flavoured milks, sodas made to taste like yogurt, cold beers and cans of sake. If you’re every hungry and confused, a kombini will see you through.

Japanese bakeries, the takeaway kind, are very similar to the ones you get in Chinatown in London. You take a tray and a pair of tongues at the entrance, and fill your tray with all sorts of cakes and buns. I noticed that a lot of them appeared to claim some from of Frenchness: they had French flags or were called something along the lines of “vie de France”, but were about as French as I am Japanese. This is where I made a first discovery about Japanese food: there seems to be little interest for authenticity. Foreign food is broken down to its elements and re-built to look and taste decidedly Japanese. A buttery, flaky croissant is chewed and spat out looking like a shiny, horn-shaped brioche filled with chocolate cream. This gives life to little treasures: buns filled with thick custards, but also turnip tops, matcha cream, chestnut; pancakes that are really soufflés and cheesecakes that are also really soufflés. Below, a little pumpkin-shaped bun, filled with slightly sweetened pumpkin puree. Flavours are not overly sweet and often nutty and toasted, never particularly sharp. Seasonality also seems very important, as pumpkin, sweet potato and chestnut were colouring all foods and dessert in November.

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Sushi

There were things I already knew to expect about sushi in Japan: it’s mainly nigiri and rolls are simple – the idea is to let the fish shine. Wasabi is in the nigiri and it’s not served on the plate for you to add. There is more emphasis on fish other than salmon and tuna.

Then, there were things I really had no idea about. Tuna, especially medium-fatty and fatty tuna, seems to be one of the most popular sushi items on the menu. It’s much fattier than the purple maguro we’re used to in Britain, paler in colour, with a melt-in-your mouth texture. It’s dreamy. Salmon does feature in sushi menus, but it’s more often consumed grilled than raw.

Here’s another thing: affordable sushi places don’t always look particularly nice. Used to the simple sleekness and abundance of wood of places like EatTokyo, some of the very popular sushi places I ate in were gritty, with servers wearing wellies, and chefs (politely) shouting at each other. There was often more of a fish-market atmosphere, and these places tended to normally have a queue and happy regulars wolfing down sushi with their hands (yes).

Kizuna Sushi, Tokyo

We stumbled upon this 24-hour sushi restaurant after discovering that a very good-looking izakaya had no English menu or pictures, which would have made ordering impossible. Kizuna sushi did a very good job of consoling us; it’s an airy restaurant with both table and (infinitely more fun) counter seating. The sushi was delicious and good value, and the atmosphere busy and buzzy. Their tuna set is excellent value and features tuna, medium-fatty tuna and fatty tuna, as well as scorched tuna and tartare. We also had slightly stranger rolls (slimy natto, of which I enjoy the nuttiness but was not quite as popular with my boyfriend), ume and shisho, unagi, ikura.

The tuna was my favourite, draped over rice and so soft it was about to fall apart, it was delicious and a great showcase to what the simples of foods (fresh fish, rice) can achieve. Washed down with some dry sake, it was pretty perfect.

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A lot of the other sushi we had in Tokyo was in hole-in-the-wall places whose names I could not read. The one below was our first ever sushi experience in Japan. A tiny eatery in a subway station tunnel, where there was no menu and no English was spoken. The owner just asked if we wanted sushi, and we said yes. This lunch sushi set came to about 1,500 yen each – that’s about 10 pound. Locals were eating chirashi and miso soup and laughing at footage of Trump’s visit in Tokyo.

 

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My absolute favourite sushi, though, was in Osaka.

Kuromon Market, Osaka

An energetic, bustling market frying up takoyaki, grilling scallops, selling wasabi roots and luxury fruit packaged like boxes of chocolate truffles. There is also a corner sushi stall specialising in tuna. There was lovely sashimi, but their rolls have set a standard forever impossible to meet back home: a never-before-seen ratio of fish to rice.

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Harukoma Sushi, Osaka

Thick slabs of fish on a tiny bit of perlescent rice. Clam miso soup which comes poured over a mountain of clams. The freshest uni I’ve ever had – bright and creamy, a delicate taste reminiscent of the sea. The tuna and salmon belly nigiris were maybe the best sushi I’ve ever eaten in my life. They have a (sticky, dirty) English menu, the floor is wet, and it has a buzzing, fish market energy. For better pictures, have a look at: https://migrationology.com/osaka-food-guide-japan/

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Ramen

I thought I wasn’t a big fan of ramen – I’m actually not a big fan of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. Its intense richness is a little off-putting to me, the way it coats the tongue and the vaguely animalic smells.

But hey! There is more to ramen than tonkotsu ramen. And even when it comes to tonkotsu, some restaurants will allow you to choose the level of richness, or to have your broth blended with miso or soy sauce.

Ebisoba Ichigen, Tokyo

This place specialises in prawn ramen. The broth is intense and seafood-y, almost like a lobster bisque, and can be blended with simple soy sauce stock (my choice), or tonkotsu (the boyfriend’s choice). The ordering is done via a vending machine at the entrance (this is entirely in Japanese but a lovely couple helped us ordering after seeing how lost we looked). You then quietly sit on a bench and when seats are free at the counter, you’re called up by the waiters – the slurping can then begin. I can’t quite explain how delicious this was – so intensely savoury, but also a fatty broth, thick chewy noodles, every bite as satisfying than the one before.

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Ichiran Ramen, various outposts (we ate in the Osaka Namba and the Tokyo Shinjuku ones)

Let me tell you a story. Upon our Airbnb host’s recommendation, we went for what claims to be the “best tonkotsu ramen” in Japan. Apparently people fly in from Hong Kong and Taiwan for a bowl of the stuff. The whole experience was surreal and slightly baffling. Unassuming from the oustide, this was a four-floor restaurant organised like a factory production line. You are asked if you want table or individual booth seating (more on that later), given a sheet on which you can choose every element of your ramen, like the richness of the tonskotsu, the strength of the fish stock base, the softness of the noodles, amount of their proprietary dry hot spice blend, garlic, and any add-ons. You are then ushered towards vending machines in which you have to make a ridiculous amount of decisions in a split second. Do you want a noodle refill? An egg? Sides? A beer? A matcha beer (don’t make this mistake)? Once we picked up our tickets, we were pushed towards a lift and somehow ended up on a different floor. We sat at our table and the ramen magically showed up minutes later.

It was probably my favourite tonkotsu ramen, a perfect blend of richness and savouriness, slices of chashu pork soft and trembling, marbled with fat, and a salted egg. The hot spice mix provided a very subtle kick, but you can go all out and transform this into an eye-wateringly spicy soup.

The following day, on the train to Tokyo, I couldn’t stop thinking about this ramen. Apparently simple, it clearly has an addictive quality and suddenly flying in from a neighbouring country for a bowl of the stuff seemed very reasonable. Ichiran is luckily a chain, and as soon as we got to Tokyo, we had it again.

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The Tokyo Shinjuku branch is smaller and less manic, which translates to a much longer queue. It also doesn’t have table seating, but individual booths only. It’s counter seating, but you have a panel separating each diner, and a panel separating you from the kitchen on the other side. This is raised while you’re been served, so you can see the waiter’s hands while they place your food on the counter – and then quickly pulled down to ensure absolute slurping privacy. Which you will absolutely need.