Surprises

When you go somewhere, there are things that you expect are going to be there.  There is a picture in your mind, a set idea of what the world you’re entering will look like. With me, I do a lot of research on places, so my expectations are usually fairly accurate. It sometimes means spoiling surprises for myself, but it does mean that I most know what is coming.

In arriving in London, most of my expectations have been met. There have, however, been a few things that have shocked. They are just little surprises, small things that have struck me based on, to be honest, not a lot of observation.

So accept them with a grain of salt, but here are my three biggest surprises about the London food scene.

 

There are some amazingly good noodles around

I expected good Indian food (though I’m not convinced I’ve found it yet). I expected good French food. I expected pretty decent kebabs, reasonable Italian, and maybe some ok US barbecue.

For some reason, though, there were some cuisines that I wasn’t particularly expecting to be great in London. One of the ones at the top of the list was Japanese.

Turns out, that expectation was very wrong. It’s not just that there is some good Japanese food in London. It’s that some of the best food in London at the moment is Japanese.

There are two restaurants in Soho causing all the stir. Each have taken a style of noodles and worked at making them as well as they possibly can.

The first, Koya, is all about udon noodles. Thick and meaty, served with or without broth and a number of different toppings, it’s an exciting bowl of food. Some options are traditional Japanese flavours, and others are more British in origin, such as the special of roast pheasant, mushrooms and cabbage that I ate.

The other has a very small menu, and specialises in ramen. Tonkotsu has made a huge impact on this city, with the rich, deep pork ‘tonkotsu’ broth in their trademark bowl of noodles delivering an unbelievable depth of flavour. With only four bowls of house made noodles to choose from, plus a few sides (including some stunning fried chicken pieces), this is fast becoming one of London’s favourite cheap eats.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect great Japanese. Noodles are a global trend right now, so this city was sure to be right in the middle of things, but for some reason it didn’t click with me. It was certainly a happy surprise.

 

There are only three pub menus in London

When I first went into a pub here, the menu looked pretty good. It was a nice looking, quiet, local pub type of place, serving cider and tarragon battered fish, pork and chorizo burger, sausages and mash, chicken and ham hock pies, and so forth. All were good, simple pub dishes.

The second pub I went into impressed me a lot less. Clearly a cookie-cutter chain style pub, the menu had their larger fish’n’chips plate called “the Codfather”, and a “Big Ben Burger”. Very much a tourist operation, it was pretty dull. When I wandered past another pub advertising the same badly named dishes, it was to be expected.

The third pub I went into, however, again looked like a small, independent place. Cute, cosy, with some interesting beers on tap and boardgames behind the bar, it seemed like a place with its own spirit. But then, I looked at the menu.

Cider and tarragon battered fish. Pork and chorizo burger. Chicken and ham hock pies. The whole menu was identical, even down to the descriptors used on each dish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good menu, and I understand that pubs have good reasons for using menu consultants.

What surprised me was the lack of a desire to be individual. The pubs have so much character in terms of décor, or atmosphere, but then the food is identical. I look forward to finding the places that do their own thing.

 

The organic pig is winning

In Hyde Park there is a tiny little sausage stall. They sell a basic sausage in a bun, with some caramelised onion. Condiments are on the side, so you can choose what else you want on it. It’s all a very simple operation, with one slightly surprising factor.

The sausages are organic.

Yes, in a park-side sausage stall, they’re using meat from organic, boutique farm raised pigs. It’s not just there, either. From pubs to restaurants to back street cafes, organic pork seems to be served everywhere. The message is clearly getting through.

I don’t know why the success here has been so much greater than at home. Maybe it’s the influence of chefs like Fergus Henderson who for many years have focused on only cooking happy pigs, and serving every part of them. Maybe it is the continued TV work of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and even Jamie Oliver, championing organics and ethical eating. Or perhaps it is the central place of pigs in British cuisine, where is seems to me to hold some of the same romantic position that lamb does in Australia.

Which is great for so many reasons. It shows that ethical eating can be commercially viable, and that people who go out to eat do care about the welfare of the animals. From the gastronomic side it’s exciting as well, because it means that everywhere the bacon, the sausages and the other pork dishes are almost universally excellent.

That is something that deserves celebration.

The Deport List

You’ve just arrived in London. After surviving the 26-hour transit, taking a brief crowded tube trip, trudging your heavy pack up the four flights of stairs to your room in the hostel, and washing all the travel sweat off you, what do you do?

For me the answer was pretty simple. You go to the pub.

So around the corner I went to the local tavern. Once I pushed past the crowds to the bar I ordered a pint and my first plate of food on British soil: bangers and mash.

There’s something so evocative about that as a dish, so English. This was a pretty exemplary version, too, with fat, sweet free-range pork sausages and rich gravy over sharp, mustardy mash. It was a perfect introduction to the Kingdom’s cuisine.

Britain seems to have a number of these classic dishes, of foods that are so inherently tied up with how people see the country that they verge on cliché. And I intend to try as many of them as I can.

As such, I have written up my Deport List, which is like a Bucket List for those on limited visas. These are ten experiences that sum up the stereotype of the UK that has formed in my head after years of TV and films. I will endeavour to do all of them before I get kicked out of the country.

 

The Deport List

1.     A Cornish pasty in Cornwall

The perfect self-contained meal. This parcel of meat and veggies wrapped in pastry became the standard lunch fare for Cornish tin miners in the 18th century, cementing this as one of the great working class foods.

Reason enough to head west and lunch on one of these glorious golden pasties, eaten end to end as they are intended, right on the Cornish beaches.

 

2.     Cucumber sandwiches and Pimms at a garden party

From a stalwart of the British working class to the ultimate upper-class cliché, I want to eat cucumber sandwiches. Sliced, salted cucumber and butter on soft white bread with the crusts cut off, a morsel of food with next to no nutritional content, is so clearly connected with the British ruling class in my mind that just one bite makes me feel like a colonial overlord.

This is the food of people who made leisure their life. Eaten with a glass of Pimms Cup outside in the English summer, it’s enough to make anyone give a hearty “pip-pip”.

 

3.     Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon

Speaking of summer, when the boys and girls in white hit the grass to play some tennis, thoughts turn to strawberries. Top quality berries from Kent, picked the day before and shipped down to be sold at outrageous prices to the hordes of people hoping for a glimpse of Federer or the Williams sisters, this dish is as much a part of the Wimbledon tournament as the tennis itself.

People have warned me off this one, though. They say that it’s too early in the season, that the strawberries are bland, and that you can get the exact same thing outside the tournament grounds for a fraction of the price. Given the seemingly absurd process involved in getting in to Wimbledon, eating the cheaper ones outside might be an option, but the intention is still there.

 

4.     Fish’n’chips, by the water, wrapped in newspaper

Few things say England more than fish’n’chips. Even if it is now a staple around the world, it still seems particularly English, particularly when malt vinegar or mushy peas are involved. The Brits may not have been the first people in the world to batter and fry a piece of cod, but they do seem to have been the first to serve it with fried potatoes, wrapped in piece of newspaper, and thus made the world a better place.

To me, though, fish’n’chips is always better in sight of the ocean. Even if the fish is just as fresh at the local city chipper, there’s something about the whiff of salt spray from the waves that enhance the flavour. It was an obvious choice for this list.

 

5.     Haggis, tatties and neeps in Scotland

The Scots get a bad wrap when it comes to food. They are universally known for one dish that a large number of people wouldn’t even consider eating. Haggis is a pretty serious dish of offal, with sheep heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, fat, spices, salt and stock, then stuffed into the sheep’s stomach, then simmered for a few hours.

To some, it sounds awful. But me, I love that stuff. I can’t wait to head north of Hadrian’s Wall to get that rich, savoury goodness, served with mashed potato and turnips. Maybe a dram of whiskey, too. Who wouldn’t love that?

 

6.     Go to the home of Stilton in the Vale of Belvoir

There are not many things in the world as wonderful as a great blue cheese, and Stilton is one of best. So when I discovered that five of the six places legally allowed to make Stilton are located in a region that sounds like it’s from a George RR Martin novel, there was no way I could resist.

Evocative name aside, the Vale of Belvoir seems like a typical piece of the English countryside, but one that happens to produce one of the world’s great cheeses. Also, there is a town in the Vale called Melton Mowbray, famous for a particular type of pork pie, which doesn’t hurt either.

 

7.     A perfect trifle

I love trifle. Layers of boozy sponge, jelly, fruit and custard make for a simple but eminently enjoyably way to end a meal. And, given that the Brits have been making some form of it since the late 16th century, it seems like a good fit for the list.

But just any trifle would be too easy, so the search for a perfect version is on. Though what makes a perfect trifle? To me, it’s all to do with getting the balance of the levels right, as well as the quality of the custard. It’s going to be a fun search.

 

8.     “Support” the Campaign for Real Ale

Back in 1971 a bunch of Irish guys started getting annoyed at the British beer industry. They felt that the choice of beer was being limited, that brews were becoming mass produced, homogenous and dull. So they began an organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA) to champion traditional British ales, made in casks and served without carbonisation. Now, more than 40 years later, they are the largest single issue UK consumer group, and has facilitated a revitalisation of great, limited production beers.

It’s hard not to approve of such excellent goals. Maintaining tradition, choice and quality are all things I strongly approve of. As such, I am going to make sure I support CAMRA in the best way you can in our free market world: by buying real ales in abundance.

 

9.     Chicken tikka masala at a late night curry house

I love the story of chicken tikka masala. As a nominally Indian dish, supposedly created in Glasgow, that became one of the UK’s most popular plates of food, there’s something so unlikely about it that it’s almost romantic. It is chicken tikka in a spiced tomato sauce and often served with near fluorescent colours, and this nation loves it.

It does seem a little wrong in a nation with such a history of food from the sub-continent to go with what is arguably a bastardisation of the cuisine, but it is a list of British clichés. I’ve watched a lot of UK cop shows and they always go to the curry house after the pubs closed and order this. There was no way I could leave it out.

 

10.  A Brick Lane salt beef beigel after midnight

Every city has their late night drunk food. In Melbourne, a night on the turps is never complete without a souvalaki dripping with garlic sauce. Here in London I am told that the position is filled by the salt beef beigel. Hot salt beef, a cooked, brined beef brisket, is sold as a hot sandwich in traditional beigels (alternative spelling to ‘bagel’). This classic of the Jewish community is served in various locations, most notably Brick Lane, 24 hours a day.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard much about them until a friend was living here, but a hot beef sandwich after midnight sounded like an ideal way to round out this list.