Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Brazilian Place in the Arndale Food Market

Arndale Food Market
High Street,
Manchester M4 1EA

Sfirra de frango: £1.80
Risole de carna moida: £1.60

Jonesing for more South American food (two hits and I'm an addict) but unable to afford the increasingly ubiquitous meat-on-a-stick Brazilian joints that have popped up all over Manchester, I decided to try the Arndale Food Market's very own Brazilian snackbar. My first attempt to find cheap South American food in Manchester ended in tasteless, soggy, disappointing disaster.

I will admit that I have never had Brazilian food before.  However, unless Brazil is the black sheep of the South American culinary family, I do not think that my experience is indicative of Brazilian cuisine.  Does Brazilian food deliberately eschew all spices and flavours? Do Brazilians see chicken and think that it needs to be ground up into dry and tasteless shreds and then compacted into damp lumps? Must Brazilians use canned vegetables that taste and look past their use-by date? Are breads designed to be wetly gluey? I am pretty sure that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "no."

My first disappointment arrived in the form of a sfirra de frango, ostensibly a bun filled with skinless chicken breast.  From the outside it looked nice: the bun was a pleasant golden colour designed to make it look like it had been wrapped up in dough.  Unfortunately, it was gluey and limp.  Inside, there was no evidence of the skinless chicken breast or, in fact, any chicken at all.  Instead there was mush, mush interspersed with pieces of anaemic sweetcorn that had clearly a) come from a tin and b) seen better days.  I deduced by process of elimination that the mush must be the chicken.  There was certainly nothing that tasted or looked like any sort of chicken, let alone skinless chicken breast, but the reconstituted mush, with the appearance of a block of ramen and lumps that were dry on the inside while soggy on the outside, could not have been anything else if the sfirra de frango's ingredients list is to be believed.

Setting aside the bun, I took a bite out of the risole de carne moida, advertised as a breaded dough filled with mincemeat.  The risole would have been better had the dough not had the overwhelming taste of cheap fishfingers in addition to a texture that reminded me of chewed paper.  I nibbled through to the meat, which took me a while as there is not much of it, and was met with something that looked like mince and onions but tasted of nothing.  It was a confusing experience as I have rarely eaten something that tastes of so little.  I gave up, leaving the unfinished detritus of my hopeless attempt on the table.

I hoped that Manchester's Brazilian snackbar would fulfill my need for the spicy, flavour-packed food I had eaten from Colombian joints in London.  Sadly, it did not.

Friday, 18 February 2011

London - Las Americas Cafeteria

26 Pope's Road
London SW9 8JJ

Two arepas con queso: £2
Selection of baked goods: £4

I have discovered the definitive hangover cure: just-fried churros rolled in cinnamon and sugar and filled with syrupy caramel.  Or, if you have a savoury tooth, arepas con queso (cornmeal pancakes made with cheese) fresh off the griddle.  If you live within London, you are a fortunate soul: both of these the-morning-after-the-night-before slayers can be picked up from Las Americas Cafeteria on the Pope's Road end of Brixton Market.

My experience at Restaurante Santa Fereño converted me to my newfound excitement about Colombian food, and another mid-morning wander around Brixton brought me to a cafe-takeaway-butcher specialising in Colombian meats and snackfoods.

Las Americas Cafeteria is easy to spot as you walk down Pope's Road.  Once you have reached the door between the woman frying churros and the grizzled Colombian man flipping fresh arepas on an outdoor grill, you are in the right place.  Inside, amidst the crowd of Colombian women at the counter idly flirting with the man behind it, are stacks of empanadas, bunuelos (fried balls of dough), pandebono (sweetly cheesy bagel-shaped breads), papas rellenas (large yellow balls of dough stuffed with rice and meat), and a lot more besides.  Across the room is the butcher's counter, filled with morcilla (black pudding), pork belly, fatty chops, something pink with green flecks, and other meats not found in your traditional butcher's shop or Tesco counter.

Knowing barely a word of Spanish, I asked for a beef empanada, a bunuelo (the name of which I only recently googled), papa rellena, and a pandebono, in addition to the two arepas the man outside was preparing for me.   It was mainly a case of pointing and hoping, and so it was a nice surprise that everything I ate tasted good, although the bunuelos are a little uninteresting.

The empanada was just how I like them: fried and with some bite to the shell, and crammed with spicy shredded beef.  The pandebono was warm, bready and dense, with slight veins of cheese running through the already cheese-infused dough.  I had hoped that the bunuelo would be something similar, but although the bread inside the fried crust was springy and light, it did not taste of much.  The papa rellena, however, was the surprise hit, as I had no idea what would be inside the bumpy and vividly yellow doughy exterior.  The ball contained a mix of spicy yellow rice and shredded beef.  About as big as two fists clenched together, it packs both carbs and protein, and would make a good lunch.

I had decided that I would take home some Colombian food to my dad in Manchester, but that I would eat the arepas as breakfast.  It was a good choice.  The arepas, burningly fresh as they were, not only warmed my hands but cleared my hangover with their soft and cheesy insides.  I like to think that I was the envy of the top deck of the 59 bus as I scarfed down the hand-sized pancakes, but my greedy eagerness, fueled by the arepas' all-round deliciousness, probably just made me look like a crazy person instead.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

London - Beigel Bake

Brick Lane Beigel Bake on Urbanspoon

159 Brick Lane,
London E1 6SB

Salt beef beigel: £3.50
Pastries and small breads: £0.50-£1.00

Beigel Bake is one of the last remaining mementos of Shoreditch's Jewish past.  Efficiently doling out dirt-cheap beigels (smaller, denser bagels), platzls (crisp and airy bread rolls), strudels and other heavy Eastern European baked goods at all hours of the day and night, it is one of the few places that is on the mental maps both of East London's hipsters and manual labourers.

At the weekend and around mealtimes, the queue stretches out of the door as London's hungry wait for their salt beef beigels.  There is nowhere to sit in the tiny shop, which contains nothing more than waiting space and a counter with all of the goodies behind it.  In the window, the counter holds great slabs of salt beef being carved by the brusque women who run the front-of-house operation.

Salt beef, for the uninitiated, is essentially that.  Beef that has been boiled in brine and falls apart into tender and irregular chunks and slivers at the slightest touch. On a warm beigel, it is heaven, the cure for hangovers, hunger, and most other ills.  The beigels are almost stickily glutinous and ever so slightly sweet, contrasting with the beef's no-doubt dangerously high salt content.  It would be foolish to limit yourself to just eating a salt beef beigel from Beigel Bake when their other breads and pastries are so cheap, tasty, and hard to find elsewhere in London.  Asking for strudel results in an enormous slab of flaky pasty filled with cinnamon and apples being slapped onto the counter.  The onion platzls are light bread rolls with fried onions baked into the top of the dough; those on top are crispy while the ones that fell into the crevices are buttery and soft.  You cannot make a bad choice, so go ahead and just point at the large bread baskets labelled with names that have too many consonants.

In London's ever-changing ethnic landscape, Beigel Bake (and its nearby neighbour and rival Beigel shop) has carved out a niche for itself amongst the tacky Bengali curry houses by providing good quality and cheap food for absurdly low prices a mere hop, skip and jump away from central London and the City.  Having become a firm favourite across the class divides, it looks like Shoreditch won't lose its Jewish roots any time soon.

Restaurant Names

Also while in London I started to notice the fantastic names some places had.  Starting a business or a restaurant is a huge financial commitment, and the name is meant to attract people inside. Alongside the Anointing Mini Market (what is it anointing?), there was Mixed Blessings Bakery, the Walworth Chinese restaurant called Winner and, my favourite, the Chinese take-away in Clapham called Hoover.

Now that I'm back in Manchester, I absolutely will  be taking notice of what's on restaurant and cafe signs and posting them here. In a world of Jade Dragons, Taj Mahals, Jerk Joints and Krunchy Fried Chickens, I want to celebrate the unusual, the imaginative, and the downright strange.

I Do Not Want To Go There

On my travels round London, I kept coming across restaurants and cafes that promised combinations of food never previously dreamed of. The least appetising top three were: Thai and Ethiopian deep in Stockwell (I'm not sure injera and green curry is a combination I want to think about for too long) Thai and Egyptian near Oval, and Thai and Caribbean in Brixton.  Clearly some people have cottoned onto the idea that sticking a couple of Thai dishes on the menu might encourage customers to try other dishes from the less well beaten culinary track, but still.  I have eaten fusion food that worked incredibly well, and I love Thai, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean food, but  I have no desire to mix up the incredibly distinct and contradictory flavours of each of those cuisines.

I will continue to look out for other bizarre marriages of cuisines and ingredients now that I am back in Manchester (where there's a Thai and Indian restaurant in the heart of Rushholme).

London - Restaurante Santa Fereño

Atlantic Road
London SW9 8PS

Pork chops and arepas: £3
Milkshake: £2
Beef empanada: £1

The area around Brixton Market is swiftly becoming my new favourite place. Not only is there the market itself on Electric Avenue, with its halal butchers aiming either a "Come on in, babes" or a "Salaam, brother" at you while the Eastern European fruitmongers perfect their cockney patter, there is the Pope's Road end with its food trucks and outdoor canteens amongst the knock-off clothes stalls, and also the indoor Brixton Village Market.  The indoor section mirrors the eclectic selection found outdoors - Sierra Leonan grocers alongside gluten- and dairy-free bakeries - but there are more sit-down cafes, restaurants and coffee bars from Morocco, New Zealand, Ghana, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Colombia and a few other places in between.

In fact, Brixton Village Market hosts two Colombian cafes and two Colombian butchers, quite a feat for a community that I had not realised existed in Britain until last week (the Office for National Statistics reckons that there are 22,000 Colombians in the UK while the Migration Policy Institute puts the figure at 90,000).  Guided by the relatively little money in my pocket, I went into the cheaper of the two Colombian cafes - Restaurante Santa Fereño.

On a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant is standing-room only, with the clientele split evenly between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking customers.  The staff are all Colombian and are very friendly when explaining the menu and what other people are eating.  I ordered a beef empanada (a smaller and spicier version of a pasty), pork chops and arepas (cornmeal pancakes), and a milkshake that was not on the menu but all of the Spanish-speakers seemed to be drinking.  The empanada was larger than I had expected, the thin pastry casing fried but not oily, and filled with spicy shredded beef and vegetables.  The pork chops were a bit disappointing, especially as a lot of people were eating them, as they were fried and had little meat, although the meat was tender once you had found it.  They were enlivened by the hot sauce made of chillies and coriander, that lent both flavour and fire to what would otherwise have been a bland dish.  The accompanying arepas tasted more of corn than I had expected, and their slight crispness on the outside contrasted with the barely-done insides.  Eaten with pieces of pork and lashings of chilli sauce, they were delicious and may become part of my staple diet.  Rather than have dessert (not that I didn't want dessert, but my funds were running low), I enjoyed a thick, slightly sour milkshake instead.  This was not on the menu and various internet searches have turned up no name or recipe for this, but it tasted like there were small pieces of fruit in it, and it was delicious.

For a very filling meal in London, this was a very cheap choice, and in an area filled with cheap and unusual food, I would say that seeking out Colombian should be on every foodie's list of things to do.  The restaurant's menu was extensive, and their diverse patrons' empty plates attested to the standard of the cooking.  Although let down by the pork chops, this was one of my favourite meals in London, partly because of the food and the restaurant's friendly and welcoming atmosphere, but also because of the discovery of another type of cuisine to add to my ever-growing seek-out list.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

London - Sara's Food Store

93 Leather Lane
London EC1N 7TS

Lebanese falafel wrap: £3.25
Moroccan falafel wrap: £4.25

Falafel shops are ten-a-penny across the UK, but only those made at this grocery-cum-hardware shop are made by the self-proclaimed Falafel King.  The King is a portly Middle Eastern man, who takes theatrical pride in his mass production of ten wraps at a time, joking with his customers as he ladles hummous, sprinkles tahini, and casually berates the other staff.

There are two varieties of wrap: Lebanese and Moroccan.  The Lebanese version is the kind that everyone knows and loves; a large, round, paper-thin flatbread with little taste in itself, providing a good foil for the distinctive flavours of the wrap's ingredients.  The Moroccan version, whilst smaller and more square, is thicker and is akin to an onion and herb paratha; it has much more robust flavours that complement the bursts of lemon and cumin brought by every bite. 

The falafel are crisp and light, and three per wrap is a good deal.  There is only so much you can say about falafel, however, and instead it is the wrap's accoutrements that really shine.  The cucumber and tomato salad converted me to eating raw tomatoes, thanks to its citrus tang, while the tahini retains the flavour of sesame seeds.  Despite being pounded into shape before going under the grill, the wrap's ingredients retain their flavours, making each bite different and the King worthy of his title.