Thursday, 31 March 2011

Making Food

I love cooking as much as I love eating at new curry cafes, Latin American joints, or South Indian takeaways. A lot. So I decided to start a new blog about cooking so that this one wouldn't get cluttered. If you're interested in making good quality, cheap and tasty food, check out

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

London - Chennai Dosa (East Ham)

177 High Street North
East Ham
London E12 6PQ

Masala Dosa: £2.65
Channa Bhattura: £2.90

Thattukada was packed out on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so I strolled a little further up East Ham's High Street to the non-vegetarian Chennai Dosa (there is a pure-veg version on the same street). One of a small chain of South Indian restaurants scattered across the areas of London and the South-East with enough South Indians to make a business profitable, Chennai Dosa offers up cheap-n-cheerful South Indian snacks and meals.

I ordered the masala dosa (pancake containing spiced and mashed potatoes and onions), because I love masala dosas, and the channa bhattura (chickpea curry and puffy fried bread) because I had read about it on Chowhound. The dosa, comically larger than the metal tray it was flopped on, was a disappointment.  While the pancake was springy and soaked up the coconut, chickpea and chilli sauces (which were fresh and full of flavour), the potato and onion mixture was bland and too smooth.  Luckily for me, there was not very much of the mixture, so I quickly finished it and moved onto the channa bhattura.

Although the bhattura was oily, it was piping hot and clearly had just come from whatever contraption is used to make this outsized disc. The top of the bread was full of thin-skinned air bubbles with the thicker layer underneath. Like everyone else in the restaurant, I was eating with my hands, tearing off small chunks of dough to dip into the coconut-y chickpea curry, which was made with fresh chickpeas and plenty of chillies and contained all the flavours that the masala dosa had lacked.

For a quick and tasty lunch or dinner, Chennai Dosa is good value and serves up freshly made food. While the masala dosa was a disappointment, the channa bhattura ensured that my schlep out to East Ham had not been in vain.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

London - Franco Manca

Unit 4, Market Row
London SW9 8LD

Pizzas: £4.50-6.95
Organic lemonade (250ml): £1.90

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

It was a little intimidating when my Brooklynite friend, exhausted from hunger, chose Franco Manca as our lunch-stop. New York has, arguably, the best pizzas in the world (if you like thin crusts and ignore all of Italy), whereas Britain's sole contribution has been the haggis topping found in Scotland's more nationalistic takeaways.  I should not have worried, however; Franco Manca, a high-end pizzeria in Brixton Market, is staking out Britain's pizza legacy with its sourdough bases, locally sourced ingredients, and toppings that aim higher than the Saturday-night margharita or Hawaiian.

Franco Manca is always busy, even on a Friday afternoon, and chances are that you will be doubled-up with another party on a table. The service is also a bit on the lethargic side (it took a while for us to get our bill), but the waitresses are friendly and not intrusive.

We ordered a pizza each. Mine - the mozzarella and wild broccoli with Wootton organic pecorino cheese (from Somerset) - was a white pizza strewn with wilted broccoli leaves and a generous amount of both mozzarella and pecorino.  The broccoli tasted a little of olive oil, but retained some of its natural flavour, and complemented the thick layer of milky mozzarella.  The pecorino, globbed onto the pizza, was sharp and salty, contrasting with both the mozzarella and the broccoli.  

Brooklynite's pizza - home-cured Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms - had a sauce base.  The sauce was nothing special, but tasted strongly of tomato, which is always a good sign.  Although I thought that the ham would be the most interesting ingredient, it was torn into too-small and paper-thin slivers, rendering it nearly invisible against the strong flavours of tomato and mushroom; even the mozzarella had a tendency to overpower it.  The mushrooms (possibly sautéed beforehand) were the stand-out ingredient, as their earthy flavour cut through the tomato and cheeses.

Franco Manca's signature sourdough bases are chewy, dense and sour, and are most certainly not the reheated cardboard of Domino's or the over-fluffed deep-pan of Pizza Hut.  Although the tomato sauce somewhat smothers the base's own distinct flavour, my sauce-less pizza and mild mozzarella meant that it could shine through.  Thin in the middle and just thicker on the outside, these bases are hand-made and a satisfyingly large size, although mine had a couple of burned bits that were bitter rather than sour.

To drink, I had the organic lemonade.  It had the same colour as apple squash, and tasted of lemons, apples and sugar, although I don't think there was any apple juice in it.  It was delightful, and although a little expensive I would have it again.

If you have a spare hour or two to queue up on a Saturday afternoon, or can take time off during the week for a slightly less hectic experience, Franco Manca is well worth the visit.  Its pizzas are better than anything else similarly (and even higher) priced, and its local and organic ingredients mean that you can assuage your cheese-stuffed guilt with every bite.

Monday, 14 March 2011

London - Cafe Bay

75 Denmark Hill

London SE5 8RS

Banh mi - £2.80 £3.
Cafe Bay on Urbanspoon

Cafe Bay is exactly the sort of cafe that you would expect to find between the gentrifying ends of Camberwell and Brixton: folksy exterior (ooh, look at that whimsical table in the window), plenty of exposed wood inside, and nothing so recherche as a paper menu. Of the three blackboards dominating the left-hand wall, only the one with the Vietnamese sandwiches sets apart this arty-yuppie-hipster-indie place from the other overpriced, undernourished, and (largely) underwhelming caffs elsewhere in the area (hi, there, Johansson's and your tiny open smoked salmon sandwiches for almost a fiver!).

At Cafe Bay, a fiver would get you almost two substantially sized, fresh and crunchy baguettes containing slices of marinaded meat (beef, chicken, pork, prawns or tofu) amongst equally interesting veggies that are certainly not an uninspired afterthought. I chose the beef skewer banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), which came with cucumber, pickled carrots, daikon (East Asian radish), chillies and coriander.  All of those ingredients except the daikon were excellent, and had the daikon been put into my sandwich then I'm sure it would have been excellent, too. Although the banh mi was not traditional - as well as the missing daikon, there was also no sign of the spicy mayonnaise that banh mi always have - it merged distinct flavours and textures into one delicious sandwich.

The beef skewer was a juicy and spiced mince kebab. Surrounding it were ever-so-slightly vinegary strips of carrot, a lot of sliced red chillies, and a long stalk of coriander. Instead of mayonnaise, there was a sweet and spicy chilli jelly that blended nicely with the beef's flavours and the carrots' vinegar. Should you ever be peckish or starving on your way to Brixton, Cafe Bay provides a nice stop-off point with food that punches far above its price category.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon

230 Burton Road
West Didsbury
Manchester, M20 2LW

All cupcakes: £1.50-£2
Hot chocolate: £2.20

It seems safe to take a stand and declare that what was previously the cupcake fad is now here to stay.  The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, a deliberately charming cafe in middle-class paradise, provides an excellent introduction to what I had long considered jumped-up versions of fairy cakes (and I've lived in America, too, where cupcakes are king).

The Black and White Bomb was, deliciously, a moist chocolate sponge dotted with pockets of semi-melted chocolate chips, topped by a whirl of creamy vanilla and chocolate butter cream icing.  Crowning this whirl was a chocolate button. An excellent combination, and worth the £1.50 (there's a stall in the Arndale Food Market where cupcakes are £1, though).

The hot chocolate was thick and chocolatey, tasting of actual chocolate rather than the powdered and over-sugared stuff usually served elsewhere.  It came in a normal glass, which was a little disconcerting and prevented immediate imbibement as I didn't want to leave Dish with only burning blisters for fingerprints.

Although my friend L and I arrived at Dish half an hour before it was due to open, the staff obligingly let us come in, sit down, order and gossip loudly about boys, when they could have sent us packing back into the rain.  Between the excellent service, the beautifully presented and moreishly edible cakes, and a hot chocolate that tasted of the real thing, I thoroughly enjoyed my first step on the road to cupcake conversion.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Top Quality

37 Derby Street,

Manchester M8 8HW

Biryani (Fridays only)/Rice and three curries: £4.50

Cheetham's Top Quality curry cafe really lives up to its name.  Down a street filled with fabric and tat wholesalers, it is a tiny shop front in the midst of five-storey warehouses.  Dingy outside and in, it looks like nothing much but delivers up food that they could sell for a lot more than £4.50 for rice-n-three were they not so out of the way.

Fridays, I was reliably informed by the Flavours of Manchester blog, is biryani day.  Lamb or chicken biryani substitutes in for rice in the rice-n-three and at no extra cost.  A heaped plate of biryani and three curries is an incredible deal, and one that I don't think is found elsewhere.  The biryani is spot-on.  The rice is well-cooked, the spicing is flavoursome but not overpowering, and the chicken tastes like chicken.    The chicken tastes better than chicken, in fact, because the pieces are cooked to succulence and  covered in spices.  Apart from the occasional small white pockets, the rice is uniformly spiced and flavoured and there's hardly a hint of oil or grease in the large portion.

In terms of curries, I thought I was being a wimp when I chose to eschew ones with meat in and only eat vegetables.  I was wrong.  Both curries (chickpea and mixed veg) were hotly spicy, burning my mouth slightly, but mitigated by the presence of the biryani.  The sauces are thick and both flavour and are flavoured by their vegetables.  The chickpea curry was a stand-out: soft chickpeas melting into a sauce that definitely had cinnamon in it, along with a handy dose of chillies and garam masala.  I took my time eating it, torn between letting my mouth cool down between bites and wanting to eat every single delicious mouthful.  When it came for me to stand up, I realised just how full I was. I could feel my stomach muscles groaning, and got a stitch from walking anything quicker than a pensioner's stroll.

When I visited, Top Quality was packed with Muslim men just out from Jumma prayers at the mosque and Sikh men leaving the massive gurdwara that is just down the road.  Everyone was eating with the same amount of gusto, albeit much quicker than I was, adding kheer and freshly baked naans to their substantial orders.  Should you want authentic Pakistani food that tastes better than that served in most restaurants and cafes in Manchester (and for a much lower price), Top Quality is worth the 1.7 mile trek from Piccadilly station.  It's even less from Victoria.  Just give it a go.