Feelin’ Foxy

May 13, 2009

‘The essence of Stoke Newington’ says Time Out. A ‘hub of culinary and imbibing activity’ according to the Fox’s web-site. It’s very red, very cosy and yes, a lot of bottles go down there. Along with games of backgammon, a stack of today’s papers to wade through and some great grub.

the fox

Stoke Newington began to be trendy at least as far back as the early 1980s. Today there’s a picturesque line of independent shops, a pretty church and the green expanse of Clissold Park (where there are deer). Stokie (as I’m sure someone affectionately calls it) is now the home for those trendsetters from the 80s made good. (If you’re a struggling artist now you live on its cheaper shores, in up-and-coming Dalston or Finsbury Park, bask in Stoke Newington’s extended aura of very English Bohemia, and yearn.)

Facts to know about Stoke Newington:

Award winning Indian restaurant Rasa started here and now there are two branches on Church Street, one purely vegetarian. It’s well worth a visit.

The independent DVD shop (can’t recall its name at the moment) is great too. Full of odd titles that sound intriguing and suitably superior staff who chew gum and look like the coolest kids at school but know everything about film.

It’s the epicentre for urban lesbians of a certain age. (Get off your bus at Fresh and Wild, stroll down past the bike shop and towards the bakery and you’ll know I’m right.)

People either love it or hate it. A bit like Maupin’s San Francisco, you’re either an absolute devotee or you just don’t get it (and are secretly hugely jealous of those that do). Walking to the Fox on Sunday night I was accosted by one of the latter. A large very flushed man in a blue jacket with years of brewery on his breath, who wanted to know if I was ‘going back in there?’ He gesticulated, wild-eyed, up Church Street.

I was.

And what was I going to vote in the next election?

I hummed and hawed and then, since that didn’t work and he was standing scarily close and was bigger than me, I walked on fast, while he puffed after me and then began to roar ‘I am a Conservative!’ Here he beat his chest (literally). ‘What is wrong with us?’ he asked (still beating his sweaty white shirt). ‘I am a Conservative!’ he thundered.  I scurried off into the sanctity of liberal London.

And then, the evening’s excitement over, I settled down to a very nice imbibe of  expensive red wine and expensive but delicious bangers and mash, paid for by my wonderful friend B and her girlfriend (yes B used to live in Stoke Newington) and thought I must come here more often. To Stoke. To the Fox. I must learn to play backgammon. I must wear dungarees and a hat. Life can be good.

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Balti is a Punjabi food which, apparently, takes its name from the pot in which it’s cooked and served. This pot is ‘balty’ in Hindi and ‘balde’ in Portuguese, according to Wikipedia – and why the Portuguese link, you tell me. I’d love to know. Maybe the Portuguese colonised the area, or had trade routes with those parts of Pakistan and North India, several centuries back.

Whatever the reason, it’s hot dry curry, and we English have adopted it as pretty well a national dish. It’s hugely popular over here. Curry restaurants in Birmingham are affectionately known as ‘Balti’ houses and the town even has a ‘Balti Mile’.

Wikipedia (don’t you just love it, where else would you find out this trivia?) also tells me that there’s a Balti house in Australia named the Brum Balti (Brum being UK regional lingo for Birmingham). There they only play music by 70s Birmingham bands like the Moody Blues and the Electric Light Orchestra. True! Isn’t that a weird mix of cultures! And wouldn’t it be great to visit?

In the absence of a ticket to the Brum Balti, I’m stuck here in wet London and Balti is exactly the food I need. It may be December, but forget mince pies and shops full of Christmas decorations. I’ll do all that festive stuff when the time comes. For today I want heat. I want to be warm again.

Chillies! Spices! Exotic vegetables with strange names! (which you should top and tail but not slice – the okra I mean – or the seeds inside are prone to get a bit slimy).

Eat this with naan bread or chapatis. Not rice. And another thing; I used vegetable oil, because I had it, but ghee (a type of clarified butter), would be more authentic and taste even better.

Cauliflower, Okra and Coriander Balti, for 4
3 green chillies, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3cm cube of ginger, peeled and grated
3 tbs vegetable oil or ghee
1 medium onion, sliced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbs cumin seeds
juice half a lemon
1 level tsp salt
500g potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized chunks
a quarter of a cauliflower, about 225g, split into florets
200g okra, topped and tailed
250ml light (ie not too strong) vegetable stock

for the garnish
1tomato
1red chilli
chopped fresh coriander

In a large frying pan, heat the oil and add the green chillies, ginger, garlic and onion. After a few minutes, when the onion has softened, add the cumin seeds, lemon juice, turmeric, garam masala, and salt. Heat, stirring constantly, for another few minutes.

Add the potatoes and mix them in well. Partially cover the pan and let the potatoes cook gently for about 10 more minutes. Give them a prod every now and then.

Stir in the okra, the cauliflower florets and then the stock. Partially cover the pan again and leave to cook for 15 minutes. By the end of that times the vegetables should all be tender, but still have some ‘bite’.

While they’re cooking, make the garnish, which is dead simple. Just finely chop the tomato, the red chilli and the coriander and mix them together. The dry heat this garnish creates perfectly offsets the richer notes of the vegetables.

Serve with naan. And yoghurt raita for when your mouth sears off.

Penitent’s Dhal

September 12, 2008

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It was on the Victoria line the other day and we were just drawing out of Euston. I was tired and hot. The carriage was packed with commuters, but a seat became free next to me and a young guy nabbed it. You knew he was a traveller from his piercings and partially shaved hair.

I concentrated on my book (Dave Eggers).

As I turned the page my bracelet slid down my right arm into full view. It’s from India and made of 5 metals, traditionally meant to improve your circulation. It also has Sanskrit writing on it in silver. In a flash of certainty I knew that the young guy saw it and that soon he would try to strike up conversation with me.

Which he did. Was that bracelet from India and when had I been there?

What shocked me was that 4 years ago, when I returned to London, I would have loved that conversation. I would have welcomed him as a kindred spirit. But now, I only wanted to sit there in the same dull, jaded stupor as everybody else. To be left in peace and the sooner the commute was over the better.

‘Yes, it’s from Kerala actually.’

‘Wow, Kerala.’

And then I did the unforgivable. I turned back to Dave Eggers.

So this is my version of a South Indian dhal, for that young man on the Victoria line. Made in penitence. Sorry I never swapped memories with you of the fishermen mending their nets in Cochin harbour.

Dhal
225g red lentils
600-850 ml water
55g ghee or butter
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
salt
2 diced potatoes (optional and not particularly authentic but a great addition. You’ll need the larger amount of water if you include these).
Juice 1 lemon

Fry the garlic, chilli and onion in the ghee until golden. Ghee makes a massive difference to the taste – it brings together the flavours in Indian cooking in a way that butter can’t quite do.

Stir in the turmeric and heat for about a minute. Then add the cumin, salt, lentils, water and the potatoes too if you want a heavier dhal. Boil well for a few minutes and then turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 more minutes, until the dhal is the consistency of porridge. You will need to stir it now and then so that it doesn’t stick.

I’ve had dhal made very thick and also as thin as soup (it can, in fact, be eaten as soup) and both taste delicious.

Stir in the garam masala and squeeze in the lemon. I sometimes melt in a little more ghee at this stage for added richness. A pinch of cayenne or a handful of chopped fresh coriander are also good additions. Some people like dhal with tomato puree in it (about 2 tablespoons, added when the lentils first go in).

Finally, make sure the dhal is properly salted, as this makes a huge difference.

Another of the warm damp days that we call summer.

Once drizzle set in for the afternoon I began to dream of hot places I’ve visited and the food you could get there. Especially of one of my favourite forms of eating, street food.

The sizzle of banana fritters at a wayside stall; roasted peanuts dusted with salt and cayenne, served up in a cornet of newsprint; vegetable samosas with chai, for breakfast.

But I was out of peanuts. Likewise bananas. Ditto most of the ingredients for samosas.

What I did have were sweet potatoes. And chillies and coriander and some smoked cheese from Cornwall. So this is what I came up with – not authentic anything, but hot, easy and good.

Sweet Potato Cakes, for 4
400g sweet potatoes
2 spring onions, finely sliced
1-2 red chillies, de-seeded and finely chopped
1-2 tbs fresh coriander, chopped
100g smoked cheese, cut into half cm pieces
4 tbs polenta
a good squeeze of lemon juice
1 egg to bind
sugar
oil

Set the oven to 200C.

Cook the potatoes either by peeling, slicing and roasting them, or by cooking whole – for about 40 minutes – and then scooping out the flesh when tender. Mash well. Add in all the other ingredients apart from the egg, and season. I also added a pinch of sugar here and then brought everything together with the beaten egg. Roll the mixture into 8 balls.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Cook the potato-mix 4 balls at a time, flattening each out first with the palm of your hand. They need only a few minutes on each side.

Tomato Sauce with Chilli and Lemon
2 red chillies, de-seeded and chopped
3 cm ginger, peeled and grated
3 tbs olive oil
500g chopped tomatoes
1 tbs caster sugar
Juice half a lemon
salt

Fry the chillies and ginger in the oil for just a few minutes. Add in the rest of the ingredients, cook for a few and then take off the heat. Liquidise and season well. Serve hot or cold.