Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Revisiting London

Near Brick Lane, London
The last time I was in London was about 10 years ago. I was studying at London College of Fashion for a semester in my Junior year.  Honestly, studying was about the least of my endeavors there - although I'll admit that what I learned there was more relevant than I could have known at the time.  I was 20 years old, and focused on making new friends, exploring the first city I'd ever lived in, and drinking legally (in the flat, at the clubs, or on the Tube).

That's me, February 2000, drinking on the tube in my pig tails, on the way to some club.
It was also in London that I learned to cook outside the box. I'd taken the required food science and cooking classes, but had done little experimenting on my own. There were six of us living in a 3-bedroom flat, all pretty much broke. One of my roommates purchased a small British cookbook, probably from the nearby Woolworth's, since our kitchen was stocked with unfamiliar appliances and metric measuring tools. With the Pound worth about $1.50 at the time, it was far more economical for us to cook fresh foods than frozen or packaged. Also note the fact that we had a three-foot square mini-fridge for all six of us - so we weren't stocking up on anything.

We rarely ate at restaurants.  About all we could afford when we did was some budget pasta, gross corn-pizza, or noodles at Wagamama. My food adventures consisted mainly of exploring Sainsbury, Tesco, Marks & Spencer or Safeway. I made sweet potatoes with nutty butter, baked chicken with marmalade and attempted to make a very dry rabbit (not something I'll ever try again). Although I was branching out a little bit, I still walked past most of the more international ethnic cuisines that I had no idea about.

Last week I got a chance to finally go back to London, all grown up. My husband and I began our Oktoberfest vacation with a 3-day layover there before heading to Munich. He had decided that we would try to find the best Indian food in London, as it is touted as the best in the world outside India. Last time I was in London, I didn't even know what curry was - I just thought it was some sort of spicy gruel of which existed only one variety.

Bland Chicken Tikka and giant cans of beer. Better than standing outside in the rain!

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Temple)
 We ate almost entirely Indian and Middle-Eastern food this time. We had home-cooked Gujarati potatoes and eggplant, made by my husband's great aunt in Harrow. We followed delicious smells into a market building on Brick Lane and ended up with bland sub-par chicken tikka and samosas, but really good beer. We visited the Hindu temple at Neasden and ate at the buffet there that served flavorful traditional Gujarati food.

Zaika in Kensington - impressive dining room
ALOO CHAT
‘Yukon Gold’ & globe artichoke ‘tikki’, black eye beans laced with tamarind chutney, sweetened
yoghurt & ‘garam’ flour vermicelli, topped with artichoke fritter
One night we treated ourselves to an amazing modern Indian meal of over 6 vegetarian courses at Zaika in Kensington. Each dish was a play on traditional Indian recipes, but the ingredients were re-thought and put together differently so that each component was highlighted.

Lebanese food at Randa, part of the famous Maroush chain
The biggest surprise, however, was the first restaurant we stopped at upon arriving. We were jet-lagged and stumbling around Kensington High Street looking for lunch. It was a little late in the day, but this one place was still bustling: Randa. I've never been a fan of Lebanese food, but in Europe it always tastes better. We ordered hummus, which came with an entire bowl of whole vegetables and a couple of puffy breads. Best of all was the Bammieh B’zeit: okra cooked with tomato, onion, fresh coriander and olive oil. It was served chilled with lemon, and was super refreshing with a nice cold beer - and £4.85!

Then I noticed the sticker on the door: "I <3 Maroush". How many times had I passed by that sticker on Edgeware Road, walking home? So this was part of the chain of Lebanese restaurants called "Maroush", and I had walked by the original one so many times, unaware of the cheap and delicious foods inside. I guess that's what happens when you go back and look at something with a new perspective.

I'm not sure whose taste matured more in the past 10 years, mine or London's. Maybe the great food was always there and I never noticed, but I feel like it's mostly a recent development. I can't say great things about what I ate in the 5 months I lived there in 2000, but in 2010 I can say I had many great meals around London. I think it has grown up too, and I can't wait to go back again.

Now there's even Whole Foods in London! We were standing at the massive chocolatier's counter chatting with him about NYC life, when he pointed out Lisa Marie Presley doing some shopping.
In 2000, Spitalfields Market was known for a gathering of international food mobiles and indie designers. Now, it's more sophisticated (read: sell-out) - there's even an Oyster Bar among the clothes and crafts. And it was super busy!

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