One of the best things about living in a multicultural and cosmopolitan city like London is that if you fancy something to eat, you can be sure to find it (...except for proper ramen, that is). Compared to twenty years ago when British food was often accompanied by the words over-cooked, tasteless and terrible, it's actually pretty difficult to find really bad food here now except in touristy restaurants that no Londoner would go to (I'm looking at Aberdeen and Angus Steak Houses--seriously, you're better off going hungry). I mean you pay for what you get, but you also get some good bargains too. Especially when you compare with Paris where food and drink is almost double the price, I kid you not.
Whenever I come across descriptions of food and eating scenes in books I read, I'm immediately transported to that fictional world. There's nothing better to pluck at your senses. I recently finished a brilliant book about the Bangladesh Liberation War, The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (the sequel to A Golden Age).
Although it dealt with a terrible time in Bangladesh's history, the descriptions of food, daily life and family balanced the repercussions of war. Food in fiction instantly puts you in touch with the normal and the human. And so naturally my thoughts turned to street food and curry.
London's got a plethora of curry houses, not all are up to scratch, but in the past 10 years, we've had an explosion of street food-style places. One of them is Masala Zone, one of the first restaurant chains to serve up street food and thalis in central London. All my Indian friends normally make the trek up to Wembley in north London or Southall where there's a huge British Asian community and you can get everything South Asian (and I mean everything). But I prefer it if my food is down the road from me.
So about once a month or so, I go to the Masala Zone in Soho, just behind Carnaby Street for a quick curry fix. I normally opt for the two course lunch for just under £9-00. I always order the same thing because I like to go to restaurants to eat a specific dish. I have friends who find that boring, but after I've tried a few things on the menu, I know what I like and I stick to it otherwise I start getting cravings.
I usually have dahi puri to start:
These are crunchy, flaky wheat biscuits filled with chickpeas and covered with yoghurt, tamarind, coriander leaf, raw ginger slices and paprika. Love the little pomegranate seeds for colour and crunch. I could eat a whole plate of these.
Then I always go for the chicken thali. This is a northwest Indian speciality consisting of a metal platter (thali) in which there is a selection of curries, vegetables, rice or bread and pickles and papadum. It's a complete meal in one. Although I'm a big fan of rice, when it comes to curries, I prefer the alternatives, in this case chapatis. I don't know why but Indian bread just goes better with curries. They give you two generous-sized chapattis here, although you could order more if you're extra hungry.
My favourite curry here is Green Malabar Chicken curry which I always end up choosing. The green comes from the coriander leaf they use in their curry paste and I think there is a hint of coconut milk to pull the curry together. I seem to have a weakness for green spicy things.
And three vegetable curries: dal (lentils or beans), dry spiced potatoes and cauliflower and green pepper with tomato. These were all pretty spicy. One of the things I like about Masala Zone is how they always change the vegetable curries including their dal. This time it was more soupy and darker with a non-lentil-type bean. This caused problems when I took my parents there a few years ago and my father pronounced that their dal was 'all wrong'. Yeah Dad, it's an Indian restaurant and you won't get Sri Lankan-style dal there. No matter, I love their dal, wherever the origin.
But my favourite are the chutneys: sweet and hot pineapple and green and cool coriander and green chili. It's normal to see sweet mango chutney in restaurants, but I've never really come across pineapple chutney and it's far more flavorful than the mango.
These I eat with the papadum:
So if you are ever in London, make sure you pop down to Masala Zone. The crowd is always busy, always eclectic and always hungry.