Five lesser known cuisines to sample in London
by Stephen Glennon
There’s no shortage of outstanding options for international food in London, but what if you’re tired of Italian and Japanese and Mexican and fancy something off the beaten track? Stephen Glennon takes a culinary trip around the world and discovers some of the world’s lesser-known cuisines – and finds some great value in the process.
Dishes from £5
Khadim Mbamba trained as a pharmacist in Senegal before moving to the UK eight years ago. He had no idea how to cook when he arrived, but soon learned how to make all the Senegalese dishes that he missed by calling his sister and replicating her recipes. His break came when he had a job building tents for food stalls at a music festival and his friend needed someone to cover for an absent chef. Mbamba stepped in and found he had real talent as a chef – “it’s like pharmacy”, he says, “it’s just mixing things”. He’s too humble. There’s real mastery in his creations.
His vegetarian mafé is packed full of veggies in a tomatoey peanut sauce. It’s creamy but keeps well away from the cloying greasiness that usually makes this reporter run a mile from any peanut-based sauce. Get some of Mbamba’s incredible homemade chilli sauce on the side – but watch out. It’ll hurt even the most experienced of chilli aficionados.
Little Baobab currently operates as a pop-up, and can often be found at the Tuesday Street Food Union on Rupert Street in Soho. Mbamba also hosts monthly supper clubs with performances by Senegalese musicians, and he hopes to open a restaurant this year.
Tayyab’s, 83-89 Fieldgate St, London E1 1JU, tayyabs.co.uk
Mains from £7.50
There are a couple of things you need to know in advance if you are to do Tayyab’s properly. First and foremost, you’ll need to assemble a good crowd of close friends. This is not a place for romantic dates. You’re going to be ordering lots of dishes so you can try as many delights as possible, and it may get messy.
Secondly, you need to make sure that most of those friends are meat-eaters. There are veggie dishes and you might even want to order one or two of them for light snacks between the meats, but you are here for carnivorous behaviour and don’t you forget it.
Thirdly, bring your own booze because Tayyab’s is a rambunctious, gregarious and fun place, but it doesn’t sell alcohol and also doesn’t charge corkage (and the prices at the little offie next door reflect their knowledge of their captive audience).
I mentioned rambunctiousness, didn’t I? Well, those are the quiet times. On Saturday evenings, Tayyab’s is a seething morass of chaos and the waiters, frankly, must have superpowers to weave through the crowds carrying trays laden with delights as crowds wait to be seated just inside the door.
And what of the food? Doing simple food well is one of the most difficult things to pull off, and Tayyab’s does it immaculately. Good-quality meats, simple but intensely flavourful marinades, grilled to perfection. The menu can be a bit vague (the house speciality lamb chops are listed as ‘Dry Meat’) but the great news is that you can’t go wrong. It’s all delicious. Just bring enough people so you can order everything, and make sure you reserve.
Cajun and Creole
Plaquemine Lock, 139 Graham St, London N1 8LB, plaqlock.com
Evening menu from £18/£25 for one/two course(s), lunch menu from £8
As of 2018, the fancy-schmancy Michelin guide doesn’t just award stars. Now it awards Bib Gourmands too, a prize for restaurants that serve high-quality food at reasonable prices. Plaquemine Lock, right by the Regent’s Canal in Islington, has one and while it’s comfortably the most expensive restaurant on this list, it’s also comfortably the best when it comes to serving outstanding honest-to-goodness comfort food. If you go on a Monday, you’ll get to try Dorset oysters for £1 a pop – drizzle with a couple of drops of hot sauce and a squirt of lime juice for a refreshing appetiser.
Of the starters, the Lousianian papri chaat– kidney beans, pineapple, jalapeno, buttermilk, maple syrup and crunchy rice – is like nothing you’ve ever had before. It’s a rollercoaster of texture and flavour, from the tart, juicy tang of the pineapples to the dry crunch of the rice to the earthy beans and the warming spice of the chilli pepper. Words are insufficient. You must try it yourself.
The House Gumbo appears on both the lunch and evening menus, and for good reason. It’s the Louisiana state dish and features vegetables, shrimp, sausage and chicken in a dark roux. The mixture of meats can be jarring to those of us unaccustomed to such vagaries, but after a spoonful or two, its swirling charred flavours will convince even the most hardened of devotees of not mixing beast of the land with beasts of the sea.
All that remains to be said is that if you don’t have the pecan pie for dessert, you’re a fool. It’s a quite sizeable wedge and comes with sugar cane ice-cream, so you might need to leave some space. It’s worth it.
Pasha, 158 Camberwell Road, London SE5 0EE, pasharestaurants.co.uk
Mains from £4.50
Just like finding Uzbekistan on a map, finding Pasha can be a bit of an ordeal. It’s part of a hotel and hammam on Camberwell Road, and you’ll have to weave your way through long hotel corridors to find it. Then, suddenly, out you pop into a room full of tapchans (raised platforms with seats and a table) and charmingly tacky lanterns and you’re in Uzbekistan. At weekends, this room becomes a raucous cavern of music and belly dancing, but you can still visit on a rainy Wednesday evening and have fun.
You’re going to want the plov, of course, the quintessential Uzbek dish of lamb or beef on a bed of rice and vegetables. It’s a bit like a pilaf and a bit like a biryani and is the ultimate sharing dish. But not yet. There’s work to do with the starters first. The carrot salad was the surprise of the evening. It looks very much like a rather uninspiring pile of julienned carrots, but with a vinegar, brown sugar and coriander seed dressing, it is tangy, floral, sour, sweet, delicious.
This part of the world can also always be relied upon for some form of cheesy bread (and if you don’t order it, we’re not friends any more). There are more variants than stars in the sky, but they are all life affirming. Pasha’s version is called hachapuri and it’s flat and crusty and doesn’t go over the top with the cheese (yes, that is possible).
Dumpling time now: samsy are oven-baked puff pastry dumplings stuffed full of diced potatoes and pumpkin, and the manty are their steamed cousins. Both fall slightly flat by being a little under-seasoned, although I must admit that as a dumpling fanatic my standards tend to be absurdly high. The saving grace is a gently spicy tomato sauce garnish and a generous dollop of sour cream.
OK, now you can have your plov. Enjoy.
Azeri Cuisine, 95 Caledonian Road, London N1 9BT, azericuisine.co.uk
Mains from £7.95
The point where diverse cuisines organically meet is generally a good place to find good food, and Azerbaijan is where the Middle East bashes into Russia and creates familiar but unfamiliar delights. A caveat, however: this place is down-to-earth. Unassuming in extremis. Folksy as heck. There are cute little carpets on the wall depicting Baku and Azeri countryside. There are guidebooks on the windowsill, including tomes such as ‘100 questions about Azerbaijan answered’.
The nice Azeri man, who appears to fulfil every role from chef to waiter and everything in between, rambles around in his socks, dropping off remarkable salads at every table. The fermented red cabbage is a crunchy, vinegary delight. He ferments it himself and I’m desperate to assume his grandmother taught him, whose grandfather taught her before. The aubergine caviar was smoky, sour, and perfect, and you could feed a large family on his plate of surprisingly spicy dumplings. Well worth a visit.