Five of my favourite dishes from Southeast Asia and where to find them in London
by Olivia Rook
2017 was a defining year for me and food. Packing one (incredibly) heavy bag and saying a few tearful farewells to loved ones, I set out on a five-month trip around South and Southeast Asia with my sister. I imagined vibrant, fragrant and spicy dishes – markets brimming with fresh ingredients and traditional recipes the Brits could only dream of. Although there were a couple of dud meals along the way – and a horrifying bout of typhoid – the food met, and then exceeded, my expectations. When I eventually left the continent, I didn’t want to cut this food journey short.
I had no need to worry – London’s Asian food offering is vast and varied. Indian cuisine has fuelled the success of chain restaurant Dishoom and according to the Oriental Food Report in 2016, restaurants are driving consumption of Asian food, with 70-80% of people who eat Asian food doing so in a restaurant.
Below are my top five ‘backpacker certified’ Asian restaurants in and around London, all of which recreate the most memorable dishes from my travels and offer diners an authentic food experience.
Lemongrass Restaurant for Amok
Amok, a classic Khmer curry, was the perfect antidote to our drained and aching bodies after a long day traipsing around the ruins of Angkor Wat. Thick and nourishing coconut cream meets fragrant ingredients such as lemongrass and galangal (which is similar to ginger). The most common variation of this steamed curry is fish amok, but it can also be made with chicken or vegetables.
Cambodian food remains very much in the shadow of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and this is evident in London, with Lemongrass Restaurant being the only dedicated Cambodian eatery in the capital. It has been serving up contemporary Cambodian dishes since 1988, which are based on the food chef Thomas Tan remembers eating from his childhood. Along with the chef’s recommended fish amok, the restaurant also serves fresh mango salad and durian fruit, which emits a particularly pungent smell. Count yourself lucky if you’re experiencing it for the first time in London and not the humidity of Southeast Asia!
Lemongrass, 243 Royal College st, NW1 9LT, lemongrass-restaurant.co.uk
Banh Mi Bay for Vietnam’s killer baguette
By the second month of our travels, I was craving something other than rice and noodles. When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, our hostel receptionist recommended a food cart on Bánh Mì 37 Nguyễn Trãi – a tiny, dark alleyway that didn’t appear particularly inviting. This tucked away business thrives, however, because of its simple and delicious sandwich – banh mi.
Banh Mi Bay claims to be the first restaurant to introduce Vietnam’s baguette to London. In keeping with tradition, they fill their baguettes with pickled carrot and mooli, sliced cucumber, coriander and fresh chilli. While their take-out menu offers 10 different kinds of banh mi – from grilled prawn to tofu – it is the original Banh Mi Thit (spiced pork) that takes me back to the tiny Saigon food cart selling great food.
Bahn Mi Bay, several locations, banhmibay.co.uk
Hoppers in Soho for… hoppers
The perfect Sri Lankan snack came in the form of egg hoppers. These are bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Cooked in a pan, the edges turn crisp while the thicker bottom (on which the egg is cracked) stays soft. We would pick up a couple en route to the beach in Mirissa (on Sri Lanka’s southern coast) and more often than not, buy a couple more on our way home in the evening.
Much to my delight, Hoppers in Soho doesn’t overcomplicate a dish that is remarkable in its simplicity. It offers two types: hopper and egg hopper. The excitement comes with the accompanying dishes, such as pol sambol and coriander chutney. The restaurant’s menu also includes a handy little glossary that explains some of Sri Lanka’s more unfamiliar dishes.
Hoppers, 49 Frith St, Soho, W1D 4SG, hopperslondon.com
Mr Ting’s Thai Cuisine for Pad Thai
Pad Thai is king of street food in Thailand. The best (perhaps because it was my first in Thailand) came from a night market in Chiang Rai. I was served a huge, steaming portion on a polystyrene plate, with a little wedge of lime, and we helped ourselves to sprinklings of crushed peanuts from a communal bowl.
It is not just the food at Mr Ting’s restaurant in Watford that convinces me it is one the best places to go for Thai cuisine – it is the atmosphere. Waiters run about frantically, with huge bowls of noodles and curries balanced precariously on trays, and large, boisterous groups squeeze themselves around relatively small tables, fighting over menus. If I shut my eyes, it sounds like I could be back at the night market in Chiang Rai. The portions are generous and they don’t scrimp on the crushed peanuts.
Mr Ting, 11 Stamford Rd, Watford WD17 4QS, mrtingthaicuisine.co.uk
Dishoom for punchy Indian flavours
Southern Indian flavours, from traditional Keralan fish curry and tarka dal to barbequed barracuda, completely changed my perspective of Indian food – and luckily London’s curry houses have come a long way from the fairly underwhelming chicken tikka masala.
Choosing Dishoom for best Indian restaurant may seem like a bit of a cop out, given its broad appeal. I’m also bending my own rules as Dishoom’s dishes are based on cooking found in Bombay (now Mumbai) on India’s west coast, rather than the southern Indian flavours that inspired me. But it felt like a crime to exclude this restaurant from my list. Its gunpowder potatoes are as punchy as the name suggests and the chicken ruby curry is silky with spice. Plus, I have to admit, the chicken tikka’s pretty decent too.
Dishoom, several locations, dishoom.com