Krishnan Subramanyan tells us how to discover exciting new dishes through local London shops, stocking exotic ingredients.
In June 2017, I started a project called Cook every Country. The idea was to make a dish from every country in the world. I was not the first person to have this idea, but with 197 countries to get through, the list of pioneers is not long. My quest came with a twist: where possible, I would find a shop in London carrying the country's products to buy the ingredients for my dish.
My culinary adventures have seen me visit 28 of the 33 London boroughs, chalking up 107 countries along the way. Here are 10 of the most memorable experiences, rated on three criteria — the dish, the shop and the neighbourhood.
North Korea - mul naengmyeon (cold noodle soup)
What is it? A refreshing summer dish with a range of bold flavours and textures – sweet, tart, spicy, nutty and chewy. One of the best things I have ever eaten, a completely different experience to the barbecues, bibimbaps and pancakes more commonly associated with Korean cuisine in London.
What's in it? Buckwheat noodles, pickled cucumbers, sliced pear, boiled egg, mustard oil and toasted sesame seeds, served in a broth frozen to a slurry.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? If you are up for a trip, go to Korea Foods in New Malden. It is enormous, one of the biggest supermarkets in London dedicated to a single country. Make a day of it and visit the nearby town centre, one of the largest Korean neighbourhoods in Europe and home to the largest North Korean refugee population outside South Korea. You are guaranteed a memorable day entirely worth the schlep.
Easy to make? Yup. Once you’ve got your ingredients, there is very little cooking, the dish is mostly an assembly job.
Cheat eat? You can expect to find it in most Korean restaurants, go to Arang in Soho for a centrally located option.
Bangladesh - Shorshe ilish (ilish fish cooked in a mustard sauce) with ruti (unleavened whole wheat flatbread)
What is it? A very different curry to your bog-standard offering. As well as in Bangladesh, it's also popular in neighbouring Indian West Bengal.
What's in it? They keynote ingredient, a staple of Bengali cooking, is mustard (oil and powder), along with turmeric, chili, nigella or cumin seeds.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? Most Asian groceries will carry the spices but go to one of the shops on Brick Lane, the hub of London’s Bangladeshi community for a great day out. It is unlikely you will find fresh ilish, but Bangla Cash and Carry have it frozen.
Easy to make? The curry is a fairly quick affair, be careful not to overcook the fish. The ruti requires confidence with handling dough, so buy it ready made if you are not sure.
Cheat eat? It is a sad irony that Bangladeshis are too busy running Indian curry houses to showcase their own brilliant cuisine but look carefully in Brick Lane and you are likely to find a proper Bangla restaurant carrying the dish. Otherwise, go to Kolapata in nearby Whitechapel.
Israel - Sabich, (pita pocket sandwich)
What is it? A delicious snack with big flavours, named after an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who first sold it from a kiosk in Tel Aviv.
What's in it? Fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, tahini sauce and zhoug, a condiment made from coriander leaves, chillies and spices.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? As the ingredients are standard supermarket items, you don’t have to go far but for fresh, top-quality pita bread – this is a must – visit one of London’s Jewish neighbourhoods in north London and go to a local bakery. Look for a nearby Jewish grocery and pick up a bottle of Amba, a sweet-source mango sauce, another common topping. Don’t go on a Saturday otherwise you will find the entire high street shut down for Sabbath.
Easy to make? The eggplant and zhoug are fairly easy to prepare, the only real test is your ability to stuff a pita pocket without rupturing it.
Cheat eat? Pilpel, a falafel chain, does a good Sabich.
Bulgaria - banitsa (phyllo pastry filled with cheese, yoghurt and eggs)
What is it? Delightful and moreish but a bit filling, so think twice before that third helping. This type of food is common across the Balkan peninsula.
What's in it? They key ingredient in the filling is sirene cheese – soft, chewy and dense.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? There are a few Bulgarian groceries all over London, but Rozova Dolina in Tottenham comes with a welcome bonus, a walk along the nearby Lea River Canal.
Easy to make? Not much can go wrong with this dish, the oven does most of the work.
Cheat eat? Bakery Naslada in Bush Hill Park carries Banitsa and other baked goods. The shop does a deli as well.
Latvia - Speķa pīrādziņi (bacon stuffed buns) and rasols (potato salad)
What's in it? The pīrādziņi are crescent-shaped buns filled with many combinations of meat and veg, most commonly bacon and onions. The rasols is a highly customisable workhorse salad anchored by four invariants – potatoes, mayo, sour cream, pickled vegetables.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? Lituanica is a grocery chain carrying Baltic products. The Walthamstow branch is worth a visit for a few reasons – a closer look at a once grotty neighbourhood now softened by the weaving tendrils of gentrification, artwork on a mews road titled 1909 The Great Tram Chase commemorating an armed robbery by two Latvians, and a walk along Europe’s longest outdoor market.
Easy to make? The salad is straightforward but the pīrādziņi requires a decent level of baking skills.
Cheat eat? There are no dedicated Latvian restaurants or bakeries to speak of — although let us know if you think otherwise.
Norway - raspeball (potato dumpling)
What's in it? Raw grated potatoes, cooked potatoes and flour are mixed to form a dough which is then rolled into golf sized balls and poached in stock. There are regional variations where the dumplings are stuffed with meat.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? Potatoes, flour and stock cubes can be found anywhere so why not head to Rotherhithe, home of London’s Scandinavian community, born from historic trading connections between the nearby docks and the Nordics. The Norwegian and Finnish churches in the area do an annual Christmas Market which draws the draws the expats out and adds a Nordic touch to the festivities.
Easy to make? The technique is harder than it looks; the consistency of the potato dough and cooking temperature need to be perfectly aligned to prevent the dumplings from disintegrating into mush. Good luck.
Cheat eat? Scandinavian restaurant menus in London are more about chic foods than comfort foods, so odds of finding a cheat eat are slim. Sorry.
Algeria - couscous and vegetables/meat
What is it? A simple, healthy dish from the Maghreb region of Africa.
What's in it? Couscous is tiny granules of dried durum wheat semolina cooked and topped with vegetables or meat.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? Couscous is now a supermarket staple but to prepare it like the locals — it is steamed not drenched in boiling water — go to La Belle Boucherie on 3-5 Bell Street, Marylebone, to get a couscoussier and a tutorial from the shopkeeper. Edgware Road is also a people watching hotspot for London’s Arab community, so don’t forget to make time to explore.
Easy to make? The steaming is a multi-stage process, but the output is worth the slog. The vegetable recipe is flexible but use chickpeas or fava beans to keep the flavour and texture authentic.
Cheat eat? London has a quite a few North African restaurants serving a proper plate of couscous, go to Azou in Hammersmith.
Angola - Calulu de peixe (fish stew) and Funge de bombo (cassava porridge)
What is it? While Angolan, the dish is representative of a classic food pairing in Sub-Saharan Africa – a stiff, starchy porridge and a dipping gravy.
What's in it? Funge is cassava flour boiled in water until soft and pliable. The fish stew is a mixture of fresh and dried fish and vegetables cooked in red palm oil.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? London is awash with excellent Afro-Caribbean markets but go to Brixton Market for an all-round shopping and cultural experience.
Easy to make? The funge is serious commitment of wrist and elbow, requiring constant stirring and whisking for about 30 minutes before it settles into the right consistency.
Cheat eat? An Angolan restaurant in London might be a tough find but similar dishes are likely to be available in other African restaurants.
El Salvador - pupusas (stuffed and grilled flatbread)
What is it? The flatbread is made from masa harina, a type of cornflour. Though it's from El Salvador, Honduras also laid claim to the origin in a long running dispute. Archaeologists were wheeled in to have the final word.
What's in it? The dough is made by mixing masa harina and water. Many combinations of stuffing are offered at pupuserías across El Salvador, but beans and cheese remains a classic.
Where do I find the ingredients in London? Elephant and Castle is home to London’s Latin American shops.
Easy to make? Masa harina is gluten free, so binding and stuffing the dough can be a fiddly affair. But this is a generally forgiving dish.
Cheat eat? You have a good chance at finding a shop selling pupusas in Elephant and Castle.
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