26 February 2015

Restaurant Review: Silk Road

When I started working in Camberwell a few years ago, I immediately put my ear to the ground to find out which local food spots were worth checking out. I soon realised that Camberwell and Peckham have a wealth of interesting eateries, both well-established and newcomers, more of which are popping up all the time. One name that I heard on the grapevine again and again was Silk Road. Intrigued by what I heard, I made it a priority to try it. Over the course of my first meal there, it swiftly rose to the top of my list of favourite Chinese restaurants in London, taking joint first place with Mandarin Kitchen. Although serving the same national cuisine, the two restaurants couldn't be more different.

Silk Road specialises in food from China's Xinjiang province, which is situated in the far north west of the country, and populated by a mixture of ethnic groups including Han, Kazakhs and Mongols. With most Chinese restaurants in London serving either Cantonese or Mandarin cuisines, this is a style of cooking that's not often found on the menu. It's astoundingly different, which I'm sure is in part due to the ethnic diversity of the region. The closest cuisine I can compare it to is Szechuanese, due to the abundance of garlic and chilli, but with so much lamb and cumin thrown in, some of the dishes wouldn't sit uncomfortably on a Middle Eastern menu. Most of the dishes are what I would call robustly spiced rather than 'hot' spicey, making for some rather mouth-watering results.

Home-style aubergine

Alas, I no longer work a stone's throw away from Silk Road, but it's always worth the journey back to SE5: and I made the pilgrimage there this week. The restaurant is becoming increasingly popular as it gains more and more (well-deserved) recognition, including a notable mention in Observer Food Monthly's best cheap eats 2014. So these days it's worth booking a table in advance. But if not, you can always put your name down and then head a few doors down to Stormbird and while away the time with a craft beer or two of your choice. Or, if you live nearby, you can get a takeaway if you're stomach's rumbling and you simply can't wait.

There are so many intriguing dishes on the menu, and they're all incredibly reasonably priced, and generously sized, so that it's quite easy to find yourself biting off more than you can chew. But don't worry - you can always ask for a doggy bag and take the remainder home with you. I can vouch for the fact that the food makes for an excellent lunch the day after the night before.

Lamb shish skewers

Some menu favourites that I order again and again are: the lamb shish skewers (succulent and rich chunks of meat and fat, pungently flavoured with cumin and salt), shredded kelp (a cold salad of slippery slices with lots of bite, doused in chilli and sesame oil), dumplings available with a number of fillings (you get 10 of these fat beauties in one order! 10!) and special lamb noodles with cabbage, onion, garlic and chilli. All the noodles are made fresh on the premises, and if you get to the restaurant early enough you can often see the owners making them at the tables at the back. The noodles are rugged, thick, and served al dente: and there's something really comforting and wholesome about them.

On my last visit I also tried a dish I hadn't ordered before: home-style aubergine. I'm not quite sure why I'd never had it before because aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables; I suppose I'd just overlooked it. Anyhow, it didn't disappoint: the meaty chunks of peeled aubergines had soaked up all flavour of the delicious, sweet garlic and chilli sauce.

When making your selections from the menu - and if you're going with a group do share plates - it's pretty hard to go wrong, although I would recommend that you pay due respect to the chilli symbols placed next to some of the dishes' names. The dishes suffixed by several chillis are genuinely very, very hot. And this is coming from someone who handles spice quite well. I once ordered a dish on the menu, which I can't remember the exact name of, but I would describe it as dry (without a wet sauce or broth) spiced lamb noodles. It had two or three chilli symbols next to it on the menu, and the waitress did ask, with some surprise, if I was sure that I really wanted to order it, and I said yes, I can handle it. And I was so, so wrong. It was incredibly aromatic and delicious but I really did struggle with the level of heat. Lesson learned - always listen to the recommendations of the waiting staff!

At Silk Road you can eat like a king for £10 - £15 per head. I strongly suggest you go there and do exactly that. Just remember to take heed of those chillis.

Silk Road
49 Camberwell Church Street
0207 703 4832

23 February 2015

Fairtrade Fortnight

Today marks the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight, which runs until 8 March. It's an initiative aimed at raising awareness of Fairtrade products, by encouraging you to choose products that change lives. The short film on the campaign's website gives an insight into the difference Fairtrade can make, looking at two farmers working under the Fairtrade system: Edson and Tsala, two tea farmers in Malawi.

Over the past 20 years, the Fairtrade mark has become the biggest and best known ethical label in the UK. When you see the Fairtrade mark on a product, you know that it meets certain standards in terms of fairer prices and better working conditions, which aim to give farmers a fairer deal.

To encourage people to make the switch to Fairtrade products, Fairtrade Fortnight are making a number of freebies, offers and competitions available on their website. Offers include a free Fairtrade coffee with any purchase at Greggs, a free pack of Clipper green tea at Waitrose, the chance to win a box of Cadbury Dairy Milk Buttons, and many more.

I'm sure I'll be making use of some of these offers over the next couple of weeks. Will you be getting involved in Fairtrade Fortnight?

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21 February 2015

Foods of the World: Japan

I've been so lucky to have had the opportunity to go to Japan twice in the last couple of years. I've been fascinated by the culture for a long time, and knew before I went that I really liked the food, but of course, the Japanese food I'd tried in London (even though there are some great Japanese restaurants here) didn't compare to the real thing. In Japan I was pretty adventurous and expanded on my previously rather limited knowledge of Japanese food. I was really surprised by the breadth of dishes on offer. From shabu shabu to yakitori, from chankonabe to gyoza, I soon realised how varied the cuisine was, and that I could quite possibly eat Japanese food every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. There were so many culinary highlights during my time in Japan, but I'll outline just a few below.

Fresh Seafood

One of the things that I enjoyed most about Japanese food was how incredibly fresh everything tasted. The seafood is some of the best I've ever eaten, and fresh fish is highly prized in Japanese culture: perhaps unsurprisingly given that the country is an archipelago comprised of more than 6,000 islands. I visited Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and Otaru fish market in Hokkaido, where I saw an incredible array of fresh and live seafood. With both markets full of restaurants serving the markets' offerings, you could try it with hardly any time wasted in the journey from sea to plate.

My favourite seafood dish was definitely the seafood bowl I had at Otaru fish market. With a base of sticky rice, you could then choose a topping of whatever seafood you wanted. I chose crab, salmon roe and salmon. The flavour of the bowl somehow managed to completely encapsulate the sea, and it was a bit of a revelation to me. This should have been pretty similar to sushi as the components are essentially the same, but I think the proportion of seafood to rice took it to another level: I mean, just look at the amount of seafood in that bowl! Plus, being able to mix different types of seafood in the same mouthful was divine.

Seafood bowl at Otaru fish market

For me, the delicate sweetness of fresh seafood is really best enjoyed raw - and this, of course, is something you can eat in copious amounts in Japan with their incredible sushi and sashimi, which I also ate plenty of!

A selection of sushi at Hanayoshi restaurant, Niseko


Boy, do the Japanese love their sweets! Be it Royce Chocolate, daifuku, or delicate langue de chat biscuits, there is a veritable feast available to the sweet-toothed traveler in Japan.

Although it would be impossible for me to dislike chocolate, the Japanese chocolate certainly doesn't come close to its European counterparts, like those of Swiss chocolatiers in my opinion. The Japanese sweets that really stood out for me, however, were the dairy-based desserts. I spent most of my time in Hokkaido, which is well-known for the delicious milk produced by its cows! I sampled a number of milk desserts, including ice cream, milk pudding, cream puffs and cheesecake.
Clockwise from top: Milk pudding from Takahashi Ranch Milk Kobo, Niseko; milk flavour ice cream from Yamanaka Dairy Farm; a selection of cheescakes from LeTAO cafe in Otaru.

Their dairy desserts make the milk the star - they're not overly-flavoured with other ingredients or sickly sweet, so you can taste the milk really well. It's weird that I like these so much because I don't actually like milk a great deal in the UK (I always buy almond milk instead), but this milk tastes really good, so fresh, and I imagine it is much higher quality than the milk you buy down your local corner shop in the UK. I particularly loved the LeTAO Double Fromage cheesecake (the bottom left piece on the above plate), which somehow manages to have quite a subtle flavour whilst still being incredibly rich, and the two layers made for a lovely contrast of textures. They sold these at New Chitose airport, and I was really tempted to buy a whole cake to take on the plane back. Maybe next time!

I also really love the Japanese melon jellies, and these are something I do always bring back with me. They're bite-sized jellies with a really strong melon flavour, that you suck out of their plastic tubs in a more or less inelegant manner. The Japanese Yubari King melons after which they are flavoured are really expensive - the one pictured below was selling for 2680 Yen, the equivalent of about £15!

Yubari King melons at Otaru market


More or less everything in Japan comes with either rice or noodles, so if you don't like either, you may have a bit of a problem! Luckily I happily devour both. Although ramen was originally an import from China, this noodle soup is now considered to be a quintessentially Japanese dish.

I realise I have been talking about Hokkaido specialities a lot (I really need to go back and try cuisines of different provinces/islands!), but when given the choice, I would always go for a ramen served with a dollop of Hokkaido butter and corn. The butter gives the broth such a rich and creamy taste, and I love how the sweetness of the corn cuts through the savouriness of the miso broth. My all-time favourite ramen is undoubtedly the snow crab and corn version I had at The Lookout Cafe. It was exactly what I needed on my last day of skiing. This despite the fact that I'd probably consumed more crab than most people do in a lifetime over the course of my last trip. There's no such thing as too much crab!

Ramen with snow crab, Hokkaido butter and sweetcorn

Final Thoughts

I love the variety of Japanese dishes, how fresh and good quality the produce is, and how beautifully the dishes are presented. However, Japanese cuisine is a little low on vegetables for me! They do have some incredible salads (with beautiful miso dressings), delicate pickles and vegetable tempura, but when it comes to main dishes, almost everything is comprised of fish or meat with rice or noodles, which doesn't leave much space on the plate for your five a day. Also, as most dishes have added soy sauce, I think my daily consumption of sodium was quite high when I was there. However, I'm sure Japanese people don't eat at home exactly what I was eating in restaurants: if I ate out in London every day for two weeks I'd probably be complaining about the lack of vegetables and high salt content of the foods too. And as Japanese men and women live longer than any other population on earth, I can only come to the conclusion that they must be doing something right when it comes to their food.

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16 February 2015

Introducing: Foods for Thought

So, I’m a bit late to the blogging party. Well, more than just slightly, fashionably late. I’m horribly, embarrassingly, unforgivably late. Which is why the blog name Food for Thought was already taken. But what better way to (sort of) still get the name that you want, than to pluralise it? Thus Foods for Thought was born. I did toy with the idea of Food for Thoughts, but that sounded a bit too much like Ipsos Mori had started offering edible remuneration for participants. So I opted for Foods for Thought instead. Which I think works well, as I intend to use this blog to write about foods, glorious foods, in a variety of ways. Be it fresh produce, foodie events, my experiments in the kitchen, or anything else that catches my eye, I hope to write some informative and interesting pieces.

At the end of March, I will begin my first tentative foray into working in the world of food. I’ll be selling organic fruit and veg boxes to the great British public. Well, everyone has to start somewhere, and a job where I can natter about food all day seems as good a starting point as any. I’ll be using this blog both to record my personal and professional journey, and as an outlet for my love of food.

I have dabbled in the realm of blogging previously, but for whatever reason it never really stuck. They were brief flings, swiftly forgotten. I hope this blog will stand the test of time and prove to be a great deal more fruitful (excuse the pun).