I never win anything. And to be honest, I secretly prefer it that way. Maybe it’s the raging Brit in me, but I’m always elated when it rains and my money’s on the underdog every time. Winning just seems like something vulgar competitive types might do. Not real people. Not real people like me.
So when I was selected to judge the Brick Lane Curry Competition I was fairly incredulous. I too was going to get my turn to be a little smug one. As the next few hours descended into a hyper real parallel celebriverse, I had a hasty sip of the frankly insane world of being papped and gawped at like a prize pakora. I was duly lined up with the other judges, Nina Wadia, Andy Varma and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets (A-listers every one of them) as we ploughed through 36 curries in what felt like no time at all. Nina suggested we pair up and it was interesting to note that our likes and dislikes were so obverse. I sensed that she hailed from a more Northern part of the sub continent as she seemed drawn to the more robustly spiced chicken and lamb dishes, but appeared to be less enamoured with my favourites the platters of vegetables and curried fish.
Despite living within gobbing distance, I’ve been put off most of the curry houses on Brick Lane in recent years. More often than not I’ve been served some generic tourist fodder, rudely spiced and adrift in its very own floatation tank of ghee. And of course, the entries included a fair representation of these pappy confections gilded with sugar or fruit, (pineapple?!?) and engineered to dulcify a timid and pusillanimous Western palate. I always find this bizarre, as most of my non-Asian friends can out-Scoville me under the table any day. Having said that, the authenticity of most of the dishes was truly “incroyable”.
Drop dead delicious plates included succulent bay and cardamom infused kofta spheres, sopping with stout, beefy gravy. The spices were almost charred and the subtlest touch of naga chilli muttered away in the background, just enough to form a deeply smoky flavour. I also swooned over a traditional fish curry, each delicately spiced steak of ruhi brimming with curried roe, the kind of grub I’ve only ever witnessed at big family get togethers. Overall the standard was up there, some of the seekh kebabs were chop and chop with the Tayyabs hallmark. However we also tasted a truly retch-inducing tandoori lamb dish. Squatly floating, Jabba-like in a lake of its own horrid juices, we both gagged simultaneously upon oral contact. It bore hardly any seasoning and tasted of nothing more than tepid, liquefied lamb fat. It was mystifyingly bad. My immediate reaction was to spit it out, but I realised the perpetual artifice that constitutes celebrity life as Nina insisted that we smile and look cheerful while desperately trying not to vomit as the cameras clicked away.
Nina was lovely, she advised me to try just a tiny morsel of everything – she’d clearly done this before. We marked each dish on presentation, texture and of course flavour. We talked and giggled our way through most of the dishes, but when I glanced up I was met with an ocean of jostling searching glances, all analyzing our every move, trying to decode the messages transmitted from our tastebuds to the scoreboards. It made me realise the gravity of the competition – for most of these entrants our decisions would make or ruin a livelihood.
The winning dish was a torso above the rest, masterfully roasted tandoori king prawns in a stunningly well-balanced masala sauce, speckled with the ivory and emerald of coconut and chillies, the creation of the brilliant Amir Uddin from the Eastern Eye Balti House.
Later, over dinner in the winning restaurant, the Somali Mayor tells me how he grew up in Bethnal Green. As a young boy in the seventies he would see hoardes of BNP members on a daily basis standing at the top of Brick Lane chanting about “whites first” while the police turned a blind eye. I glance out of the window and try to picture what the street must have looked like then. He’d never in a million years predicted the thriving, cosmopolitan guide-book destination it’s become today. He reminisces about stones and shit and petrol bombs through letterboxes. I notice a skinny blonde guy wearing lime green jeggings with a proper 80’s flick and a wedge; the sort I’d usually mock mercilessly, chatting away and laughing with one of the neighbouring restaurant owners. Perhaps those Nathan Barley types aren’t so bad after all.
You’d think it might be easier to be a good Muslim in Turkey during Ramadan. Away from the seductive belly baiting on twitter, the forgetful friends who bolt bacon sarnies in front of you and the socialising that flabbily lurches from breakfast to lunch to dinner and drinks. And in a sense it is easier, what with everyone around you abstaining, the only people eating in the restaurants during the day turn out to be the other tourists, women on the rag and the sick.
However, I am on holiday and the long, sticky days tick luxuriously over. In Istanbul there are sweetcorn vendors, pide hawkers (the national version of pizza) and of course kebap shops at every turn. The bazaars are stuffed with folk offering Turkish delight in a rainbow of banana, apple, pistachio, lemon and coconut. Little boys shrilly advertise ice cold watermelon juice for just a lira (40p). The Turks know how to do mystical things to beef and lamb. I try not to gawp at the salamis and sausages, the ones that taste fiendishly porcine.
They say that fasting without the vertebra of spirituality simply equates as not eating and not drinking, very good for you physically but that’s pretty much it. Standing in the majestic Blue Mosque soaking up the reverberating call to prayer I feel ethereal and overwhelmed by waves of cleanliness and strength. Or maybe I’m just spun out from the lack of food? Either way, it’s a pretty special feeling.
@Gastro1, @MathildeCuisine, @harjmurria and @Istanbul_Eats offer some fantastic recommendations, all of which are way better than anything my crappy guide book proposes. The Lonely Planet rates a kebap joint near our hotel, which basically renders it rubbish – herds of tourists flock there for miniscule portions of fatty mutton and prices that have shot up to rival London’s. Next door however, it’s a fraction of the cost and sublime. The lamb heavily soused in garlic and herbs, toned by the thick, salted salve of the yoghurt and the crisp pickled chillies kicking in with a vinegary bite.
There are special Iftar (the fast breaker) menus everywhere. We dine outdoors at Antiochia as the sun descends. The menu is incredible, the mixed mezze slips down a treat. We eat fresh tzatziki, dreamy home-made yoghurt forked through with dill and cucumber, spooned up with chips of oven-fresh lavash flatbread. A portion of kerik salatasi – crushed olives with tangles of fresh thyme, oregano, garlic and pin pricks of chilli is outstanding. A dish of muammara, a scarlet slurry of walnuts, red peppers, spices and pomegranate is smoky and deep. The tender imam bayaldi* very nearly has me passing out with pleasure too.
We split an elegantly spiced veal chop, peppered with garlic, sumac and chilli and I sip on Şalgam Suyu – a spicy fermented turnip/carrot drink, just to register the expression of sheer disgust on my fiancé’s face when he catches a waft of it (it’s an acquired taste). He cries out as if physically attacked when I convince him to sample a bit. The owners find this hysterical. It’s a sibling run place, Jale Balci the sister is a well-respected food writer. One of the brothers sports a proper handlebar moustache, the sort that wouldn’t look out of place on a Friday night in Dalston.
After wandering the humming late night streets of Beyoglu we fall into a tiny speakeasy down a narrow side street. The top floor is a tiny, heaving room, saturated with the city’s beautiful young things partying the night away. Everyone’s smoking hookahs and the DJ spins some demented folk choons set to an obese bass line, the Troggs, Chamillionaire and Heaven 17. There’s no self-consciousness here though and no attitude – just a serious mission for good times. There’s a little fat man in the corner who’s clearly coming up. The rain seeps in through the cracks in the makeshift roof and mingles with the sweat as our senses are nourished with tune after tune and everyone gets on down.
*literally means “the Imam fainted” due to unfeasible deliciousness.
About a month ago a very lovely friend presented me with a couple of grouse from Allen’s of Mayfair. I was excited, having never eaten the stuff before. I tend to associate grouse with the very posh and faintly eccentric. My pal is both, as well as huge hearted and a brilliant laugh. Although they came ready prepped, all trussed up with streaky slices, I still had to rip out the gizzard, heart and liver. There were no neat little plastic giblet bags in these cavities. There was a lot of blood. Relishing in my own squeamishness, I tore off the claws and talons and hid them in the bin, like a filthy secret.