It’s the scent that yanks me back, pinching at my nostrils and dragging me helplessly by the nose. A fat, fragrant double-taker of headiness. The brain doesn’t quite compute at first, because all I’m met with is the gaping maw of a white van spewing crimson viscera onto the road, while a flock of Christian youth rap energetically about salvation. But then I gaze a bit further and there they are in all their scarlet splendour. Punnets upon punnets of them. “3 for a pahnd” bellows the red faced man, and the people jostle and throng with their pounds. Further in there are stalls flogging free range organic duck and quail eggs, the biggest papayas I’ve ever seen, chicken’s feet, goat’s livers, ginseng, mustard oil, fresh shea butter, live crabs, green coconuts and tangerine chillies. However, none of this interests me, for it’s that most English of juicy fruit that I’m after. It feels like the whole of Hackney is here, shopping, shouting and bumping into each other in the sunshine. People hug and argue, they flirt with and avoid each other, they coo over and swear at sullen-faced little ones. There are mountain ranges of rubbish everywhere and an intermingling of other, less savoury smells. Drugs are dealt and hearts are broken. You would never get this in Borough Market.
Back home I think about the flavours that might fit. Because they’re not exactly Gariguettes, I decide that they’d be most at home in a savoury salad, one with plenty of balsamic and black pepper to really flatter the fruit. I decide to team them with some tender grilled feta, watercress, cucumber, parsley and smoked almonds in what turns out to be one of the freshest of summer salads and the beginnings of an infatuation with the chaotic brilliance that is Ridley Road market.
Serves 2-3 generously
1 punnet of strawberries, picked over and halved
1 bunch watercress, torn up
gem lettuce roughly chopped
½ cucumber, diced
1 block of feta
a handful of smoked almonds or walnuts
1 tablespoon parsley, finely
1 orange pepper, diced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra for drizzling on the feta
plenty of black pepper
1 tbsp toasted pine nuts
3 tsp honey
Small pinch of dried oregano
Sprinkle a little olive oil and the oregano over the feta and brown under a hot grill until tender
While that’s cooling, combine the watercress, cucumber, toasted pine nuts, smoked almonds, orange pepper, strawberries and lettuce in a salad bowl.
Cube and gently mix in the feta
Combine the parsley, balsamic, remaining olive oil, salt, pepper and honey and carefully dress the salad
Cumin isn’t really a spice you’d associate with Chinese cooking is it? However, head for the more Islamic districts of North West China and these cumintastic lamb skewers are all the rage. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to check out the street food of Xinjiang, but I have spent many a belt-loosening evening in Chilli Cool, the Sichuanese hotspot in King’s Cross. There the skewers come fried and spice encrusted on a plate that’s practically scarlet with chillies.
I decided to make my own for a spot of Victoria Park BBQ action and I must say these really couldn’t be easier. Super nice with a hot and sour cucumber salad (diced and dressed in salt, garlic sizzled in sesame oil, sugar and rice vinegar) and crammed into toasted pitta, these were wolfed down the very minute they came off the heat and I only wish I’d made more.
The Sichuan peppercorns add that “ma la” hot, numbing and almost lemony back note which works gorgeously with the toasted cumin. You can get them in most Chinese shops or online. If you really can’t be bothered, just stick in a bit more chilli powder/paste and a load of black pepper- it won’t be the same of course but you’ll still be dead chuffed with the results. It’s important to toast and grind the cumin – you want that lamb properly infused. Like all the best hot-coal related treats, the longer you marinade the tastier the rewards (I held out for two days). If you don’t have access to a barbecue, you can always slide them under a hot grill. Either way, you’re guaranteed all manner of smoky, juicy, spicy fun times.
(makes four generous skewers)
500g lamb steaks hacked into skewerable hunks
skewers ( if wooden, soak in water for at least an hour)
For the dry spice mix
1 ½ tbsp dry roasted and ground cumin seeds
1 ½ tbsp dry roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
2-3 tsp sea salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground fennel
½ -1 tsp chilli powder
For the wet mix
2 tsp sesame oil
1 ½ large red chillies, sliced roughly
2-3 large spring onions, cut roughly into chunks
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp chilli bean paste
1 tbsp groundnut oil
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- Combine the ingredients for the dry marinade and coat the lamb chunks thoroughly.
- Combine the ingredients for the wet marinade. Tip the contents of the dry into the wet and mix well.
- Cover and leave overnight in the fridge or for a couple of days if you can.
- Thread onto skewers. Fish out the chilli and spring onion chunks and alternate the bits of lamb with these.
- Cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side over or under a medium to fierce heat. You basically want these to be charred on the outside but still a little pink in the middle. Devour while hot. Regret not making more.