Asia minor

FOOD: A taste of Little India in outer London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Having used the M40 motorway out of London for too many more years than I care to remember, I have always longed to take the sign that says "Southall" when just sitting there in endless exhaust. It is just after the last sign to Ruislip coming into London and not far beyond the Hoover building if you are Oxford- or Birmingham-bound.

But it was not until two weeks ago, whilst driving back from Oxford with my Australian restaurateur friend Gay Bilson (she operates the truly remarkable Bennelong restaurant in the Sydney Opera House), that I finally managed to take the exit. We were both starving and needed something more than just a plate of food. Gay expressed a craving for green chilli; I needed something sort of warm and greasy, and we both wanted a carton of something sloppy called sag. There would be no problem finding this - many Asians live in Southall and much good Indian food can be found there.

Sag is uncommonly good when carefully prepared. Essentially, it is spinach that has been cooked to within an inch of its life, together with subtle spicing, a fresh green chilli or two and some leaves of coriander stirred in at the last minute. Cumin seemed to be the predominant spice used in the carton we bought, and the oil or ghee that had been used as lubricant sort of floated on top.

Indian cafes abound in Southall's high street. Most of the menus are for use as take-aways, as well as for those sitting at table (these are usually simple affairs, relying on much use of Formica and plastic), and - on the whole - the choice is vegetarian. It should be noted here that Indian vegetarian cooking is possibly the most interesting in the world.

Along with the sag, chick peas (chana) cooked in a rich and sharp tamarind- based sauce were another successful purchase; the plump and soft pulse taking up the spices and sauce in the most agreeable manner. Panni poori is an all-time favourite Asian snack, where tiny hollow pillows of crisp bread dough (poori or puri) have been deep-fried (they resemble the pommes souffle of French haute cuisine) until they puff up. These are then punctured with the thumb, filled with chick peas, pieces of potato and a deeply delicious tamarind liquor. Leaves of fresh coriander add the correct note if any sort of "garnish" is thought to be a consideration.

One of the most notable preparations in Indian vegetarian cooking (although not encountered in this particular high street) is the stuffed dosa. These large pancakes are either soft and doughy - rather like a floury Mexican tortilla - or crisper and ultra-thin, somewhat resembling a Breton crepe. The filling is usually potato. A dull description though it may sound, this dosa stuffing is a just fabulous. The potatoes are lightly spiced with fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds and sometimes chopped spring onion is included (Asian champ?) Fresh green chilli, but not too much, lends a subtle "heat", and the usual condiment served with dosas is a mild and creamy coconut chutney. The best dosas I have so far encountered have been in and around London's Drummond Street, just north of Euston Road.

While Gay was staying with me, I asked her to make me some "green paste". This is something that is a permanent condiment in her Sydney fridge - at least it always seems to be. If I was to describe this bright green sludge as addictive, then it would surely be an understatement: fresh and herby, sprightly from chilli, warmed by a hint of cumin and sharpened with citric juices. Mellow coconut milk is the lubricator and salt and sugar provide final seasoning. The mugging ingredient is a hefty thump of garlic.

This chutney could almost be the HP of Asian condiments: the "all-purpose dip" for samosas, bhajias, kebabs and blistered portions of tandoori meats, marinated lamb cutlets in particular. I also smear pork sausages with it, and stir a spoonful into a thick vegetable broth (what ho! the real alternative to ubiquitous pesto). Spread it onto grilled steak and, well, just eat it with a spoon, actually.

Gay Bilson's Green Paste

Enough to fill a storage jar (about 350 ml/12fl oz)

If you feel that the paste turns out too sloppy, puree half an avocado pear into the mixture. The paste will keep for several days in the fridge, but will eventually lose its bright green hue and fresh taste.

90g/3 12oz coriander leaves - and roots if possible

40g/1 14oz mint leaves

8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tsp roasted and freshly ground cumin seeds

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

75ml/3fl oz lime juice

5 small green chillies, seeds removed

100ml/4fl ox thick coconut milk

Puree all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth, pour into a storage jar and chill. Eat when the mood takes you, which will be frequently.

Comments