Food: Melting pot

Soho, slap-bang in the middle of London, has Britain's finest array of global gastronomy, as chef Alastair Little reveals in his latest collection of recipes

It is totally unimaginable that my career would have gone the way it did without the influence of Soho with its food shops, markets and restaurants. Through them the writings of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson could become reality a quarter century ago; only in Soho, a little slice of Europe in the middle of London, could all the ingredients be regularly found. I have worked in the area for 25 years, most of them as a chef, and it was in Soho 15 years ago that my life's ambition was realised when my eponymous restaurant, Alastair Little, opened on Frith Street.

Soho is the food capital of Britain and has been so for over a hundred years, a fact demonstrated by the recent influx of some of the best young chefs, among them Marco Pierre White, Peter Gordon, Stephen Terry and Richard Corrigan, to name but four. I feel proud to be the old man of the area, if this is the sort of company it attracts. What Soho is not these days, is a great place to shop for food; with the exception of Lina Stores and Camisa, there is virtually nothing left of a once-thriving industry. This is not quite the catastrophe it seems to be because all the foodstuffs that were once only available there can now be found all over the city. The loss is probably only keenly felt by someone who was privileged to work there long ago, and by the residents, of whom there are surprisingly many. There is, of course, Chinatown, where the bustling and anarchic shops will provide inspiration for any cook.

Apart from working in Soho, I have always loved the place, and think there is nowhere else like it in the world. No other major city has a similar neighbourhood. I also love it for its seediness - the history of the place shows that, despite many changes, it has always been a bit of a rough area, full of rogues, gamblers, booze, drugs and food. Soho is the underbelly of London, squalid, a little dangerous, horribly alive and never dull.

Extracted from `Soho Cooking' by Alastair Little, published by Ebury Press on 26 August at pounds 25

Japanese-style duck salad

serves 4 as a starter

This dish was served to me over 20 years ago in what was then Soho's only Japanese restaurant, called Fuji (funny that). None of the ingredients, with the exception of soy, is particularly Japanese, or indeed at all difficult to obtain. English mustard may seem a rather strange inclusion, but the Japanese are very fond of it; their beloved wasabi (green horseradish paste served with raw fish) is in fact nothing more than English-style mustard powder with green colouring and horseradish flavouring. The real wasabi, a true horseradish, grows wild in Japanese mountain streams, is extremely scarce, expensive and virtually unobtainable outside its native land.

400-500g duck breasts (usually from France and often called magrets)

salt and pepper

1kg spinach, cleaned

2tbsp lemon juice mixed with 8tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce

1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and shredded

2tsp English mustard powder, mixed with 3tsp water

Method

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Season the duck generously with salt and pepper, then heat a frying pan over a medium flame. Lightly slash or score the duck fat and skin, then cook skin-side-down for 10 minutes, pouring off any excess melted grease as it collects. Turn the breasts over and cook for a further 2 minutes on the flesh side, then allow to cool. Tip the spinach into the merrily boiling water, stir quickly and immediately drain through a colander. Transfer the spinach to a bowl of cold water and refresh for a minute or so. Squeeze the spinach into dry little balls then plump up into something resembling leaves again.

Serving

Take four shallow bowls and mound the spinach in each. Dress these little heaps with a spoonful of the soy-lemon mix. Slice the duck breasts as thinly as you can, then arrange in fans, skin- side-up, on top of the spinach. Sprinkle with the spring onion, and spoon a little more of the soy mix around. Finally dab a small pile of the mustard on the edge of each plate, warning any non-English or non-Japanese guests about its potency.

Leftover duck

The above salad is perfectly realisable with leftover duck, providing it is breast meat and still slightly pink.

Grilled squid with chermoula

serves 4-6

Squid seems so ubiquitous today that it is hard to believe how scarce, exotic and paradoxically cheap it was 20 years ago. Then it could only be found where large immigrant communities - like Soho's Chinese, Italians and Maltese - demanded it.

Cooking squid is generally regarded as a bit of a tricky business, conventional wisdom stating that to be tender it must be either very briefly seared (a matter of seconds only) or simmered lengthily. Trust the Japanese to be different and to arrive at a third viewpoint. They are, after all, used to rather chewy raw things packed on top of rice and don't over-value tenderness for its own sake. Squid is served in Japan either raw or grilled for a few minutes on each side, having been previously lightly salted. The result is undeniably texturous but, equally unarguably, delicious with a lovely caramelised exterior. Soho has had a few Japanese restaurants for many years but there now seems to be a flourishing Little Tokyo developing around Brewer Street. Good news for all food lovers, and a perfect example of the area's ability to regenerate itself.

2 medium-sized fresh squid, about 250-300g each (ask the fishmonger to clean them for you)

fine sea salt

2 lemons, cut into wedges

a large handful of coriander, leaves clean of stalks, washed and dried

the same amount of flat-leaf parsley and mint leaves

1 pickled lemon

2 small dried red chillies

1/4tsp ground cumin

1/4tsp ground coriander

4tbsp olive oil

salt

Salting the squid

This recipe needs a little planning as the squid is best salted overnight. Remove the wings from the bodies, scrape clean, and cut each tentacle cluster in two through their bases. Take the tubular body sacs of the squid and open them out by cutting along the clearly apparent seam. Scrape the inside and exterior thoroughly, removing any gooey bits and the thin transparent membrane on the outside, then rinse. Slash the bodies and wings in a criss-cross pattern on both sides; use a sharp knife for this, and take care not to cut completely through the flesh. Put the squid in a bowl and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the salt. Now the tactile bit: rub the salt into the fish, making sure that it is evenly spread. Place the pieces on the wire rack over a tray in the fridge overnight. If you can bear to leave them uncovered, so much the better as the squid will dry out a little, improving its texture when cooked the next day.

Grilling the squid and serving

Simplicity itself. Heat a cast-iron grill pan over a high flame for 5 minutes then place the squid on it in a single layer. Don't overcrowd; it's better to do two batches. Grill without moving or playing with it in any way for three minutes, then turn it all over and do the other side for the same time. The squid will not oblige you by lying flat after it is turned, indeed it will probably curl up, and a judicious amount of fiddling may be necessary to get it evenly browned. Serve with a wedge or two of lemon and chermoula.

Chermoula

Chermoula is normally a rather aggressive north African sauce involving chillies, pickled lemons, various spices and herbs. This particular one is relatively simple, and keeps for a couple of days in the fridge.

Method

Put the herb leaves in the food processor bowl. Rinse the lemon, open it out, scrape and discard the pulpy flesh, then chop the skin coarsely. Toast the spices in a small frying pan for a minute or so, until you can smell them strongly. Process all the ingredients in the food processor, then scrape out into a bowl. Check for salt, and film the top with a little more oil. Keep chilled until needed.

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