Monday, 29 March 2010


Arepa & Co
Boiler House Food Hall
Truman Brewery, Brick Lane
Sundays 10am-5pm

In the summer of 2003, I told my then-girlfriend I'd very much like to meet a Venezuelan. It seemed like a random utterance at the time, but being a determined sort it was only three months before I had a nice young man from Caracas living on my bedroom floor. If I hadn't been living with my parents at the time it wouldn't have been a problem.

He had been in the UK on a work trip and had decided to skip the flight home, fearing a civil war. In enthusiastic Spanglish, he told me all about the history of puppetry and physical theatre, the political situation in Venezuela, a bizarre new sport he'd invented called Fireball (like Dodgeball with an actual ball of fire) and how he was going to get it in the Olympics, and how he missed arepas, the national dish of his homeland.

Arepa & Co are the only people selling Venezuelan food in London. This, they said, is because it's bloody time-consuming to make the cornbread properly. I can't vouch for these arepas' authenticity, but I thought they were fantastic, like a carnitas burrito substituting a tortilla for a sweet, flaky cornbread pitta. Black beans, grated cheese and lots of spicy, juicy pork - delicious. The Hungarian CouchSurfer I was hosting, photographed here dutifully holding my tasty arepa, realised she'd made a big mistake ordering the Chinese dumplings.

I wondered what had become of the man who used to sleep on my floor. The last time I saw him was in September 2003 at Victoria train station. His girlfriend had flown from Caracas to Amsterdam and then taken the ferry to Harwich so she could hop on the train to London. My friend was going to propose to her at the station and they were going to live happily ever after in the UK. He was carrying the ring in his pocket. But she never made it past UK border control.

He took the first train to Holland the following morning to be with her. I was so sad for them. And I was pretty sad for myself. I'd been told she made one hell of an arepa.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


Toldi Catering
Brunswick Food Market
Saturdays, 11am-5pm

I didn't think I was going to find authentic Hungarian food in London. Several people had warned me that the Gay Hussar, once considered one of the greatest Hungarian restaurants in the world, was utterly cack. London's other Hungarian eatery, Louis Hungarian Patisserie, is a) Polish, and b) closed until further notice, which is enough to rule it out.

The food market at Brunswick Place was a pleasant surprise. Toldi is the stall with a bogrács (cauldron) hanging from a tripod, full of brown splattered stuff. It's goulash, and it's awfully good. It was served it on tarhonya, a chunky egg pasta, and with a helping of salad. It was really tasty.

I asked the owner what the key to a good goulash is. "It's a closely-held secret," he told me, before conceding that "it's all down to the paprika". So now we know.

Malaysia (Peranakan)

NP Star
Pacific Plaza
Wembley Park Retail Park

I'm thankful the Pacific Plaza's food court was almost empty. Anybody who saw me eat would have witnessed quite a spectacle. Earlier in the day, I'd injured my back attempting a ridiculous squash shot. For the first few hours, the damage seemed insignificant, but somehow the act of going to Zone 4, sitting down and eating curry laksa triggered waves of intense pain.

At this point the laksa did what laksa's paid to do and the double trouble of steam and chilli had me sweating like an Englishman. I removed my coat and my jumper, and reached for my bag to take photos of the food, the whole time clutching the left side of my lower-back, grimacing and sweating torrentially. I hobbled down Wembley Way afterwards.

If this had been a duff meal, I would have left traumatised. But the curry laksa from the unassuming NP Star stall was delicious. Before I gave it a good stir, the broth resembled a lava lamp in miniature. Yellow bubbles and red bubbles, forming and fusing. Coconut milk and chilli. Fire and ice. Yin and yang. Slices of slippery fish cake, straggly coriander, soft and supple king prawns, and brown strips of puffy tofu that absorbed the broth and - bang! - exploded upon contact with the teeth.

Fireworks in the sky. A sweaty forehead. Muscle spasms. Ouch. Yum. Ouch. Where's the ibuprofen?

Two tables away, a middle-aged Chinese woman shielded her child's eyes from the sweaty paraplegic strip-show.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Czech and Slovak House
West Hampstead
74 West End Lane
020 7372 1193

Wonderful and miserable in equal measures, Czech and Slovak House is communist to the core. We were led into an empty restaurant, reminiscent of crap embassy waiting rooms and dilapidated seaside B&Bs. "I feel like we're about to eat a hotel breakfast," my friend said.

On the wall are pictures of Vaclav Havel, the Queen, some Pope and that's your lot. In the next room hangs a large map of Slovakia and nothing else. The first page of the menu inexplicably features a cartoon-chef-child molester with half a tie, a monster's hand, a scarred forehead and flapping rabbit's ears made of burnt skin. We would proceed with caution.

Our waiter assured us that Czech and Slovak food are exactly the same, but my research suggested otherwise. Halusky is the Slovak national dish - not much of a hit in the Czech Republic, but a number one chart-topper since forever in Slovakia and in big letters at the top of the menu here.

It's a remarkably unsophisticated piece of work: a yellowy-white stodge, copious in carbs, positively Molvanian, guaranteeing obesity in 30 minutes or your money back. It combined Spam-like smoked sausage with a vast quantity of bryndna (sheep's cheese) and tiny potato dumplings like miniature gnocchi. I liked it, and felt guilty immediately.

We shared an outrageously indulgent starter of fried bread with melted cheese and garlic, a gut-tormenting classic. Oh, the deliciousness. And we enjoyed our main courses, too. We had half a portion of wild boar with cheese sauce and dumplings, and half a portion of roast pork with sauerkraut and dumplings. Czech/Slovak dumplings, we discovered, are what we know as bread. It was comfort food at its most comforting, and the pilsner is cheap, froth-topped and excellent.

This place is unashamedly retro, a Soviet bloc time-warp. I love it. And I've still got here to Czech out. Sorry.

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