Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Ali Baba
32 Ivor Place
020 7723 7474

I'm flabbergasted by today's food discovery. It's got nothing to do with the boring Egyptian restaurant described below. It's got everything to do with a Zimbabwean stall I found in Elephant & Castle. OK, they weren't selling dovi, the ceremonial peanut and chicken stew that will be eaten with a golden ladle in front of the world's media while fireworks explode in the sky at the conclusion of this project, but they could possibly make it on request - and that changes everything.

Knowing Zimbabwean food, the one cuisine I'm not permitted to eat, is available in London has given me a target. All I have to do now is eat every single one of the world's cuisines, including regional cuisines within countries, before the two blokes at Elephant & Castle market realise there's no market for Zimbabwean food in London and close the stall down. At this rate I'll be eating there in 2024.

Like Zimbabwe, Egypt's an African country that's been driven to the ground by an old dictator who just won't fucking die. Ali Baba's a likeable, family-owned place, but the food's as tired as its orientalist cliche of a name would suggest. I went there with a couple of Muslim friends for the iftar meal, the breaking of the fast. I'd eaten a big lunch. The hugely popular Arab TV show Ramadan - Live From Mecca was on the telly. It's such a ratings smash they show it on all the channels at the same time. The Libyan chap sitting next to us was lonely and pretended to have heard us talking about his home country.

"What's happened in Libya?" he asked with a jolt.
"Nothing much," I replied, pausing a few seconds for comic effect. "Although, you know, Colonel Gaddafi has just died."

He looked like a man who's just found out he's out of a well-paid job. He didn't appreciate our sense of humour. But there's so much fun to be had joking about the death of old dictators who just won't fucking die.

A voice from the TV started praying. We ate dates and supermarket flatbread dipped in tahina. We ate the infamous Egyptian carb-fest koshari (rice, lentils, pasta, fried onions, spicy tomato sauce), molokhia (jew's mallow) with chicken, bamia (lamb and okra stew) and ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel). With the exception of the falafel, which was crispily moreish, everything was underflavoured. Everything needed more oil, more garlic, more stock, more spice.

I wanted to like it. It's a no-frills, to-the-point, friendly-owned restaurant - and I've loved some of the local food I've had in Egypt - but Ali Baba just seems so staid. It's unatmospheric to the point of being oppressive and the food is bland. Bring on the dovi.

Ali Baba on Urbanspoon


Helen said...

What a damn shame. I mean about the restaurant and the dictator who won't fucking die, of course. Was the Zimbabwean stall at the Sunday food market?

Matthew said...

The Zimbabwean stall was there on a Saturday. I'm desperately looking for Buen Provecho so will head there this Sunday afternoon.

Helen Around the World said...

Another brilliant review ! I will be heading down to Elephant and castle to look for that stall.

Anonymous said...

What an awful review!! you clearly are an uncultured individual that doesn't taste good food when its in YOUR mouth. Firstly if you visit a Muslim restaurant during the Ramadan period than you can't expect a song and dance!! Secondly Ali Baba is all about the food, not sure what thrills you were expecting. Im truly appalled with your inaccurate review!

Matthew said...

Dear Appalled of Anonymoushire,

You are absolutely right. I am clearly an uncultured individual who can't taste good food even when it's quite literally inside my mouth.

I blame my lack of sophistication on my deformed taste buds. It was naive of me to go to Ali Baba and expect cabaret during the holy month of Ramadan.

I am not surprised you are appalled. Many awful things happen in this world, and this is pretty fucking shitty compared to anything.

Dear everybody else: I'm in the United States for a month. I'm eating everything. This blog will be updated soon. Thanks for your patience.