Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Umana Yana
294 Croxted Road
Herne Hill
020 8671 8227

"Hello sweetheart!"

At least I think that's what the lady at Umana Yana said to me as I walked through the door with my earphones plugged in. It's a simple place, a takeaway with a single table by the window, but welcomes don't get much warmer.

The charming lady behind the counter, who, if the health and safety certificates on the wall are to be believed, is called Deborah, listened patiently as I expressed my delight at finding food in London from a country with a smaller population than Bristol. She then gave me a taste of everything in front of her. There was poulourie, a deep-fried split pea fritter; doubles just like those I found at Roti Joupa, and a channa dal, an Indian chick pea dish.

A week earlier at the Lambeth Country Show I'd relished a chicken and pumpkin roti wrap at the Umama Yana stall. On that occasion it had been prepared by Deborah's daughters; this time it was her son cooking soft, spongy rotis at the back of the restaurant. Again it was delicious, a blend of tender chicken breast and stewed pumpkin in what Debs unhelpfully described as "many different spices". There's certainly a blast of curry powder in there and perhaps some jerk seasoning, too.

A look at Guyana's history explains the eccentric nature of its cuisine. The Spanish, French, Dutch and British each had a go ruling the country, and between them imported African slaves, plantation workers from China, indentured labour from India, and Portuguese settlers (used by the Brits to bolster the white population). This ethnic mix has blended with a dominant Caribbean culture, and the flavours and recipes of Trinidad and Jamaica are very evident.

Umama Yana, named after an iconic thatched hut in the capital Georgetown, may not be the world's prettiest restaurant - there are no plates to be seen - but it's the only place I know of serving this great little cuisine.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

United States of America

The Meatwagon
The Florence
131-133 Dulwich Road
(and other places too)

Until my first bite, I had my reservations about the Meatwagon. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its infrequent appearances in the wild, this plain white van has been cooking up a cacophony of fawning tweets and retweets and blog posts that have had me trying to wipe away the saliva from the inside of my screen. Its devoted followers willingly travel to obscure parts of the city (i.e. South London) and endure long waits before receiving their dinner. I couldn't see myself jumping on the Meatwagon bandwagon. I suspected an internet fad, a fast-food fantasy as disposable as a flash mob. I was so wrong. This is great street food, done the American way.

The thing I love most about the Meatwagon's cheeseburger with bacon is that it's not a gourmet burger. It's sold by a bloke in a van and served on a paper plate. You don't need a knife and fork to disassemble it before consumption. It doesn't come with a side salad. It is never - never! - made out of beans or tofu or lentils. You can't pay a pound extra for beetroot or blue cheese or, for shit's sake, baba ghanoush. I love being able to hold it in two hands, give it a firm squeeze, and taste the whole of the burger.

It's stacked, layered, precisely as tall as the space I can make between my upper and lower lips. The flavours reveal themselves one at a time, like those jawbreaker sweets I taunted my teeth with as a kid, but in rapid succession. The first bite releases the pheromones, a swell of blood and oil softening the bun, some dripping off the edge, giving my plate a rosy translucency. The cheese and mustard, at the top and the bottom respectively, are as American as corn dogs and root beer. Apparently it's not a Kraft Single, this sliced cheese, but to me it looks and tastes just as cheap and yellow and nasty and perfect. The mustard coalesces with the gherkins, the onions and the salty, streaky un-British bacon. As for the main attraction, the protagonist, the star of the show, well, you should read about here because Ibrahim does a much better job of describing it than I ever could. And I fear I'll win a Bad Sex In Non-Fiction award if I even tried.

Let's stop here. I can't see for the saliva on the outside of my screen.