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

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Kazakh Kyrgyz House
Pasha Hotel
158 Camberwell Road
020 7277 2228

"This is like being in Dubai," observed my dinner companion, who used to sit next to me in an office in that shithole. She was right. It was like a hotel in the poor part of town: neon lights and big windows, narrow corridors and red carpets, dubious-looking cosmetics on sale from reception, and a restaurant with Russian pop music and a fake plastic lake running through it. I felt right at home.

There's Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkish food on the menu, but we stuck to our guns and only ordered dishes you'd find in a neighbourhood restaurant in Bishkek. This included borsok, a fried doughnut made of eggs and honey and accompanied by sour cream and hummos, and a baklajanovaya ikra, a stewed aubergine dip with tomato, onion and garlic. It was the high point of the meal.

I hoped the beshbamak would contain horse, but due to the unavailablity of such exotic meats in Camberwell Green, we had to settle for beef, which arrived boiled to the point of tastelessness and floating with pasta in a nondescript broth. The lagman, a nicely spiced stab at spaghetti bolognaise, was much more interesting.

It's fair to assume that until six months ago the majority of Londoners knew nothing about Kyrgyzstan. Almost 100 deaths in demonstrations and riots opposing Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government have put the country on the map for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps, we wondered before our visit, we would unearth a brilliant cuisine that had the potential to make Kyrgyzstan famous for something other than violence. It's highly unlikely.

Pasha Kyrgyz Kazakh Restaurant on Urbanspoon