Category Archives: Supper Club

plusixfive. The traditional trio

By the time I entered London’s supper club scene plusixfive founder Goz was leaving the city to create havoc in Hong Kong. I couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a Londoner weeping in sorrow at the loss of one of their favourite supper club chefs. I met him once, for three minutes – to exchange £5 for a jar of outstanding “proper” sambal. He stopped bouncing only long enough for me to grab the bottle out of his hands. This mad, bouncing, love-the-real-stuff spirit is what underlines everything plusixfive stands for.

Goz started plusixfive in May 2011 (read: coerced at gunpoint by foodaholic and Edible Experiences founder WenLin Soh) when he realised that this was the perfect vehicle to showcase real Singaporean food. He said, “I got tired of fish and chips. I came to the UK when all we had was fish and chips; and Costa was amazing coffee; and Flat White was a description for a paint colour in Homebase. I missed Singaporean food so started learning how to cook it myself, taking recipes off the net and more importantly from my mum. It was ridiculous that all people seemed to know about Singapore was either (a) caning for graffiti (b) caning (and death) for drug smuggling (c) caning for littering in our clean city and (d) caning for chewing gum. Ridiculous to me because in Singapore, food is possibly the most important and central thing to Singaporeans.

IMG_1221A curious incident with a blog post in the night time brought ShuHan (a firecracker graphic designer and chef intent on staying seasonal) into his life; and Jason (eager to showcase his own Peranakan heritage cuisine) was one of the diners at Goz’s first supper club. So plusixfive grew from just Goz to Goz, ShuHan and Jason.

A few weeks ago, under the guise of celebrating some kind of an anniversary, plusixfive, assisted by Javier Leal and WenLin Soh took over the bun steamers at Yum Bun in Shoreditch. For the sweet price of £13 they were serving three buns – ox cheek redang, veg popiah and pork belly – and a beer. It was such a clever idea! They got bun-loving London to try 100% Singaporean fillings without compromising on flavour or tradition.

IMG_1238The pork belly is, or I should say used to be, my bun of choice at Yum Bun. I started with that. It was nice and all but I couldn’t wait to dive into the others. I was completely prepared to be uninspired by the veggie bun – what I fool I was! ShuHan expertly created a typical Nyonya Popiah filling (a Singaporean fresh egg pancake spring roll) with braised turnips, mushrooms and a fiery sweet lime chilli sauce. The “I-can’t-believe-it’s-veg Popiah Bun” was aptly named, juicy and so delicious.

The winneIMG_1220r, by a very small margin, was Jason’s “Ox Cheeky Rendang”. Jason is old school – he’s been known to pound 40 bowls of laksa paste by hand. He picked the rendang as it’s something that is traditionally Nyonya and was his Nan’s recipe. My favourite bun of the evening was a result of 16 hours of hard work over a hot stove. Hunks of meat melted into a rich rempah spice paste and coconut milk in true Peranakan tradition. The luscious result was sandwiched between crunchy cucumber, radish and peanuts in Yum Bun’s doughy pillows.

Goz, ShuHan and Jason have very different cooking styles and techniques but are joined in frustration against what London passes off for Singaporean cooking. I get that.

The longer I have lived away from India the less a “curry” takeaway will fulfil me the way 6 hours in the kitchen over butter chicken does. I know I harp on about the importance of tradition – but that is only so that I don’t help create a generation that cannot make themselves a hot meal, that believes chicken tikka masala came from India, and that Singapore noodles are served in Singapore. Innovation is all well and good, but not at the cost of tradition.

-p

Look out for the cookbook later this year: plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook (Or How to Subvert Singaporean Culinary Misconceptions, Avert Stir-Fry Calamities, Make Your Nyonya Grandmother Weep with Joy and Other Badass Kitchen Skills)


Read more about plusixfive X yum bun on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Bar food, Eat, Foodie Events, London, Shoreditch, Singaporean, Small Plates, Supper Club

Darjeeling Express. Food that makes my heart sing

My friends know that all I really want to do is run my own restaurant. I’d love to say it was something I’ve wanted since the day I ate my first butter naan, or the first time I was taken to a restaurant as a child. It wasn’t. And to be honest, I cannot recall the first time I decided that one day I will spend the rest of my days working 24/7, having swapped my enviable shoe collection for… ugh, flats.

I’ve put forward every excuse – no money, no location, no help, no time; except the real one: no inspiration. I could not bring myself to commit to my dream because I had not yet tasted food that I would be proud to serve. There was fear that I would never find the food that would make my heart sing.

That is, until I was fed by Asma Khan. We share a hometown (Hyderabad), a love for Bollywood, and an unconditional passion for authentic flavours. Asma too has a desire to turn this passion into a life of working 24/7, swapping her brocade kurtas for kitchen whites.

But she wasn’t always the fantastic cook she is today. It is safe to say that when Asma moved to the UK in 1991, as the good wife of a Cambridge scholar, she could not even boil an egg. She spent her first two years in the country eating salad and her husband’s chicken curry. In her own words “life was not worth living.” In 1993 Asma travelled back to India to spend time in her ancestral kitchens, and over the course of a few months mastered recipes that have been in her family for four generations. She came back to being a wife and mum and along the way got a PhD in Law. It wasn’t until April of 2012 that Asma decided to turn food into a career.  Somewhere in these last two decades, a skill learnt out of desperation turned into an obsession. Asma became Darjeeling Express and made her debut at London’s Supper Club Summit.

When Asma asked me if I would take charge of her Front of House I squealed a massive “YES!” Having tasted Asma’s glorious food on more than one occasion I was honoured to be part of a team that would bring such joy to 55 lucky guests; and thrilled that I got to play restaurant for a day. This is what we served:

HYDERABADI HALEEM
*
CHICKEN TENGRI KABAB
KEEMA KA SAMOSA
**
CALCUTTA CHAAT SELECTION
***
BENGALI FISH MALAI CURRY
ACHAAR CHICKEN
KASHMIRI LAMB
CHETTINAD PANEER
BAIGAN KA BHARTA
HYDERABADI MIRCHI KA SALAAN
****
SERVED WITH
PEAS PALLAU, LEMON RICE & ROGNI ROTI
CHUTNEY: TOMATO, APRICOT, PRUNES AND DATE
*****
GAJJAR KA HALWA
BHAPPA DOI
FRUIT CHAAT

Every dish on the menu comes with a story. For instance, the haleem recipe belongs to Ali Miyaan who used to cook for Hyderabad’s Nizam family. The samosas were learnt by Asma out of pure desperation. (Shocked at what passed off for a samosa in the UK she would not drink another cup of chai without a proper samosa.) And she learnt that the secret of proper chaat is in its tamarind chutney. Asma went back to her school in Calcutta and and bullied chaatwalla Subodh into teaching her the tricks to a perfect tamarind sauce (he still serves students mouthwatering puchkas!).

Waitressing isn’t exactly new to me. But serving a few dishes to a bunch of tables is nothing compared to what it took five of us to synchronise the service of 15 dishes to 55 people. Having been a diner at other supper clubs I knew that the manner of a guest at a supper club is different from when they visit restaurants. They are more patient to start with, which was a relief because none of us anticipated the trauma of plating up 55 portions of chaat and dessert in under ten minutes! They also had a lot more questions about the food as some of these dishes they had never seen at any one of London’s hundreds of Indian restaurants.

The tiny kitchen was a hive of activity for the four hours that the meal lasted. We saw every drama from breaking dishes and moody waitresses, to running out of clean spoons and a grumpy potwasher. And just as we thought we had everything under control, along came the “last minute vegetarians”. Thankfully, the spirit in the dining room was completely the opposite. Old school friends chose the supper club as a venue for their reunion, and new lovers celebrated a birthday. Happy diners didn’t seem to notice the gap between courses as they licked their plates clean, waiting patiently for more.

The super hit dish of the night was the Bengali fish malai curry. Traditionally, this dish is made with prawns and only at celebrations. Tonight was a celebration of sorts and the chef was allowed to take a few liberties!

At about 11pm I realised that I had not had a sip of water or a bite to eat since lunch that day; that my feet had blisters and I had cuts on both my hands from heavens knows what; that I had washed more dishes than I ever intend to for the rest of my life. At about 11pm, I also realised that I had not been this happy in years; and couldn’t wait to do it again!

I have eaten and served food that makes my heart sing. And just like that, my dream isn’t scary anymore.

-p

All the photographs are courtesy dashing supper club guest Christopher Goh.

Take yourself to Asma’s next supper club here.

Read more about Aug 23: Darjeeling Express on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Communal tables, Foodie Events, Indian, London, Supper Club

Being authentic. Sabrina’s Persian Kitchen

I lost my wallet on Wednesday. Then my travel card on Thursday; and my mobile phone on Saturday. What did this mean? My religious friends might say it is bad karma. The spiritual ones will suggest it is a test for positivity in the face of adversity. Or it could just mean that I was careless, and lost some stuff. My Indian upbringing and the comfort of allowing things to mean what suited my current purpose has led to a lot of storytelling.  I have become so good at this that even I can barely tell the difference between me and my story.

A side dish to this unappetising meal is also that I lost track of why I was doing the things I did. For instance, this blog. I wrote the very first blog post on a cocktail napkin while feeling very sorry for myself. To be honest, the first post didn’t really have a purpose. But with each meal I found strength and joy; and the purpose of my blog became self-discovery.

Two years on I am embarrassed and angry to realise that this blog is threatening to dilute into something else. That I am disappearing behind a new story. A story that started to care about blog stats, followers and number of hits. I became more interested in how many pictures I could take of a dish even as my food went cold… Somewhere in the last two years I began to get less authentic.

And then I lost my phone. I was on my way to a supper club and started to panic at the thought of not being able to update the world on the minutiae of my meal. What would I do?

I did what I used to do before I let the story take over. I enjoyed a meal without the pressure of out-Tweeting everyone else on the table. I gave the food the respect it deserved and after a long time, I gave into the food.

Supper Clubs can be hit or miss. Even when you know the food will be amazing you can be stuck on a table with a miserable bunch. Or you could find yourself amongst people who will feel like old friends. Like I did, when I dined at Sabrina’s Persian Kitchen. At £40 for ten dishes and a cocktail, Sabrina’s food cannot be matched for quality or value for money by any restaurant that I know. The meal was elaborate and these were the highlights for me:

  • Mirza Ghasemi – a smoked aubergine starter that gave birth to Indian baingan bharta.
  • Kotlet – beef and potato patties that took me back to when I used to swap shaami kababs from my friend Sharmeen Qadri’s lunchbox for chhole in mine.
  • Slow cooked lamb infused with rose petals, cumin, sumac and cinnamon – this dish inspired a moment’s silence on our table. A perfectly cooked lamb shoulder found its place as our centrepiece, and was just awesome.
  • Joojeh Kabab – saffron and lemon marinated poussin.
  • Morrassah Polow – rice with pistachios, almonds, barberries and orange peel. The Persians take rice to heights few others can reach. I wanted to kiss Sabrina’s hands after my first taste of this magnificent dish. I’ve had Brittania’s chicken berry pulao a hundred time over; but that isn’t a patch on the magic in my rice bowl.
  • Dessert was an almond, carrot, coconut and pistachio cake. I don’t usually like desserts so am definitely not the best person to comment on cake. However… it was served with a mesmerising rosewater cream. Light as air and soft as snow, I ate more cream than cake.

I’m forever saying “I love food”. That night, Sabrina’s heartfelt and generous cooking gave me a chance to actually try and figure out what that means.

-p

Read more about Persian Supper on Edible Experiences

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Filed under London, Persian, Supper Club