Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

Italian abroad

I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.

Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.

Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.

Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.

When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.

One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”

In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.

It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.

Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.

Check the toilet!

One of my cousins in France gave me a useful tip.

He said that clean toilet facilities are often associated with satisfying restaurants. What he meant was that if the restaurant’s management took care of small details such as the toilets, it was likely that they would take care over the more savoury aspects of the business such as the food and customer care.

Since I was given that tip, I have noticed that there is a remarkably high correlation between my degree of satisfaction with the restaurant and the state of their ‘loos’.

Mahatma Gandhi ate in Notting Hill

Today, 36 Ledbury Road (illustrated) in London’s trendy Notting Hill district (made famous by the 1999 film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) gives nothing away about its colourful past. It was once the home of the Indian Catering Company, a restaurant run by Nizam-ud-Din, who also owned the Eastern Café near Chancery Lane.

The Indian Catering Company, which was serving customers during the reign of Edward VII (1901-10) was not the first Indian restaurant to have been opened in London. The first curry house in London was opened by Sake Dean Mahomet (born in India in the 18th century). An employee of the East India Company, which he joined in 1769, he arrived in London in 1807. Two years later, he opened his Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street near Portman Square. Although it was called a ‘coffee house’, it was actually a restaurant serving curries and other examples of Indian cuisine. The restaurant thrived until 1833, when it was closed. There is much more information about this establishment in Star of India, a book by Jo Monroe.

By the time that the restaurant at 36 Ledbury Road was serving customers, the Indian Catering Company was one of many Indian restaurants in early twentieth century London. The reason for my interest in this former eatery is that it was a meeting place for extremist Indian independence fighters in Edwardian London. I discovered this while researching my recently published book IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS.

Although he cannot be considered an ‘extremist’, the famous Mahatma Gandhi partook of a meal at the Indian Catering Company in Ledbury Road in October 1909. Here is an excerpt from my book:

In October, the festival of Dussehra was celebrated at Nizam-ud-Din’s restaurant, The Indian Catering Company, at 36 Ledbury Road in Bayswater. Gandhi had been invited to chair the proceedings. He had accepted the invitation on condition that the food would be pure vegetarian and that discussion of controversial politics was avoided. The food was served by Savarkar’s followers: VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and TSS Rajan, all sometime members of India House.”

Whereas Gandhi both preached and practised non-violence, the same cannot be said of VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ( a ‘father’ of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva), who also attended the meal.

Although there is no plaque recording the interesting history of 36 Ledbury Road so near to Portobello Road, whenever I pass this house I feel a tingle when I remember the famous Indian freedom fighters who once entered it and ate there.

A SMALL house cover

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” is by Adam YAMEY

ISBN: 9780244203870

The book is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, and lulu.com

It may also be ordered from bookshops

There is an e-book edition on Kindle

 

No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

Chopsticks

 

My earliest recollection of eating Chinese food was in a restaurant called ‘Tung Hsing’ in Golders Green almost opposite the old Hippodrome Theatre. It opened in the 1960s and was one of the first restaurants in London to serve Pekinese food, rather than the then usual Cantonese cuisine. The restaurant was owned by a retired ambassador from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist China and his wife, whom I believe was responsible for the very excellent food served. 

Although I am sure they were available, I am not sure whether I used chopsticks when eating at the Tung Hsing. Maybe, I learned to use them there, but I really cannot remember. Whatever the case, I have been eating Chinese food with chopsticks for many decades. I would not say that I am 100 percent proficient with them, but I feel that using them to eat Chinese food satisfies me.

Chinese-style food is very popular in India. Most Indians eat in Chinese restaurants using western utensils such as plate, fork and spoon. If you ask for chopsticks, they are usually available, but they are not supplied as default table settings.

Some years ago, early this century, a new Chinese restaurant opened in Museum Road in Bangalore. We visited soon after its inauguration. It was a lovely restaurant and the food was good by Indian Chinese restaurant standards. As usual, we asked for bowls and chopsticks. The waiter disappeared for a while, and then returned empty-handed.

“There are no chopsticks,” he told us.

“Why not?” we asked.

“I will ask the manager.”

The Manager came over, and explained:

“We have been so busy since we opened, and many of the guests have taken them home as souvenirs. So, we have run out of them”

 

With a baby in Belgium

baby seat

 

Young parents sometimes ask my wife and I when it is safe to take their baby abroad for the first time. Why they ask us is a mystery. We are not experts on child care. Our experiences in this field are confined to our only child, our daughter.

We first took our daughter abroad when she was six weeks old. We went on a driving trip from London to Belgium and Holland. After about an hour driving through northern France, our daughter began crying plaintively and continuously. We stopped, removed her from the baby seat, fed her some milk, and that brought the complaints to an abrupt end. At that stop, both my wife and I had separately thought that  we were not too far from home to turn back and abandon our trip. Neither of us expressed this thought verbally when we stopped, but later we discovered that we had had the same idea.

Several hours later, we arrived at our destination, Damme, which is close to Brugge (Bruges). After settling in the hotel, we  found a restaurant nearby. It was Saturday night. The restaurant occupied a long room. There were tables on both sides of a corridor that ran the length of the room. Most of them were occupied by frumpy-looking, late middle-aged, middle class Belgian couples, none of whom seemed to be having fun.

Soon after we settled at our table, our daughter began crying. She was hungry and my wife wanted to breast-feed her. She asked the head waiter whether there ws somewhere secluded that she could breast-feed. The waiter pointed to a back room. When my wife stood up, the hitherto silent and rather glum Belgian diners became animated. They told us that they did not want the baby to leave them. From that moment onwards, all of the diners cheered up and became lively, firing us with questions and advice about our tiny daughter. It seemed that our arrival was the best thing that had happened to them for many a year.

A few months later, we took our child to India, and that was also a successful trip. So, if you are crazy enough to ask my advice (based on a sample of only one) about travelling with a baby, my answer would be “go for it.”

 

 

 

Picture from argos.co.uk

No coriander please

 

I love eating Chinese food. So, do many people in India, where this cuisine is served everywhere from simple, unsophisticated street stalls to dedicated, smart Chinese restaurants.

Indian Chinese food is prepared to suit Indian peoples’ tastes. To people used to eating Chinese food in London or elsewhere in the UK, the Chinese food in India may seem somewhat different, especially its taste. Although I much prefer eating Chinese food in London, where the restaurants serve food to many people of Chinese origin, I also enjoy eating Indian Chinese food, which is prepared mostly for Indian diners. On the whole, the Chinese food in India is less ‘authentic’ than that served in London, where there is a large population of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Once when we were visiting Mangalore on the coast of the Indian State of Karnataka, we entered a Chinese restaurant. Its main entrance was almost hidden in a dingy yard that would have made an excellent setting for a performance of West Side Story. This establishment was staffed mainly by a Chinese  family, rather than people with slanting eyes who had originated in the north eastern states of India. I was delighted to find steamed pork dumplings on the menu amongst the starters. I ordered these, and was told that I would have to wait atleast 45 minutes. I said that was alright, and we ate other dishes whilst we awaited the dumplings. 

When the dumplings arrived, we found them to be as delicious as the best we had eaten in London. They were made without making compromises to satisfy Indian tastebuds. The reason that they had taken so long to arrive was, I believe, that they had been made fresh, from scratch. Of all the Chinese food I have eaten in over 25 years of visiting India, these dumplings are the best Chinese food I have been served in the country. I have eaten other enjoyable Chinese meals in India, but none matched those dumplings in Mangalore.

There is one feature of Indian Chinese food that particularly displeases me: the over use of fresh coriander. I like this herb in some Gujarati vegetarian dishes and some Mexican food, but I do not think it enhances Chinese food. Almost every Chinese dish served in India is tainted with fresh coriander. 

I am fond of Hot and Sour Soup, both in London and in India. However, in India my enjoyment of it is marred by the obligatory addition of fresh coriander. Recently, a friend of mine in Bangalore made the very sensible suggestion that I should ask for this soup to be made without coriander added. So, the next time I ordered the soup I followed his advice. The waiter noted my request and the soup arrived without coriander. I tasted it. To my great surprise, the soup was tinged with a taste I associate with Polish food. The chef had replaced coriander with freshly chopped dill leaves!

Raw fish

raw

 

Japanese food was a relatively new addition to the Londoner’s diet in the early 1970s. It was then that I first tasted sashimi (i.e. raw fish).

Some friends including my future wife persuaded me, an impecunious PhD student, to join them at one of London’s few Japanese restaurants. This one was in St Christophers Passage that leads off Oxford Street. I ordered a serving of tuna sahimi. Four neatly cut cubes of tuna arrived in front of me. It was delicious. Fish had never tasted as good as this before. Cooking, however carefully done, removes something essential from the fresh taste of fish. The four exquisite cubes of fish soon disappeared. I did not order anymore because this tiny portion of sashimi  cost £7 Sterling, a huge amount in the early 1970s. The purchasing power of £7 in 1974 is roughly equivalent to the purchasing power of £66 today. Despite its enormous price, I became ‘hooked’ on sashimi

I must tell you that I left the Japanese restaurant with my hunger unassuaged. Without telling my friends, I sneaked off to a nearby … now, don’t frown disapprovingly … McDonalds outlet and filled up on junk food.

Fortunately, although not cheap, Japanese food, including sashimi, is relatively cheaper in London now than it was back in the 1970s,

A new skill

A progressive disease is one that keeps getting worse.

Waiters in restaurants used to confine themselves to serving food and drinks to customers.

With the advent of digital cameras and mobile telephones with built-in cameras, things have changed. Waiters need to become competent photographers, able to use any kind of image capturing device handed to them by customers seated around a table. Not only do these carriers of food need to be able to operate whatever camera is handed to them, but also they need to be good at composing photos, and many of them are.

When I first began practising dentistry back in 1982, dentists confined their activities in the surgery to dental matters. When I retired 35 years later, not only did we dentists still deal with dental matters but also with general lifestyle behavioural assessment and advice.

Like the waiters, our additional workload is rarely appreciated or adequately rewarded.

Is this progress?