No! Please keep reading! I am not going to write about cabbage for the second week running, I promise. Well, not entirely about cabbage. First I have to explain how I got here, as I know you’ll be curious.
It was via the Silk Road – sounds exotic doesn’t it? Giant pink skies and stretching horizons?
Not exactly, unless you visit this fine Chinese establishment on Camberwell Church Street one deserted summer’s evening. A combination of tube, train or bus will get you to this Silk Road – I can’t tell you exactly where we were, but I would happily take any means necessary to return, even if it does take almost as long to get to as the ancient Asian trade routes…The restaurant is mercifully difficult to get to, so still feels like a well-kept secret – how the regulars prefer it, I’m sure.
I have to come clean; this was to be an epiphany for me. Chinese food has not always been that high on my list of top eats. Now I realise that that was a bit like me saying that I don’t really like European food, the nation is so vast and the tastes so varied. This simple restaurant, run largely by a very happy family, turns out Xinjiang cuisine, from the west of the country, near, um, (I gave up Geography at GCSE so I’ll stop right there before I embarrass myself).
This food was completely new to me, hot, fragrant and not a glint of MSG in sight. Moreover – and a first in my not-so-illustrious Chinese eating career- the entire meal was enjoyed and not a single grain of rice passed our lips (the main carbs were in the form of flat homemade noodles, slipped into our Big Plate Chicken at the end). The dumplings we had to start, some filled with lamb and onion, others with pork and celery, were quite the best I have ever tasted anywhere. The flavours that slapped us were big and pure: lots of garlic, chillis and tomatoes. The fiery chillis almost beat me twice – the first time when my poor broth slurping technique caused red flecks of the hot stuff to hit the back of my throat at high speed, prompting much amusement and a timely glass of water from our hosts. (I blame enthusiasm, and over weaning pride preventing me from asking for a spoon. Due to my shortcomings with the chopsticks this I probably ate half the amount I had intended to. A good cutlery solution for Christmas feasting I reckon.)
The second heated moment came when I took the BSG at his word that his dried chilli hadn’t been hot, chomped one between my back molars and consequentially could do nothing – talk, eat, drink – for the next ten minutes. Unfortunately, for these near death-by-capsicum episodes there was no handy glass of milk around…perhaps I should bring my own bottle in future.
What we ate was plentiful and completely wonderful; shredded pork with black fungus, raw cucumber in a sauce (extraordinary), home-style cabbage with chillis, home-style aubergine, lamb skewers with cumin…and of course the Big Plate Chicken, a hot stew of chicken, chillis and potatoes, for which the aforementioned slurping technique is required, indeed encouraged. I could swear that my stomach stopped me in the street a couple of days later asking me to run straight back there. For all sorts of reasons, my taste buds will not forget the trip for a very long time. We wondered if there’d been a mistake when we were given the bill. For the 6 of us, with a couple of Tsing Tao beers each, it came to £12 each. This was the best and possibly the cheapest feast we have eaten this year, and I can’t wait to go back (after a bit of intensive chopstick practice).
49 Camberwell Church St
London, SE5 8TR
020 7703 4832