THE MARKET MAN

 

Toby Allen at Brockley Market

The transformative power of good food markets to touch lives – offering food producers a livelihood, connecting shoppers to great ingredients, creating a space in which food shopping involves social interaction and human contact, – is something which often strikes me. There is a wonderful buzz about a good market, filled with food one wants to buy, bustling with people, alive with conversation, chat and banter.
I first met Toby Allen in 2012 at Brockley Market, the food market he had recently set up himself while researching my book Food Lovers’ London. Toby’s motivation for setting  up Brockley Market in 2011 was out of “frustration” at not being able to source good ingredients near where he lived. Having spotted an empty car park at Lewisham Collage (now re-named LeSoCo), Toby, a photographer by profession, and a keen food shopper approached the authorities to see if he could set up a local food market. From the start, Toby’s genuine interest in food, and his nose for good food, was apparent in the mix of traders at Brockley Market. His enthusiasm and excitement about the food traders at Brockley is genuine and infectious and the quality the food on offer is impressive. Meat is sold by Jacob’s Ladder and The Butchery, fish comes from “amazing fisherman Veasey and Sons– they have their own fishing boat” and chickens from Fosse Meadow Farms. London-based food producers are a feature, such as Brockley-based Blackwoods Cheese and Greenwich Salmon. Those wanting food to eat as well as to cook are well catered for, with stalls such as Hix’s Fish Dogs, Mike + Ollie, The Cheeky Italian, Tongue ‘n’ Cheek. Impressively for this young market, Brockley Market was shortlisted as one of the three Best Food Markets in the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Awards, “the only market in England to be shortlisted,” Toby points out with justifiable pride.

Ruth of The Butchery Brockley Market

From the start, the market has attracted support from the community, with local residents coming even on dull, rainy Saturdays (as I can testify) to shop each week. The market is filled with a pleasant buzz of conversation and laughter, as customers, often trailing small children and dogs, make their way from stall to stall. “People are interested in produce now; they like to cook more and care where it comes from. People do like to engage with the producer, someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.” One of the satisfactions for Toby in setting up and running his own food market is the way in which he gets to work with and know food producers. “They’re a great crowd,” he says affectionately, “There’s a good atmosphere. Over the last two and half years, we’ve all become friends. I like people who are interesting and doing good stuff. We’re letting a young chef launch with a food business called The Roadery – he’s got a nose to tail ethos – very passionate about what he does. I think if people have got the right ethos then I should help them.”

The Roadery, Brockley Market

The Roadery food stall, Brockley Market

Excitingly, tomorrow sees Toby opening his second food market in London, a Sunday market in Wapping. “The traders asked me to have a second market!” he laughs. Finding a suitable space wasn’t simple though, it turns out. “I approached a few councils with a presentation – Hackney, Southwark and Tower Hamlets – and they were all very keen to have markets within their boroughs similar to Brockley but it was a question of finding a suitable space. I stumbled across Brussels Wharf by mistake while looking for another site and it just looked like a French market – it’s cobbled, it’s tree-lined, really beautiful, so I contacted the council. It was the parks team who own it, so that’s who I’ve been working with.”
When I talk to Toby, he’s at once excited and nervous about his second market venture. “It’s a cool location, we’re surrounded by water. We’re on the Thames Path, so we will have tourists wandering past. Right next to the Sailing Club – I’ve spoken to them and people could go and have a row or a sail – we’ve got to try and make it a destination, somehow. I thought of having a Thai Floating Market! We can do that at a later date.” Many of the stalls at Wapping will be the same as those at Brockley Market – “We’re Brockley on tour, I guess.” Among the treats Toby is lining up at the Wapping Market are gourmet doughnuts from Crosstown Doughnuts and London’s first raw milk seller, from a young girl who’s setting up her own goat dairy. These are creative times on the food scene and Toby is relishing being able to showcase interesting new producers, but, of course, markets need customers in order to survive and thrive. “Fingers crossed. We need the public to come and support it. You don’t know whether they will or not until you open.” Food lovers in Wapping are in for a treat.

http://www.brockleymarket.com/

http://wappingmarket.com/

Veasey fish stall at Brockley Market

Shoppers at Brockley Market

Shoppers at Brockley Market

ON THE SPECULAAS SPICE TRAIL

 

Steven Dotsch, founder of The Speculaas Spice Company

It is often said that, when it comes to food, you can find anything in London. This, of course, simply isn’t true. While some cuisines are very well-represented here, both by restaurants and food shops, others are far more elusive. Despite our long trading history with The Netherlands, for example, there is very little Dutch food to be found in London. So, when I came across Steven Dotsch and his brand-new London-based speculaas spice business, I was intrigued to learn more and went to visit him in Highgate.
Sitting in his kitchen, surrounded by the paraphanalia of his new business, from carved wooden speculaas biscuit moulds to packaging, Steven, at once courteous and wryly humorous and still retaining a discernible Dutch accent, told me his story. Amsterdam “born and bred”, Steven came over to Britain in the late 1980s, working in the world of finance, first in The City, then as a business angel and a fundraiser. This project, however, is very much a personal one.
Nostalgia, as I know myself, is a very powerful motivator in the world of food and a childhood memory has played a seminal part in Steven’s fascination with both speculaas biscuits and the spice mixture which flavours them. “When I was a small boy, we didn’t have school lunches in those days, so you brought your own sandwiches,” he reminisces. “In those days your mother made your buttered white bread and put speculaas biscuits between the slices to make a sandwich, wrapped it in paper and you took it to school. By the time it was lunch time – four times or so – the butter and speculaas had softened and become a spread.”
Speculaas, Steven explains, is the name given to both the spice mixture and the biscuits flavoured with it. “The Netherlands, like the Brits, were a colonial power, though we lost our empire slightly earlier.” Sri Lanka, home of true cinnamon, had been a Dutch colony, for example, while in what is now Indonesia the Dutch “ owned the spice trade, including nutmeg. These spices came to the Netherlands and the bakers there began to experiment and so you got the speculaas biscuit. Traditionally, these were eaten in the winter months, from November to March, but now they are eaten all year round.” The name speculaas derives from the Dutch word for ‘mirror’, thought to come, he says, from the fact that the biscuits, traditionally turned out from intricately carved wooden moulds, were the mirror image of the moulds. “In America,” observes Steven in passing, “because the Dutch owned New York or New Amsterdam as it was, that’s where the word ‘cookies’ comes from, cookies is an abbreviation of the Dutch word koekje.”
At the heart of Steven’s food business is a speculaas spice mixture, based on a family recipe. Traditionally, each baker would have had their own speculaas spice mixture and the one Steven is creating is made according to his grandmother’s recipe. There are nine spices in the mixture, though, of course, the recipe is secret. “It has a lot of cinnamon in it – true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, rather than cassia, which tastes better in my view.” Not only is the mixture a family recipe, the very font used for the label has a family ancestry. ”Van Dotsch – van means from in Dutch. This letter type, we own that because my parents had a materials shop and wholesale business in the Netherlands called Dotsch Materials, and that was the font they used. They closed it in 70s but they still had their old packing materials.” Originally, the name was in orange, but that was hard to see against the spice, so it is now written in “Delft Blue, another Dutch touch.”
Steven’s vision for spreading the word is to produce speculaas-flavoured products, including the famous biscuits, naturally, but also speculaas caramels and speculaas-infused popcorn (“that works very well,” he says with satisfaction) which will introduce people to the distinctive flavour of the speculaas spice mix. A website will showcase both sweet and savoury recipes, with Steven keen to encourage people to share their own speculaas-inspired creations. Steven has obviously been on a journey with this pet project, from sourcing quality spices to working on recipes. “This all has started becoming increasingly full-time,” he admits. “ I’m still happy to wake up and ask myself what are we going to make today?”

http://www.speculaasspice.co.uk/

Speculaas Spice Company spices

INDIAN MANGO BAN

Indian mangoes

The arrival of succulent Alphonso mangoes from India to the UK in April and May has become one of the seasonal treats I look forward to each year. At this time of year, Asian food shops from Tooting to Wembley are piled high with boxes of Alphonso mangoes, catering for the high demand for this most luscious of fruits. The news, therefore, that the EU is banning imports of mangoes from India from May 2014 (a decision which will apparently be reviewed by the end of 2015), came both as a surprise and a shock. The ban has been imposed for agricultural reasons, with the discovery of high level of fruit flies in Indian mangoes triggering it. The implications of the ban go far beyond whether or not I get to enjoy my favourite fruit; there will be major economic repercussions in both India and the UK.
Mr Ashok Chowdry, who in 1992 founded Fruity Fresh, importers, wholesalers and distributors of exotic fruit and vegetables, has seen the rise of Indian mango imports to the UK grow substantially. He first began importing Indian mangoes to the UK in 1978 and has witnessed a huge change in awareness of the fruit. “If you think about it when I was importing in 1978, people were not aware of a fruit called mango. They were called ‘queer gear’ not so long ago. But mangoes have come a long way; trade in them has grown to such a volume. They are now a major Indian and Pakistani fruit export.”
Because of its historic links and large Asian community, the UK is a major hub for India and Pakistan’s mango exporting trade. Indeed it has been estimated that in 2012-2013 the export value to India of fresh mango exports to the EU was USD6.8 million, with the UK accounting for over 91% of mango exports to the EU from India. Indian mangoes are enjoyed not just by the Asian community, he points out; “The amount of local people buying mangoes, enjoying them, relishing them is huge.”
The implications of the ban, declares Mr Chowdry, “are serious.” As he talks, I can hear the frustration in his voice. “It’s going to put a lot of people out of business. Airlines will go out of business. I myself import something like 20-30 tonnes of mangoes every week. when they fly from Bombay all the airlines are full of mangoes and there are plenty of flights. Growers in India will be ruined. The money they make is by exporting the mangoes, not by growing them for the local market. People prepare all year for this two and a half month business. All the import businesses like ourselves and the small shops we supply will be hit very hard.”
What Mr Chowdry is looking for rather than the abruptly imposed blanket ban is a constructive solution which addresses the fruit fly issue but allows the export mango trade to continue. He cites the example of Indian mango imports to the US, where, in response to American concerns over the fruit fly issue, the mangoes have to be treated with irradiation. “We already take steps for other countries like America and Australia. You know how strict Australian food laws are. What we want are extra procedures to be put in place, so that they become a requirement.” Other countries require vapour heat treatment of Indian mangoes before allowing them to be imported. The timing of the ban, with India’s politicians and civil servants caught up in the throes of a general election, is particularly unfortunate. Without the political will to work out a practical settlement, the ban looks likely to have serious economic consequences for businesses in both India and the UK. “This ban is going to ruin a lot of people,” says Mr Chowdry simply.
In response to the ban, Fruity Fresh have launched a petition to the British government to highlight the issue and its implications.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/63939

Fruity Fresh

DRUMMOND STREET UNDER THREAT

Owner Harish Bagauty in front of his Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street

Drummond Street, a sleepy side-street just by Euston station, has long had a special place in my affections. When I was little, my father, as a special treat, would bring the family here for a meal at the original Shah restaurant – he still reminisces fondly about The Shah’s onion bhajis. Later on, as a university student,  I came to Drummond Street to eat bargain-priced dosai at Diwana and to shop at Ambala to satisfy my craving for cardamom-fragrant burfi and freshly-cooked, spicy samosas.

The Indian Spice Shop on Drummond Street has long been another favourite food shop of mine, a place at which to stock up with Indian ingredients, from Bengali panch phoran spice mix to Alfonso mangoes.  Stepping inside this shop, the smell of asafoetida hits you, a smell so pungent and tangible that you feel you could almost slice the air and eat it. Living up to its name, this unpretentious shop has always impressed me with the range of spices it stocks. Neatly arranged on its shelves are packets of everything from ajwain seeds to smoked Spanish paprika. For decades Drummond Street and its Indian restaurants and food shops has remained unchanged.  It was with real shock, therefore, that I discovered that the Drummond Street community is under threat from the High Speed 2 railway project.

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Shelves of spices at the Indian Spice Shop

Quietly-spoken and courteous, Harish Bagauty, the Indian Spice Shop’s Goanese owner is very worried indeed about what the future holds for Drummond Street. “The thing is, we don’t know the exact plan yet,” he sighs. “It’s a worrying time. What we do know is they will put in a dead end, so we won’t have road access to Euston Station. We don’t know whether there’ll be pedestrian access.  A lot of customers come from the station, buy stuff and go out. If there’s no parking, we’ll have problems with the customers. It will be a nightmare and business will run down. ”

Harish is proud of the fact that his shop is a Drummond Street institution. “I worked here for the people before me and took over this shop 16 years ago. We are family basically. Me, my brother, my brother in law my sister in law – we all come here 9.30am-9pm.  People know if they come they get everything from vegetables to rice and spices, toiletries, groceries. We get all kinds of customers. People come in and say I’ve been coming here for 40 years. English people go to India, taste Indian food and they love it. Sometimes they ask me for spices even I don’t know! It’s amazing. We try new spices and new blends. We sell a lot of mangoes in season – very popular now. The English people love these mangoes, they wait for the whole year; when mango season come, I see them here every other day.”

As he talks, I can hear the anxiety in Harish’s voice, his sense of frustration. “It is hard to find out information. There were  meetings, but they have no answers for our questions. They say, they don’t know yet, so what’s the point of having meetings? A waste of time.” I can also hear Harish’s sadness at what’s being planned for his local community and his disbelief that a street which means so much to so many people should be destroyed. “There is a lot of opposition to HS2. Camden Council is opposing. People have lived here their whole life –  they’re now in their seventies, eighties, nineties – where are they going to move them? There won’t be the same community where they move them. Same for businesses. They say they’ll move them – it’s not going to work. Drummond St is known by everybody – if only me, then nobody is going to come. I heard that Diwana Bhel Puri and Patak, they were the beginning of this street. These restaurants are very famous – any time when you come, they’re always busy. We run an off-license because of them only –they don’t sell alcohol, so people buy their drink here and take it to them.”

“People are upset – all the flats are going. We’re the local shop, specialising in Indian food. In here, you get personal service, family atmosphere, we know them by name or by face. It’s a friendly atmosphere so people love to come here,  we give them the best service. When they say it’s going, we feel bad, what are we going to do? It takes such a long time to build up this business.”

The Indian Spice Shop, 115-119 Drummond Street,  NW1 2HL, 020 7916 1831

Save Drummond Street Facebook link

The Indian Spice Shop, Drummond Street

A DATE WITH DATES

Dates, Bateel, London

From a quick, passing glance at Bateel’s immaculate New Bond Street shop-cum-café, one might guess it was the branch of an upmarket chocolate shop. Stepping inside, however, one is greeted with Bateel’s speciality: dates. There, carefully displayed behind a glass counter are an assortment of date varieties, in a range of sizes, shapes and shades, from small, rounded dates to long, oval dates in colours ranging from caramel-brown to deep purple-black.  These are dates, Captain, but not as we know them . . .

Having come across Bateel while researching my book Food Lovers’ London, I wanted to learn more, so arranged to meet Alfred Hunter, Bateel’s London branch manager, who told me the story of Bateel. A family-run, Saudi company, the core of the business is the family’s date farms in central Saudi, an area traditionally noted for its dates. “This area has the right micro-climate. Very hot days and very cold nights and a lot of sweet water, not saline; most desert water is salty. It’s amazing, but a single date palm – even though it grows in the desert – uses about 120 litres of water; they grow in oases. We produce around 3,000 tonnes of dates a year. All the dates Bateel sell come from our own farms, so from the farm to the retail stores we control the production and processing.” This ability to quality-control along the chain is key to Bateel’s operations. Bateel work intensively with their date trees, fertilising them by hand to ensure maximum fertilisation, carefully tending the trees, minimising pest infestation, harvesting the dates in stages as they ripen and carefully storing them.

The date counter at Bateel, London

Founded in 1992, Bateel pioneered the concept of gourmet dates. “The family took a boutique store in a high-end area of Riyadh in Saudi, brought dates from their farms and arranged them in pyramids. Traditionally, dates were something you bought in the market in sacks. No one had thought of presenting them in this way, in the way that high-end chocolates in Europe are displayed. Also, these were high-quality dates, not like the average dates sold in markets. The idea is that you can visit the Middle East and take away a taste of the Middle East.” Dates, of course, play a huge part in Middle Eastern culture, traditionally a valuable source of tradition for desert-dwelling Bedouins. “In the Middle East they give boxes of dates, especially during religious festivals. During Ramadan you fast all day, you don’t want to eat rich food, the best thing to break your fast would be some dates and water. They have a slow-releasing sugar with loads of energy.”

Bateel grow over 20 varieties of dates and this range is very much part of what makes Bateel distinctive. Alfred talks me through and also, deliciously, gives me dates to sample, so that I can see for myself the range of flavours and textures on offer. Before we start talking varieties, however, there are three different stages of ripeness to learn about, which Alfred explains to me. The first stage is called balah; “When you see yellow dates at the start of the season in April or May, those are balah, very crunchy and quite tart. They taste like sugarcane.”Next comes rhutab:  “The dates then ripen on the tree and soften to this stage. At this point, they’re so moist, they’d rot within a few days of harvesting. The only way to preserve that soft freshness is to freeze them, so that’s what we do. You take them out of the freezer and they taste like they just came off the tree. Then, if you leave them on the tree, the sun dried them and the moisture goes and they become tamr. These in the counter are all tamr. Some varieties when they’re tamr become quite dry and hard, so people think they’re old dates, but they’re not, that’s the way that variety dries out.” The tamr dates on the counter are then graded according to size: PM premium medium, PL premium large, XPL extra premium large.

Rhutab dates served with traditional Qahwa coffee

Having discussed the stages of ripeness, Alfred takes me through the varieties. There is an overall difference in flavour depending on the variety’s colour, he explains. “The light-skinned dates all have a toffee caramel flavour to them. The temperature gets up to 55 degrees in the desert; the sun gets through the skin and melts the sugars and gives that caramel flavour. The dark-skinned dates don’t let so much sunlight into the fruit; they have a dark, molasses flavour.”

Alfred picks up a dry-looking, yellow-coloured date and taps it emphatically on the counter, where it sounds hard, like a nut. “Listen to how hard that is – this is the sokari hard – it dries up and gets harder and the longer you leave it the harder it gets. We have customers who only want the hard ones and make us pick out the hard ones. Try it – it has a honeycomb texture.” As I chew the dry, textured date, a lovely, rich sweetness is released, with a long finish. Next I try Kholas – a light-skinned date, golden-brown in colour, which has a fudgy flavour. Khidri, a dark-skinned variety, has a more muted flavour with dark sugar notes and a long finish. “When people say a date’s a date,”  Alfred pauses slightly and laughs – “they are not. I mean, there are three dates which are totally different from each other.”

Sokari dates

Agwa, a small, rounded, dark-skinned date, known as the ‘holy date’ as it was the favourite date of the Prophet Mohammed, is traditionally eaten during Ramadan and Eid. This is the only date variety Bateel sell which they don’t grow themselves, as it is grown in Madinah. It has a chewy texture and a muscatel raisin-like flavour. The Sagai date, brown-coloured but with a distinctive yellow tip, intriguingly combines two textures – hard and soft –   in one date and has a delicate, honey sweetness. Barhi, a small, golden-brown ball-shaped date, has a sticky, figginess to it, with an intensely sweet finish. I also sample Madjool or Medjool, the one date which is marketed as a named premium variety in the UK. Large and plump, it is notably soft-textured and the sweetness is simple, lacking the long finish the other date varieties had.

Alfred’s pride in the dates he sells is evident. I ask how he came to work for Bateel and it turns out that he was a former customer in Dubai who became fascinated by dates; “I went into Bateel there and discovered rhutab sokari,” he explains simply. Widely known in the Middle East and operating in 16 countries, Bateel is very much a global brand. The New Bond Street site is the first Bateel store in the UK. Given our lack of knowledge of dates in Britain, you must do a lot of explaining, I observe. “Yeah, we have to – people are not used to dates here. People here have only ever seen Medjool, so they don’t know how many varieties there are. We’re getting there though.”  A lot of Bateel’s business is repeat business, he tells me, once people have tried the dates and discovered what they’re like. “I’ve yet to have anybody tell me they don’t enjoy dates, after they’ve tried ours,” he says with satisfaction.

Bateel, London

Bateel, 76 New Bond Street, W1S 1RX, 020 7493 3199, www.bateel.co.uk

All Hail the Roti King!

The Roti King making a roti canai

I often feel that my deep-seated fascination with food, the way in which I relish it so much, comes from my Singaporean genes. My mother is Singaporean – from a Portuguese Eurasian family – and, as a young child, I spent four happy years living in Singapore. This vividly-remembered period of my life has left me very nostalgic for the dishes I remember eating as a child. As a treat, my mother would take me to night markets to visit the hawker stalls where I could choose from wonderfully tasty dishes to eat such as char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles) or crispy goring pisang (fried bananas), freshly cooked before my eyes.

Forever on a hopeful quest to find decent Malaysian food in London, the other day I ventured into Asian Twist Delicious – a small, cheery, new Malaysian café I’d spotted tucked away among an unprepossessing stretch of shops and restaurants on Charing Cross Road. I ordered roti canai (a traditional Indian Malay flatbread) and waited for it to emerge from the kitchen . Mass-manufactured, ready-made, frozen roti – fried in minutes – are the norm in restaurants in the UK. Instead, to my surprise and delight, a tall, Indian man walked over to a small counter in a corner of the restaurant by the window, picked up a piece of dough, patted it out, then deftly and skilfully, flicked it out, stretching it into a large, flat circle of thin dough which he fried on a griddle and – a minute later – I was served with two rotis together with a tasty dipping sauce of chicken curry.  Watching him make the roti and then eating the roti – tearing pieces of the gloriously light stretchy flatbread and dipping it into the spicy curry sauce –  transported me back at the hawker stalls of my Singaporean childhood.

The Roti King flicking out the roti

“I’ve been in London ten years,” Sugendran, the ‘Roti King’ told me. “My family are from Ipoh in Malaysia; that’s how I learned all this trade. I learned how to make roti for fun when I was 14; now it’s my speciality. I call myself the ‘Roti King’.” As we talk at his work counter the waitress brings a steady string of orders for assorted roti, which Sugendran calmly and efficiently makes freshly each time – with the sound of the patting out of the dough punctuating our conversation. “The roti came to Malaysia from South India,” he explains. “It’s called a paratha. In Malaysia they improve it, they make it lighter.”

Sugendran had worked at the food court for Oriental City, the much-missed Colindale-based restaurant and food shop complex, closed down by developers in 2008. “That was a lovely place,” he says wistfully. He is very happy, however, to have a new showcase for his culinary skills. “If you go to London anywhere, you don’t get fresh rotis. This is authentic. It’s particular dough. I use two types of flour: one is Chinese which is soft, one is local flour. It’s a very soft dough. The whole thing comes from how you make it thinner and the way you flip it, that’s the secret.  It takes time to learn.” As I watch him effortlessly flick out the dough so that it stretches and stretches out and becomes so large and fine that it resembles a piece of material rather than a piece of dough, I can totally believe that.

Roti dough

The Roti King patting out the roti dough

The Roti King expertly shaping the roti

Not only are his rotis here the real thing, so, too, are the traditional accompanying sauces. “All my mother’s recipes,” says Sugendran, gesturing to the sauces. “For the fish curry sauce – I mix the fish curry sauce and the dhal – sambhar – together – it’s very authentic,” he says proudly. “If you go to any Mamak shop in Malaysia (in Malaysia, Indian Muslim shops are called Mamak shops), that’s where you get roti canai – you get this sauce. We do all the roti you can get in Malaysia and murtabak too.”

As well as catering for nostalgic ex-pat Malaysians and Singaporeans, Sugendran has adapted his menu to his London audience, offering fillings aimed at a British audience. “I do cheese and onion, cheese and spinach for the locals. They like it. I want to sell to the locals, because some of them they don’t want to try. When they see cheese, they want to try. Curry they don’t want. “ Just as a crepe stall offers both savoury and sweet crepes, so he also offers roti in assorted sweet versions. “I make a roti very crispy, a lot of butter and sugar, lay it on top, make it like a cone, put a bit of chocolate on top .”

The menu at Asian Twist Delicious

“I go back to Malaysia every year,” he tells me. “ I have to go to recharge my batteries and I eat out there, that’s my job!” he says, laughing. “I just eat all the time, eat the food, see if there is anything different. In Malaysia cheese is very expensive, so you couldn’t use it. This is street food  – you can’t have an expensive roti canai.”

Here at the newly opened Asian Twist Delicious, Sugendran is working in partnership with the restaurateur from Kopi Tiam. “ He does the drinks and other Chinese dishes and I myself do the roti; we each bring some custom in. There are lots of choices on the menu. We can’t afford to have a food court,” he laughs, “but this is what we’ve done. Eighty or ninety per cent of our customers are all Malaysian and ten per cent are locals who know Malaysian food. Some of the tourists when they pass by and see the Malaysian flags and look in the window and see me work, they say wow roti canai, we didn’t know we could get this in London.” And with that, the Roti King returns to his work, bringing an authentic taste of Malaysia to the heart of London’s West End.

Roti with Fish Curry Sauce

Since writing this post, The Roti King has moved to set up his own place,  Roti King, 40 Doric Way, London NW1 1LH, hidden in a basement on a side-street near Euston Station. Well worth the hunting out. Read Guardian restaurant reviewer Marina O’Loughlin on The Roti King here: http://bit.ly/1hzrNwr

The Roti King at Asian Twist Delicious

An American Food Store in London

 

Ali and Tahira Punjani of the American Food Store

It was the sign that first caught my eye. I was updating my food shopping guide  Food Lovers’ London, out visiting food shops in Holland Park. Walking up towards  Notting Hill, I spotted the red, white and blue sign declaring ‘American Food Store’ in large letters above what looked like a newsagents. I crossed the road and peered in – there – past the magazines and newspapers – were shelves lined with gaudily colourful cans and packets  so I went in to investigate.Sure enough, there was an array of American foodstuffs, from boxes of Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix and cans of the iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup made famous by Andy Warhol to fluorescent-coloured packets of Wonka Nerds and Bazooka bubble gum. The shop’s friendly, helpful owner, Ali Punjani, explained that this had been a newsagent and a post office, but was now indeed an American food store – known for both the range it carries and its competitive pricing.  Intrigued by what he’d told me, I returned to learn more of Ali’s story and how he’d come to set up his American food shop.

American Food Store, 2 Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park, London W11 3BG

“My family is from Kenya. My grandparents were traders from India who followed the British Army and settled there. We came over here when I was five. We’ve had this shop since 1972 – a little post office and a newsagents. I grew up in the shop,” explains Ali smiling “so everyone locally knows me.” When his father sadly passed away from a heart attack, Ali took over the family business, working with his mother.  “It was very high pressure running a post office; a lot of responsibility. All the pubs and coffee shops used to bank with us, so we had money to count, re-count, bag up – and always the security risk, always that fear. The nice thing though was the contact with the regular customers; people I grew up with. When I was a kid it was fun because I had access to sweets!”

“About four and a half years ago, the post office shut down. It was cutbacks and an enforced closure. It was not a good period of my life. We were very upset; we cried for a couple of days,” Ali tells me, “because it was a way of life. Without the post office the shop wouldn’t survive; it didn’t have the footfall. The locals were really supportive and our customers came up with suggestions of what to do; crazy things like haberdashery or health food,” he laughs. “An American woman called Jill Ruddock said I should have American foods and do it properly, have a whole range rather than just a few items. It was  a risk because we had to make a big investment and we didn’t know if it would go or not. I bought half a container load to start with. When we got the stuff, we didn’t know what it was or how to arrange it . Grapenuts – no grapes, no nuts! Cream of wheat; what is that?! Jill Ruddock came in and helped me arrange the ingredients; I couldn’t believe that she took the time to come and help me.”

Word spread among the ex-pat American community that this small shop was now carrying an extensive range of American ingredients. “I’m very grateful to that film Notting Hill because whenever Americans get posted to London and asked where they want to live they say Notting Hill! There’s a big American community here. They like the range of what I sell – other shops will have the bestsellers and the fast-sellers but I have the biggest range and our prices are competitive too – very,” he says emphatically. Such has been the demand that in addition to the shop, Ali now runs a flourishing American food mail order website. “Now we import full containers of foods from America every five or six weeks.”

Ali proudly talks me through his stock of American foodstuffs. “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese – a lot of my banker customers go crazy for it. It’s because when they were at college, they ate it all the time and they’re nostalgic for it. At Thanksgiving, it’s things like cans of pumpkin, readymade pie crusts and marshmallows. Borden Eggnog – this is a must for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He gestures towards the packets of Jell-o “apparently it’s got a different texture from our English jelly. This Berry Blue is a bestseller because you can’t get blue jelly – they do red, white and blue jellies. We sold lots during the U.S. elections; they had parties waiting for the results. We’ve sold out of grits  – people have grown up on it and they can’t get enough of it.“

Red Velvet cake mix, American Food Store

Chatty and sociable, Ali obviously enjoys the social side to running a food business. “This stuff brings in a younger crowd and there’s lots to talk about. I learn something new every day. They educate me and tell me about the things we should get in. We had Brad Pitt and Angelina in here,” Ali tells me proudly. “A massive Mercedes Maybach with a chauffeur drew up outside and two people came in. She was really beautiful and I was trying to work out who she was and then I looked up and saw him and I said ‘Brad Pitt’ and he said ‘yes’ and I said  ‘I don’t have my camera with me’ and he said ‘lucky me!’”

At the moment, the shop continues to function as both a newsagent – complete with newspapers, magazines and a photocopier –  and an American food shop. Plans are afoot, however, to make it look more obviously an American food shop. “It’s the biggest part of the business. We’ve got a new sign coming. Do you know the designer Paul Smith? He helped me! He’s my customer and I asked him for advice and he drew a little sketch and said make the sign all black with just your name on it. It’ll be up soon. The shop is changing; the shelf space dedicated to American foodstuffs is getting bigger and bigger.” Having made that first speculative investment in a half-containerload of American ingredients, Ali is relishing watching his new business flourish. “My gamble paid off,” he says. “Now it’s like the whole world has opened up, so I’m really grateful for the post office closing!

American Food Store

www.usafoodstore.co.uk

American confectionary, American Food Store

SALT BEEF AND SOCIABILITY: Gaby’s Deli, Charing Cross Road, London

For as long as I can remember, Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road has been part of my London cityscape.  Just down from the Wyndham Theatre, it is a familiar West End presence – a modest façade with Gaby’s trademark colourful salads proudly displayed in the window. Now this modest, down-to-earth eaterie is under threat, with Gaby Elyahou of Gaby’s given notice to quit by his landlords, Gascoyne Holdings.

Gaby's, Charing Cross Road, London

Gaby outside his iconic West End deli

“I’ve been here since 1964,” explains Gaby, a sprightly, dapper figure, with a shrewd face and wonderfully alert eyes. “It was a salt beef bar before I took it over. I added more dishes, bought an espresso machine, started to concentrate on the salads – we do 37, all home-made. The people who eat here, they know about salt beef. It’s a meal. You can see how much meat we put in the sandwich. I think it’s the best sandwich in the world. I mean it. What other sandwich can you have so much meat in?”

As we chat, Gaby insists on ordering me a plate of his falafel to sample. It arrives promptly – a generous serving of crisp, freshly-fried falafel on a bed of humous, topped with foul medames, then tahini, sprinkled with parsley, with two warm pitta bread on the side. Truly tasty food. Watching Gaby in action, teasing the old ladies sitting to our left, calling out a friendly greeting to a customer walking by, noticing that a customer needs sugar for his coffee, I realise, however,  it’s not simply the good, fresh food and the reasonable prices which bring people back here time and time again. This is a place with a human face to it. Gaby is one of a fast-vanishing breed of proper, old school proprietors – alert, democratic, experienced, proud of his business, relishing the face-to-face contact with all his customers, gloriously nosy and interested in everyone who comes in. As a result, in a world where clonetown franchises dominate, Gaby’s has that rare quality – personality.

Falafel at Gaby's

“There are too many chains around here now,” says Gaby thoughtfully. “We serve home-made soup, really filling, moussaka, meatballs, goulash. We have a special every day,” he gestures towards the board. “Tell me – in the West End, where else can you sit and eat a meal for £6 or £7?  I don’t have tablecloths or a waiter with a white starched short, but all the food is freshly made. We get in at 8am – we have to prepare the food.  It’s a lot of work. Eating a sandwich – that’s boring! There are too many sandwich shops. We get a lot of theatre people, always have done, always actors. They want something light before the show, so they have a salad.”

“People come back here. We have customers returning from America, Scandinavia, South Africa, from Timbuktu – they come from all over the world. I just had a customer tell me that his grandparents from South Africa always come here when they’re in London, so they told him to come.”

The announcement that Gaby’s was being closed down has seen an extraordinary response from his customers, with their campaign to Save Gaby’s launched on Facebook quickly attracting thousands of supporters. A series of Falafel Cabarets have been launched, with Gaby’s thespian customers, such as the actors Henry Goodman and Simon Callow, generously performing to help spread the word.

Among the Save Gaby’s team is Steve Engelhard, who explains why he joined the campaign. “I’ve known Gaby’s for many years. I think it was my big brother who first alerted me to it. We’re a family with Jewish origins – so salt beef, falafel, salads  are comfort food as far as I’m concerned. Gaby’s is affordable, it’s unpretentious, the quality is high and it’s very individual – there’s none of the blandness which goes with chains. When I heard that Gaby’s was threatened, I thought I’ve seen too many of my favourite places closing. I’m not a campaigner by habit. It pleases me no end that there’s such a community of people willing to make a stand about this. I think it’s a sense of maintaining a personal landscape, a personal identification with something that contributes to the quality of life and to the soul of London. Without individual places like Gaby’s the West End could easily be as bland as any standard high street.”

The affection in which Gaby’s is held is almost palpable. Gaby’s customers, when they realise that I’m writing about the Save Gaby’s campaign, are eager to tell me what Gaby’s means to them. A middle-aged man, who’s been sitting together with his wife and young daughter eating a meal at a table next to me, stops unprompted to talk to me. “I first came here in my early 20s, so have been coming here for 25 years now. It would be a terrible shame if it went. It’s a disgrace that Westminster Council didn’t protect it. Walk to Leicester Square – all you see are crappy pizza and pasta restaurants. They should be protecting this – tourists want London proper, not chain London. This is an iconic, one-off restaurant.” An elegantly-dressed, elderly gentleman pauses shyly on his way out to tell me “I’ve been coming here for decades. It’s desperately sad. So much of London is under threat. It seems wrong that someone who’s been here for so long can be kicked out when so many people care about it.”

Gaby himself is touched by the campaign, wryly amused at the fuss his customers are stirring up. “It was all from the customers. People came and said “We’re not going to let you go.” Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston, actors – they all come here to show support. The newspapers, TV they’ve all come here. I know a lot of people. Fifty years here, it’s not three months. I hope they don’t spoil the West End, but I think they will.” He pauses and shrugs expressively. A neatly printed notice sellotaped to the counter behind him reads: ‘Thank you to our customers who set up and signed up to Save Gabys Deli on Facebook. We are very touched by all your support. The management and team at Gaby’s.’

“The only hope,” explains Steve Engelhard from the Save Gaby’s campaign, “ is to change the mind of Gascoyne Holdings and its directors,  notably Lord Salisbury – because everything else has been tried. Westminster have granted the planning consent. The only remaining hope is to change the minds of the owners. We’ve had huge press coverage. The question is do these people want to minimise the bad publicity they’re getting? Do they want to be clever and get good publicity for doing the right thing in the end and saving a well-loved institution?” If affection and loyalty alone were enough to save Gaby’s deli, then its future would absolutely be assured.

Thankfully, spring 2012 saw Gaby’s granted a temporary reprieve, with his lease extended until May 2013. The Save Gabys campaign remains vigilant, ready to spring back into vociferous action should the threat to close their beloved Gaby’s return.

http://www.facebook.com/save.gabys.deli

Twitter: @SaveGabys

Gaby's