For a blog about life in lewisham it feel weird to be posting about the joys of Chinatown – but it’s a massive part of my life in London and so arguably it would be more weird not to. And thinking about my trip there last week to pick up some supplies, I thought about that area with new eyes (mixing my metaphors there like a CHAMP) and figured it was worth putting some thoughts down – kind of like pinning a butterfly except not so horrendously cruel. Obvs.
It started inauspiciously. Once upon a time there was a little restaurant that could – sister of Barshu (posh Sichaun), Baozi Inn opened in 2008 in Newport Court and promptly won the hearts of everyone who went with its spicy sichuan noodle soups and plump dumplings.
Best of all were the bao (steamed buns filled with various deliciousnesses) – raved about in 2008, runner up for Timeout’s best cheap eats, and now… you can’t even buy one! From the three options of a large pillowy steamed bun stuffed with juicy pork, chicken or egg and chives, the options are now restricted to buying three smaller pork buns only. Grr.
Still, I was happy to see that the famous dan dan noodles was still on the menu. Until…
There’s no nice way of putting this – this was a disappointing bowl of noodles – three desultory bits of cold bok choi stringily circulating the edges of a bowl which was only barely warm itself until I made sure the hot sauce on bottom got stirred in (hence the rather messy-looking pic). There were plusses -the la mian noodles were still delicious and bouncy, La Mian meaning hand-pulled. Delicious sauce and as I think you can see, a very generous helping of pork. But ultimately service felt a bit brisk, bordering on the rude – not the comedy rude of dear old Wong Kei, you understand – rather more “sit in the corner and tell me want you want and then eat it and then GET THE HELL OUT”. It showed in the food. I know I’m paying less than a tenner for my lunch, but showing me contempt over the fact is sort of a dick move, even in Central London.
Still, it is nice to see it there after 7 years, and it’s clearly doing a roaring trade which is good to see. Maybe the problem is that it rests on its laurels a bit now? I always think the best test of a place is going a couple of years after the thrill is gone and they’re just getting through the days. As for relationships, so for restaurants – maybe the best are those who go the distance keep things fresh and keep appreciating what they’ve got (*plays world’s tiniest violin*). But when things get this boring perhaps it is time for something new. Who knows?
Having said that, perhaps early doors on a saturday isn’t the best time to go, and ultimately it’s a better experience after a few beers at De Hems* with a pal who can share a plate of garlicky chilli-dressed dumplings with you, and a shredded carrot and seaweed salad, while swapping jokes about the miserable staff. Would I go back on my own for a quick stop at 12pm on a Saturday? Probs not.
Next up was a rather special place of pilgrimage – the New Loon Moon supermarket. This is a place I’ve been going since I was 6 years old – special trips up to london to get coriander, lemongrass, curry paste, proper rice, maggi noodles and ikan bilis, rounded off with a slap up 4pm early dinner at the Wong Kei so we could catch the evening train from Paddington. In the early nineties the likelihood of getting a decent asian meal in the heart of rural Somerset was somewhere on a par with finding diamonds in a dog turd, so these outings were a hotly anticipated treat for Momma and Poppa Lewishambles. Once there, we’d make a beeline for the New Loon Moon, where we little girls would squeal over packets of white rabbits and sour plums (assams) while Momma L cooed over the range of curry pastes and would try and get as many bottles of Linghams sos cili (it’s a Malaysian addiction) into her shopping bag as she could. Seriously, the day that those bad boys turned up in the Yeovil Tesco was an auspicious day. My mother phoned me at work to tell me. I put her on speaker because I thought it was important and my boss was all “what the hell is going on? Who is Mr Lingman and why is this woman yelling that he’s in her local Tesco?”.
Expanded out around 10 years ago to the building next door and consequently less stuffed, with an expanded selection of pastes, pickles and preserves and a rather good range of Korean and Japanese food, Loon Moon is still my favourite and the shop I still hold as the standard bearer in London. When I lived in Hackney there was a great little shop on Lower Clapton Road which sold live crab and brilliant fermented tofu, but it couldn’t match Loon Moon. And until I find a decent replacement in Lewisham I suspect I’ll have a few trips back before long. Still, it’s not the only place – it’s best to go to Loon Fung for meat and dried goods, but Loon Moon remains the daddy for veg, sauces and noodles (basically my day to day meals). See Woo remains a haven for asian baking – with jaggery, gula melaka, pandan extract and lye water available on its shelves alongside a really large selection of flours.
Saturday’s trip was more of a stopover-popover, grabbing some tofu and noodles and bits and pieces. But I lingered over some mysterious garlicky-smelling stems and thought “why the heckins not?” and popped them in my basket. This, I’m aware, is the kind of behaviour that gets mushroom pickers killed but I figured that they wouldn’t be completely disgusting – which, incidentally, was NOT the case with tripe. Avoid, people.
Stocked, locked, and ready to go, I wandered out of town, forgoing the chinese bakery for once. But my smugness at how restrained I was being didn’t last long.
Fortunately, the one thing that is still great about Baozi Inn these days is the little bao stand that’s opposite. No website, no reservations, no roof and erratic opening hours, but apparently called “Bao Bao”. Run most days by two charming ladies who smile and chat with you, most weekends it’s open pretty much all day until later in the evening making it a great stopping off point for soho drinkers and morons like me who are greedy so-and-sos.
On my way back to Charing Cross, still sad about the lack of bao in my day, I happily gave into temptation and stopped at the stall. Part of me hoped that the Baozi Inn crew were watching. I greedily wrapped up my pickled vegetable bao, but not before pinching a little hole in the soft sticky white exterior and popping in a dribble of the chinkiang vinegar helpfully stood on the side. Tearing open the packet on the deserted saturday afternoon train, I savoured the cabbage, mustard greens and carrot inside. Heavenly. Also highly recommended is the pork and pickled cabbage and the pork and kimchi (a chinese-korean mash-up which is sort of wrong but hey, if loving it is wrong I don’t want to be right).
Getting home, I identified my mysterious green objects as garlic scapes or stem garlic, and managed to wrangle them into a very nice lunch indeed for Flatmate the next day via the assistance of some hot tips from the esteemed Fuchsia Dunlop, unspellable high priestess of sichuan cooking in the UK. Seriously tasty shizz, people. It was almost too delicious and saving a portion for Lovely One damn near broke my heart.
Pork and Garlic Scape Stir Fry
(adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe for salt-fried pork belly and garlic stems in Every Grain of Rice). La Dunlop likes this dish with pork belly but I was feeling a bit like I’d had too much fatty food over christmas and fancied something a bit less rich. FYI – tenderloin is amazing instead.
1 bundle of garlic stems, washed, trimmed and cut into 4cm lengths
1 small pork tenderloin (about 300g), rinsed and dried, sliced thinly
1 tbsp sichuan chilli bean paste
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp shaoxing wine
2 tbsp oil
generous pinch of salt
white pepper, to taste
First, try a little slice of garlic stem. Powerful, right? The kind of pungent, oh-my-god garlickyness which makes you snort and think “oh HELL no this ain’t happening.” That’s important – because judging the cooking time on these is a matter of taste. Oh, and, if you’re thinking about going on a date later, forget it.
Heat your wok to screamingly hot and add the oil, then chuck in the thinly sliced pork after it, chasing round the pan with a good wooden implement. If you’re me, toss too enthusiastically, splash oil into your face and then swear. Fry until golden, adding in the salt halfway through cooking.
Once the pork is crisp around the corners (about 3 minutes if your pan is hot enough), push it to one side and add the bean paste and sugar. The sugar is ESSENTIAL – it helps the chilli bean paste (which is fermented) lose a little of its funk. Stir aside from the pork until it smells really good, then add the soy sauce and wine. This whole shebang should take around a minute, this is a quick dish.
Next, add your garlic stems, turn down the heat and stir and turn. They’ll go glossy from the chilli oil and start smelling amazing – around 2 – 3 minutes. They will stay quite crisp, but you’re looking for the moment when they suddenly start feeling a bit more tender. Then, when you bite one, it should have a sweet, tender garlickyness as opposed to the breath-shredder you tried earlier. Season with white pepper if you need.
Serve immediately – these babies don’t hang around. I served it with miso-grilled tofu and sweet-n-sour veg and I don’t mind braggin cos shit looked reeeeeal fine.
*if you haven’t gone to De Hems, what the HELL ARE YOU DOING STILL SAT THERE GET UP AND GO, GO RIGHT NOW IT’S AWESOME.