Edgware. Those who know London will not be moved to thoughts of big white plates glistening with chef-ish morsels when they read that word. They’ll think about the the Edgware Road in NW9 as it passes through Barnet and its artery-clogging choice of dodgy kebab shops and the now, sadly, rebranded Munchy Burger, whose logo used to be an anthropomorphic burger with sinister, rolling olive eyes and a lolling tongue made of cheese.
First impressions can be deceptive – Edgware is not all threatening burgers and ancient doner kebab. Hidden about 300m from Colindale tube station, behind a branch of Asda, two car parks and a Mercedes showroom, is a giant Malaysian mall which appears to have been transported wholesale, Star Trek style, from somewhere in deepest Kuala Lumpur. There are shops selling manga toilet paper holders, a place where you can buy an antique Chinese kang to sleep on and a porcelain monkey with LEDs in its nostrils, bonsai shops, a harshly-lit shop selling mysterious pieces of plastic with Japanese lettering, a live lobster emporium . . . and a proper Malaysian hawker centre, or food court, where you can pretend you’re on holiday for the afternoon and eat accordingly.
You enter the scrimmage of tables, hang around until you can find the seats you want, and then order as many or as few dishes you like from any of the twenty-odd Malaysian, Tamil, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese stalls clustered around them. On ordering and paying, you will be given a ticket with a number on. When your number flashes, your meal is ready. We went with plenty of change in our pockets and a large appetite.
Today we decided to concentrate on Vietnamese food from a stall on the mall side of the food court, along with some Chinese favourites from the roast meats stall pictured at the top of this post. This is a good place to take children. It is important that they realise that the the undifferentiated chunk of brown stuff on their plate was at one point a duck with a hook in its neck.
About £10 a head is enough to eat yourself silly here. I got some cha gio – the Vietnamese crispy spring roll, sometimes called nems. These are, to my taste, pretty superior to the Chinese variety. Their skins are made from a kind of rice paper, and their fillings include the glass noodles I cooked with the other day, with crabmeat, pork, carrot, different mushrooms, beansprouts, shallots and nam pla, that salty, fermented fish sauce which is used in much of South East Asia instead of soy. It is savoury and salty, and not fishy. I bought some of the rice paper skins in a Vietnamese supermarket in Paris a while ago – these are time-consuming but not difficult to make at home. (Another thing to add to the list for future posts.)
The cha gio are fried in a wok until crisp, and served with lettuce and mint leaves. (The mint in the picture above is Thai mint, a tender and sweet leaf which doesn’t grow very readily here in freezing England. When making these at home, I use whatever mint comes to hand from the garden.) A lettuce leaf and some mint are wrapped around the crisp little rolls, the whole ensemble is dipped into nuoc cham, a sauce made from nam pla, sugar, chili and lime. The rice paper wrappers, once fried, are crisp and chewy all at once, and the taste reminds me to ask Mr Weasel to bury me with a bottle of nam pla in order that I’m completely happy in heaven.
I needed something else to dip into this stuff – Banh Xeo, a kind of rice-flour and egg cross between an omelette and a pancake, flavoured with turmeric and filled with crisp beansprouts, prawns and marinaded pork. This too is served with lettuce and herbs to wrap and dip. The plate-sized disc (whose name, charmingly, means ‘happy pancake’) is fried in a hot wok until crisp, and folded gently around the filling. This one wasn’t the best I’ve had from this stall (the best was sublime, and I’m going to keep trying until they do it again); this pancake was a little wet and more oily than usual. Perhaps the wok wasn’t hot enough. It was still pretty darn good, and now nestles somewhere just to the left of my liver.
Mr Weasel opted for Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef), a lean, fried, steak dish served with a sweet, soy-based, garlicky sauce. This is served on a bed of Vietnamese salad which is made from mooli and carrot, in a mild, sweetened, rice vinegar, and Chinese leaves. We’re always amazed at the quality of the meat here – this dish was made with a gloriously tender piece of fillet steak.
Tomorrow, I’m flying to Delhi for a family wedding, which promises to be larded with squishy, sweet Indian things. If the hotel’s promised broadband turns out to work, I’ll be updating on the hoof. I am equipped with a suitcase full of medication for every conceivable stomach upset – I hope I don’t need any of it.