A hidden gem filled with London’s best noodles…

Confession time – I never know where to go in London for good Chinese food. I can give you some awesome Italian suggestions and I can list half a dozen places where you can fill your face with tacos in a way that is unladylike yet thoroughly understandable but decent Chinese food has always eluded me.

Until now.

Until my gorgeous friend L took pity on my persistent pleas for help and spirited me away to a place where the noodles are hand pulled, the booze is BYO (hands up if you’re in already) and the vibe is decidedly understated. That’s right kids, it’s all about Holloway Road right now, specifically Xi’an Impression opposite the Emirates Stadium.

Bringing the flavours of Shan Xi Province, home to Xi’an City and incidentally-and-completely-unrelated-to-food-but-a-nice-piece-of-pub-quiz-trivia the Terracotta Warriors, to North London, this place is a total hole in the wall that, unless you have a friend like L in your life, you’d probably never stop at and I mean that as the highest compliment.

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Unassuming and low-key in the extreme, staff are friendly and totally chilled about sharing their tips from the menu and although the table turnover around us was pretty high on our recent visit, we were never once rushed or made to feel as though we needed to make way for a second wave of people looking to get their noodle fix.

Ease your way into dinner with a couple of picks from the street food segment of the menu; the Xi’an Cold Noodles and the Xi’an Beefburger should both be confident and definite orders. Light, fresh & soft, the noodles come soaked in a deeply savoury chilli-tomato oil and pair nicely with crisp cucumber matchsticks.

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Rocking up in what is undoubtedly the love child of a crispy, toasted bun and a soft, squidgy-middled bao, the steak inside the beefburger is hot, spicy and quite literally mouth watering. We had one to share; frankly, I could easily have polished off three on my own.

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Now you’ve gently stretched out your stomach, it’s time to get down with whole reason for being there. No, I don’t actually mean the BYO wine that you arrived clutching in your un-named corner shop carrier bag. Actually, to be fair, we didn’t even class it up that much. One bottle into one handbag. Done. But I digress…you should have been lubricating yourself with grape juice or happy hoppy liquor for a while by this point. The reason for you being there is the beautifully supple & silky noodles.

Portions are ample for sharing and the biangbiang arrive piled high in satiny stacks on a plate slick with chilli sauce. Be prepared for the fact you’ll end up wiping spatters of deeply fragrant, spicy oil off the face of the lovely people you’re dining with – probably not ideal for a first date kind of situation but taking someone here would totally guarantee you a second one.

If you’ve ever shared my concern that the search for spectacular noodles would require you to trawl through Chinatown like a selfie-stick-toting tourist lost in their A-Z, fear no more. Take an adventure on the Northern Line and lose yourself in an unexpected noodle wonderland.

Glorious Assam Laksa to bring Asia to your kitchen…

I have always thought Asian food to be especially delicious yet forever imagined it to be ridiculously difficult to make in the peace and comfort of your own kitchen. A particularly rubbish summer cold paired with a recent leafing through ‘Vegan Street Food’ from former Masterchef finalist Jackie Kearney has drastically confirmed that while the first of those two thoughts is seriously true, the second couldn’t be further from the truth.

A traditionally sour soup based around fish sauce, chillies and tamarind and heralding from the Malaysian island of Penang, laksa is unquestionably a perfect dish if you’re feeling under the weather or simply looking for something beautifully fresh & fragrant to scent your home and delight your stomach with; it won’t blow your head off but it will definitely clear out the cobwebs and leave you feeling clean and utterly satisfied.

This version (which can easily be made vegan with a couple of tweaks) has a long ingredient list but don’t let that put you off; this is not the kind of soup you make once and then forever find half empty jars languishing in the back of your fridge for months after. If you cannot find some of the ingredients, don’t panic; my version was made without Kearney’s original inclusions of lotus root and laksa leaves and it was still incredibly aromatic & packed full of flavours.

Make it once; make it forever.

Assam Laksa aka Penang Hot & Sour Noodle Soup

INGREDIENTS (serves 4-6 depending on how hungry greedy you are)

Soup:

  • 6 red chillies, stems removed
  • 2 small red onions, unpeeled & quartered
  • 2 lemongrass stalks
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • vegetable oil (if needed)
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 3 tbsp vegan fish sauce or light soy sauce with optional pinch of seaweed flakes
  • 2 tbsp tamarind pulp or 2 tsp tamarind paste
  • 1-2 tsp salt, to taste
  • 1-2 tbsp soft brown sugar or rice syrup, to taste
  • 375g fresh udon noodles or dried egg free yellow noodles if going vegan

Fresh toppings:

  • 1/2 cucumber, halved length-ways
  • 1 fresh lotus root, peeled
  • 1/2 pineapple (canned in juice is fine if no fresh is available)
  • handful of Vietnamese mint leaves or a mix of mint and basil leaves
  • handful of laksa leaves
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 birds eye chilli, finely chopped (substitute with ordinary red chilli if preferred)

METHOD

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  • Preheat the oven to 210c/410f/gas mark 6.
  • Place the red chillies and onions on a baking tray and roast for 10-15 minutes until they start to blacken at the edges then remove from oven, cool and peel the onions.

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  • Put the lemongrass into a food processor and add the paprika, roasted chillies and peeled onions.
  • Blend to a paste and add a little vegetable oil if needed; don’t worry if some of the red onion pieces remain visible in the paste – the end soup will still be delicious.

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  • Spoon the paste into a wok or a large pan and cook for 2 minutes over a high heat.

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  • Add the stock, 1 litre of warm water, the vegan fish or light soy sauce and the tamarind to the pan then bring it to the boil and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
  • Taste and add salt, soft brown sugar or rice syrup to taste; personally I didn’t add any salt but a couple of teaspoons of soft brown sugar helped to balance out the stronger flavours in the broth at this stage.
  • If using dry noodles, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes then drain in a colander; if using fresh, cook as instructed on pack and set aside.

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  • To prepare your fresh toppings, use a teaspoon to scrape out the watery seeds of the cucumber before slicing finely into half moons.
  • Thinly cut your lotus root, blanch it in boiling water for 1 minute then set aside.
  • If using fresh pineapple, cut off the top and bottom followed by the peel then remove the core and chop the flesh into bite-size pieces.

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  • To construct your soup bowls, divide the noodles between your serving dishes.

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  • Add a selection of the fresh toppings then carefully ladle the broth over the top, making sure that the noodles are covered and serve immediately; top tip – if you find your broth still has bits of the paste in it, simply ladle through a small sieve into the bowls for an immaculately clear finish.

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Original recipe taken from ‘Vegan Street Food’ by Jackie Kearney.

Lisbon; where to eat in one of the world’s sunniest & most delicious cities…

‘You’ll love it!’

‘It’s great for food!’

‘Best city break ever!’

To say I heard these declarations of love for one of Europe’s sunniest cities once or twice during the weeks leading up to J’s and my much needed holiday in Lisbon would be something of an understatement. The glorious sunshine, the gorgeous food, the dreamy tiles, the kitschy gifts, the pastels de nata – all these things were raved about to me in sentences heavy with near fanaticism for Portugal’s capital and every single one of them raised my expectations to nigh on stratospheric levels…

…luckily Lisbon knows a things or two about making a gal happy so consider every expectation exceeded.

There are a lot of places to stay in and around the city centre; J & I are somewhat rather very a teeny bit antisocial when it comes to holidays. We’re not fans of cloud scraping hotels with all-you-can-eat buffets at 8am, fights for the sun-loungers at 1pm or traditional British pubs that vomit drunken tourists onto the pavements outside at 2am. Small, gorgeous, friendly places are more up our street which is exactly what we found in Palacio Ramalhete, a 10 room boutique hotel (barely 15 minutes walk from the legendary Time Out Market) which boasts a rooftop pool & the nicest staff in Lisbon.

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Clean, cool & pretty rooms come dressed with the loveliest little touches – complimentary homemade chocolate covered fruit & nuts on the dresser or a creamy roses in the bathroom anyone? – while the communal rooms are a beautiful blend of modern and antique and that aforementioned rooftop pool was ours alone for most of the week.

There’s no restaurant on site at Palacio but the breakfasts are a little bit special and there’s a small but decent snacks menu that’ll see you through the day. Cheeseboard and local beers by the pool, you say? Well chaps, I didn’t fly all the way here for green juice and broccoli.

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First day exploration of the local neighbourhood revealed a hidden gem of a restaurant – Le Chat, named after one of the owners’ semesters in Paris. A modern construction of glass, chrome and white parasol shaded terraces, this was a gorgeous place to stumble across, sink into and enjoy the first of many local beers and dishes at. FYI, as someone totally uninitiated in Portuguese beers, it may well be that it’s actually the Stella of its market but we loved the super light & refreshing Superbock.

Codfish shredded with chickpeas & pink pickled onions was light and gently herbed…

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…while chubby pink prawns lazed gently in a pool of paprika spiced oil from slices of food of the gods, chorizo. Top tip 1 – Le Chat’s homemade focaccia comes fat & fluffy in hipster approved kilner jars and is pretty perfect for mopping up every last golden slick.

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A wheel of goats cheese looked like it was about to win first prize in a ‘vegetables masquerading as creme brulee’ competition but tasted tangy and soft against crisp greens and earthy walnuts…

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…and eating everything al fresco on the terrace which slowly filled up with locals-in-the-know and lucky-to-find-it-tourists was the perfect way to watch a setting sun paint the sky around us with flushes of candyfloss colours.

Top tip 2 – save room for dessert. Like a heaving bosom in the court of Louis XIV, Le Chat’s decadent yet elegantly simple chocolate mousse is piled high in ridiculously soft & velvety mounds while sprinkles of popping candy stop it from being too serious and grown up a dessert.

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