I had the most eventful June. I was selected to participate in a university exchange program, called the SocialxChange between Ryerson University and the University of Northampton in England. Before this program, I had never even heard of Northampton. However, this didn’t dissuade me from applying to the program. Two factors that motivated me were: 1) it sounded so cool - a program for people who want to become changemakers i.e., people who make a difference in this world. 2) I really wanted to travel, because travelling is awesome. And, even better, when it’s on someone else’s dime. I really love travelling, it, without a doubt, forces you to see the world differently; it forces you to think; and, it makes you realize how insignificant you really are in the grand scheme of things. A humbling life lesson that almost all of us can use from time to time. This lesson about our own relatively inconsequential existence was often echoed by Anthony Bourdain, who passed away on June 8, 2018. He is a person who constantly inspires/inspired me. Not only to travel but to be open in life and to write about food. My next blog post will be dedicated to him. I’m still reeling and I need to take some time to think about what I want to say. I have never been one to be reactionary in times of sadness or anger. I want to treat this with the thoughtful reflection, empathy and honesty it deserves. His passing has been very consequential to me.
Travel has truly been a lifelong passion for me. As children, my parents would take me and my brother to Trinidad on vacation to visit family. I always, always loved these trips. Even as a child I was eager to go somewhere new, see something different, and meet new people. I loved the feeling of the delicious humidity on my skin and which would inevitably make my hair spiral up from it’s loose waves into tight curls. I was beyond excited to eat untried delicacies. I would bawl my eyes out every time I had to leave Trinidad to come back to Toronto. It broke. my. heart. I think, at that time, I hadn’t realized that vacation is just vacation. It is not real life. The joys and pleasures of vacation only exist as a microcosmic reality.
Being somewhere new, that’s a little uncomfortable and a lot of unknown gives you insight into you. Traveling isn’t simply a way to open your mind. It’s also a narcissistic exercise in learning about who you are and what you’re made of. Traveling is also an excuse to eat, eat more, and eat often. Within the last year, I have been thinking a lot about how food can be used as a tool to help grow empathy, gain insight and understanding about people and cultures. Think about it for a second, food is one way that we form social bonds, deepen relationships and find kinship. It’s the basis of my current research, and the reason that I was selected to participate in this exchange. England did not disappoint me in terms of its cuisine, thanks to its immigrants. The food that wowed me and that transported my tastebuds were Indian and Middle Eastern/Israeli. I would have loved to have eaten more and delved into other cuisines, but what I did eat, was incredible.
Balti Central restaurant in Northampton
15 Mare Fair, Northampton NN1 1SR, UK
First was Balti Central restaurant in Northampton. What is Balti you ask? Well, fuck, I’m not really sure. I had to Google that shit. I found Madhur Jaffrey discussing it and she thought Balti cuisine, which was conjured up in Birmingham in the 70s, was a passing trend. The term Balti references the cooking vessel in which the dish (usually meat) is cooked in. Jaffrey “dismissed the dish as 'a craze' with 'no authentic origin' and predicted 'it will slowly die' in this country.” But questions about authenticity aside, the food was fucking delicious. The restaurant produced family sized naan, which would have been more aptly named, city-sized naan. The fucking thing was massive and could feed a Dothraki horde. The curries were rich, flavourful and were so good they brought tears to my dinner companions’ eyes (*name withheld to protect their identity). I do wish that the food had more heat (spice, not thermal). I really do like it when my Indian food bites back. However, I have to remember that this is England, and their intended audience is white and British. The dish that made my taste buds sing and nearly weep with joy was their Balti Central Spicy Rice. It was like an Indian version of fried rice with the addition of hot green chilies and spices. Need I say it again?!? #riceisbae. And, this dish, is my number one true love. It was everything I could ever want in a dish. Spicy, fragrant, perfectly cooked rice with sharp bits of green chilies that sent my sinuses into overdrive and made my mouth water instantly. I still think about that rice. It was everything I ever wanted and needed in a rice dish.
Honey & Co.
25 Warren St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 5LZ, UK
The next place I ate at that I feel is more than worth mentioning is Honey and Co. It feels like walking into your friend’s home. The staff greeted me, a lone diner, with the warmth of an old friend. I sat in the counter window where I contemplated that menu for what seemed like forever. The thing about dining alone is, I don’t get to share food with anyone. If I make a choice and I don’t like it, I’m stuck with it! Fuuuuck me. I don’t like having limited choices… I sometimes think about if I ever got sent to prison (not suggesting that I’m on some self-destructive path to get there... but, you know, life is unpredictable and who knows what life has in store for any of us) how I would be subject to a new kind of suffering. One predicated on routine and shit food, day after day until my sentence was over. But, I digress. This experience was definitely not that. This was magical. This was eating in a way that made my whole body and mind happy.
At my server’s suggestion, I ordered the Pomegranate Chicken with a cracked wheat salad. The chicken was flavoursome, moist, and tender - generally a beautiful bonus of using dark meat. The marinade was rich, slightly sweet from pomegranate molasses and warm with spices. The salad was one of the best I’ve ever had. There are few salads that rival this one. The cracked wheat was tender and chewy. The salad was smattered with toasted pistachios and almonds, fresh mint and sweet, tart, ruby red pomegranate seeds gleefully burst as I chewed. The addition of currants provided a sweet earthiness that rounded out the salad. A wonderful contrast of textures and flavours that I did not get tired of eating.
I ate the entire dish. This is an unusual occurrence for me. I guess between the insane amounts of walking and the general desire to eat everything, I was primed for this meal. But, in all honesty, it was so good that I HAD to finish it. It was fresh, filling, healthy and so, so tasty. I completed my meal with rose petal and cinnamon tea. A must if you decide to eat here. It was the perfect cap to a truly delicious meal.
Ottolenghi's in Spitalfields
50 Artillery Lane, London E1 7LJ
On my last Sunday morning in London I had woken up ravenous and lazy. I had a hankering for a meal that was last-day-in-London-worthy. I am normally not a brunch person. I think brunch is such a waste of money. TBH, (not to brag or anything) I make way better eggs at home.
However, I wasn’t about to make my own breakfast that day. I was staying at an Airbnb in Shoreditch just off of Bricklane and I had my eyes set on The Breakfast Club. It was close to where I was staying and it had decent reviews. However, the long-ass line to get a table dissuaded me from waiting around. And, I am so, so glad that I ended up where I did. Sometimes, if you follow your gut (a.k.a. hunger pangs), you just end up in the right place.
Ottolenghi's is located in close proximity to The Breakfast Club. I walked up to the entrance and it was bathed in morning light. The simple, clean lines of the spacious and airy room were a welcome reprieve from the chaos and busyness of London. Smiles from the staff broke the morning cobwebs from my brain and made me a little less pre-coffee crotechty. The floor manager and I chatted and the fate of my breakfast was decided by coin toss, I was either going to have the shakshuka or the Welsh rarebit. The coin somersaulted through the air and revealed heads. Shakshuka was the decided breakfast. She told me that people had travelled from Israel to try that dish and after eating it, I understood why. I would travel from anywhere to eat that dish. It has changed all expectations about what a really good shakshuka should be. It was absolute perfection. Braised peppers and onions, cooked until soft, sweet and jammy. The rich tomato sauce flecked with crumbly, crunchy bits of freshly roasted cumin and other earthy spices. The dish was topped with rich and cool, tangy labneh. Verdant cilantro offered brightness and sparkle to the rich dish. The grilled focaccia served was the contrasting textures of crisp and chewy carbohydrate-y goodness. As I think about it now, I’m salivating.
Being able to travel, learn and immerse myself in another world while still a student is a luxury that not all can afford. I recognize my privilege here. I am so grateful for this opportunity. I saw, did, and ate incredible things. I clearly haven’t written about everything that I’ve eaten. It would turn this blog post into a novella. But, I have to give honourable mention to the most unreal spring rolls I have ever eaten, in Northampton at Eat Saigon. Or, the amazing gin cocktails that I drank many of at various establishments, but I was particularly fond of Market Tavern Pub & Kitchen Northampton. Or, the most satisfying vegan pie and cheesy mash that I ate in Oxford at the Pieminister. And, last, but not least, the incredible steak dinner that I ate at the Porterhouse Grill in Oxford.
Thanks for the memories!