*Or Wembley, Whitechapel, Green Street, Tooting, Slough etc.
“What’s your bestselling dish today?” I am both hopeful and deeply doubtful.
I acquiesce and a puzzled look passes the server’s face. With what I can only describe as impressively assertive incompetence she joins me outside the stall to peer at the menu for what constitutes a Macharaja (I imagine this is meant to be read not as it is spelt but as mac-ha-raja).
Forgoing even a symbolic splash under the tap she plucks a few leaves of fresh coriander straight from the packet after fiddling in a Sainsbury’s bag and crowns the dish ready for me to tuck in.
The Macharaja is a veteran London streetfood mac’n’cheese stall’s offering to Kerb at Alchemy, the food market that popped up outside the Southbank Centre during the annual Alchemy festival of South Asian culture (which, by the way, is fab). Pop onto the stall’s website and find the offending dish listed as the ‘Spicy Juan’, a helpful chameleon swap-in for when only ambiguously ethnic mac’n’cheese will do.
I dig into my cup of standard molten cheese goo (this bit isn’t too bad). It’s topped with an anonymous red spice powder (flavour: flavourless), pickled jalapenos, aforementioned fresh coriander, and finished with a squirt (yes, squirt) of runny yogurt.
Let’s stop here for a breather. It’s hard to internalise how rank that sounds, I understand.
Even the most basic knowledge of food would suggest that these ingredients categorically do not belong together. And neither, by the way, does Mac’wari naan deserve to exist (that’s Peshwari naan meets mac’n’cheese).
Curating a streetfood festival with South Asian influences in London should be a dream. But my snapshot of Kerb at Alchemy was, to be honest, not great. So what’s gone wrong?
The city is undergoing a ‘revolution’ when it comes to Indian food by all accounts that seem to matter (Instagram, the Observer, the Guardian) with Gymkhana, Dishoom, and Kricket leading the charge to ‘modernisation’. Tastemakers whose gaze slid over the familiar-exotic back in the 80s having “done Indian”, are hurriedly doubling back from the farthest reaches of elsewhere for more authentic takes than the national favourites paired by the less discerning with Friday night Cobras. I won’t quibble – some of the remixes on the menu at Dishoom really do at least partially justify the perma-queue assembled at every branch.
But the streetfood scene is still confusingly disappointing. And I’m baffled because so many dishes from the region were literally invented for the roadside. Papdi chaat, pani puri, samosas, momos, paan, pakoras, I could go on indefinitely. My love affair with snacks from the subcontinent is fair and true. I love the chatpata chaat masala, cooling yogurt and hand-measured but alchemical sprinkles of fresh green chilli and coriander.
Kerb found a little bit of this magic in classics like the Sri Lankan kottu; tasty, efficiently assembled, and served with flourishing rhythmic chop-chop. The kati rolls were good too, with jolts of sour pickled red onions, but suffered from far too liberal a hand with the on-trend ghee; gravity and grease seemed to unite in unholy alliance to slide the rolls from diners’ hands back to their maker. Kenyan biryani tempted in tumbling, fragrant mounds on huge wide pans, but tasted like rice imbued with chicken stock cubes and nothing else.
And then there were the unmitigated disasters. Seekh kebabs that looked legit sizzling over open flames but screamed with uncooked whole spices and languished loosely in stale khobez rather than snugly inside fluffy naan where they belong. I wondered perhaps, if the stall costs had just been too high for traders to have cut some of the corners they’d chosen – why did the chai stall need to serve brown elaichi water at £3 a pop instead of that opaque gold that would have cost pennies more in milk and spice?
What genuinely confuses me, and I can’t be alone in this (I see you my fellow snobs) – is whether anyone would be satisfied with this level of quality. Perhaps it’s the booze allowing us to set the bar a bit lower. A bit like the local kebab shop after 11pm – we know the quality is going to be a bit rough but it’s accepted all round.
Sadly, it seems like a missed trick. London has huge communities of South Asians. If you want the food, surely just head to where they are? And if you’re curating a festival of South Asian food, perhaps hit up some of the veterans who have been dishing out things you can call ‘modern’ (hello chocolate barfi, masala mogo) since forever.
London’s streetfood scene is full of superstars: we have brisket, chicken wings, brownies and doughnuts in the bag. When it comes to South Asian food though, you’re still way better off jumping on a tube and staying on to the end of the line.
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Henna is the Editor of Media Diversified, but when she gets a minute to spare she writes about food, the arts and media. In a previous life she fed her addictions by running restaurants serving Levantine and North American-inspired menus for five years. You can find her recipes at hennazamurdbutt.com or watch her make them on IG @hennazb.