J tries their hand at food criticism. Courtesy of their inner-Gordon Ramsay
I’ve been watching far too much Gordon Ramsay lately. This wouldn’t be a problem if I could actually cook what I watch on YouTube; but for me, getting any culinary excitement outside of thrown-together curries, stews and fried veg usually involves guiltily visiting JustEat.co.uk.
Could I tell you how long to cook a steak for? No.
Could I tell you the best and fastest delivering Indian restaurant in a 10 mile radius of my house on any day of the week? … That’s not embarrassing, is it?
It was with suppressed squeals of delight, then, that realised one hungry hungry evening that Alchemy’s Flavours of India food market was coming to the Southbank. I carefully took out my Google calendar full of work appointments and deadlines, and looking at the advert for Chaat Shack, I made a quick note: EAT ALL THE THINGS.
You see, though I can’t cook an omelette without it transforming by magic into charcoal, I can eat Indian food (like any other Brit) until the cows come home. I’d take Indian food any day over foods from my native homelands of Spain and Nigeria. England can keep its fry ups. I got indescribably jealous of Ramsay’s month-long trip around India with the sole mission to eat stuff, and I’m seriously contemplating emptying my bank account to follow in his footsteps.
So, fast-forward to today: I was post a blood test and starving. I was having aloo chaat filled hallucinations. My heart was beating for some paneer. You get the idea. I quickly made it to where the sea of white tents would be waiting for me, filled with delicious spices, aromas aplenty, bubbling and simmering dishes of lamb, chicken, veg, sauces…
As I walked through the tight alleys in between, I immediately noticed something was amiss. I checked the clock on my phone: 12pm. Lunch time. I’d specifically given them another half hour to get things cooking. It was a Friday, and people were starting to rove like vultures.
Table after table looked like it wasn’t even expecting anything. Stallholders were just beginning to chop up onions, tables being set up. I was getting increasingly desperate, and hungry, and I didn’t want to resort to Burger King this time.
One stall at the end seemed to have got the memo that lunch time is when people usually look for something to eat: this was a Bombay street food stall run by Gupta. It was the only option and had a queue snaking out of the tent. So I pushed this pitiful show to the back of my mind and decided that I’d have to eat now. I went for the only thing that was on offer: a chicken curry with daal on the side and pakoras stuffed with peas and potato. At least, I think that was what I was eating; the menu only listed what I got in the meal deal under the evasive title of ‘chicken, rice, and 2 snacks’.
I looked longingly at the empty Chaat Shack, and sat down after buying a mango and almond milk lassi from a vendor. Prepping to tuck into the box, all of which – curry, rice, pakoras and daal – I’d got for a standard £5, I mustered my inner-Gordon as this afternoon’s food critic. Hopefully the cooking wouldn’t make me scream sexist and sizeist comments at passing chefs, a la Hell’s Kitchen.
At once, I could feel the gnarled Glaswegian rising out of me like a foul-mouthed, over-critical snake. “It’s too salty!” he cried, gesticulating at the chicken, which tasted of salt. And chicken. Salty chicken.
“Look at the presentation – it looks like a pile of sh*t – you can’t serve that!”
Calm down, Gordon, I’m trying to enjoy my authentic Bombay experience.
I stuffed my fork into my pakora; its thick crust broke open like a Cornish pasty.
“It should be light, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth!”
It tasted like a Cornish pasty, too.
I mixed some in with the daal soup so it was edible, and frowned as I tasted something like carrot – or pumpkin. The salt of the chicken had decimated my tastebuds like I had chugged hot tea.
“The daal tastes like effing carrot!” my inner-Gordon brayed, now practically weeping.
I finished the whole thing – what can I say, I was hungry.
I sipped at my mango lassi. Surely I could enjoy a simple mango lassi.
“Needs sugar,” Gordon hissed, as the bitterness of the almond milk made it taste a little weird; they could have at least sweetened it. I drink almond and soya milk all the time, and even I cringed.
By now, it was 12.30, and the stalls had started to open. In the time that I’d been sitting down, three different people had come up and asked me where I’d got my food. I saw the hunger and desperation in their eyes – I had to explain that the food stall wasn’t hard to find as it was the only one serving. I was across from Roti Chai, which had only just started to cook, and Joho Soho and Desi Indian Street Food all had massive queues.
But this isn’t the end of my adventure, foodies of Southbank! I’m not going to be swayed by some bland chicken. I’m sure there are better things to be had – I can smell that there are better things to be had. It was with a heavy heart that I concluded my Alchemy food market experience hadn’t got off to a high note. Inner-Gordon stepped back inside me, directing me to get some Coconut Mocha Frappucino, stat.