Where Molly Ate
Molly joins thechef and owner of BiBi takesas he takes his staff on a trip around Southall – an area of London with a large Indian population – to educate them on the cultural context of the food they cook and serve inMayfair
by Molly Codyre
A globule of sugar syrup drips onto my blazer as I take my first bite of a piping hot, crispy Jalebi, fresh out of the fryer. Made from a dough of maida flour and yoghurt, these spiral-shaped sweets are deep fried and doused in a cardamom and saffron-spiked sugar syrup. They are, as the ingredients may hint to, crunchy, delicately-spiced, incredibly moreish, and entirely worth soiling my blazer for.
“I don’t usually come here,”Chet Sharma tells me, pointing to the roadside stall we’ve grabbed our Jalebi from. “But they were cooking the Jalebis to order so I knew they would be good.” Juggling a piping hot cup of chai in one hand, and the sticky remnants of the jalebi in the other, we make our waydown The Broadway in Southall, an area of west London with a strong Indian community, just a stone’s throw from Heathrow.
The display case at Prashad
“Indians basically landed at Heathrow and settled in the closest area they came across,” Sharma jokes, as we walk to our next destination. The chef-owner ofBiBi – which came 5th on theNational Restaurant Awards list last year and won the best new opening award – is showing us around the suburb – often nicknamed ‘mini Punjab’ – as part of an education trip he regularly does with his team.
A speedy journey on the Elizabeth Line from Central London, a trip to Southall is cheaper than a return to flight to India, but for Sharma it offers the opportunity to show his staff the classic side of the food they’re making at BiBi, ensuring they have both cultural and culinary context for the menu they either cook or serve.
Our sugar levels sufficiently topped up, we head on to Prashad, which Sharma explains as one of the best value places to eat in Greater London. It’s hard to argue with that, when foil tins and paper plates stacked with food arrive en masse; Vada Pav (deep fried potato in a bun with tamarind and green chilli chutney) for just £1, Dhokla (a steamed savoury sponge made from a batter of fermented lentils and rice) at £6 per kilo, sunshine-yellow rolls of Khandvi at £8 per kilo, and a mountain of Bhel (puffed rice, chickpeas and crispy vegetables doused in tamarind) for £1.99. The ubiquitous combination of sweet, spicy and salty is a hallmark of Gujarati food; the regionalcuisinethat Prashad specialises in.
Bhel at Prashad
Vada Pav, Dhokla and Khandvi at Prashad
Across the road from Prashad is Quality Foods, a capacious cash and carry frequented by both locals and chefs from across London. “If our suppliers can’t get something in I’ll come here and see if they have it,” Sharma says as we cross the road. It’s early April and Alphonso mango season is about to begin – the few months of the year when you can get your hands on what many believe to be the superior breed of mango. Vivid sunset orange orbs line the crates outside the shop; Sharma picks a few up and sniffs their skin, “they’re not Alphonsos” he announces, putting them back down.His confidence is warranted –after a thorough tour of mango farmsthroughout India, he pinpointed not just one mountain, but a particular side of that mountain that he believes grows the best Alphonso mangoes, and tries his best to get them from there where possible, but admits that their popularity can make this difficult.
If the fresh produce lining the outside of Quality Foods three bins deep seems like a cornucopia for even the most uninterested of cooks, then the inside is a veritable heaven. Anything you need to cook Indian food is sold here, and notsimply on a basic level – you’ll have at least three brand options. But it’s not just that, either – the range of goods is international and broad, encompassing everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Caribbean. We wander the aisles, Sharma pointing out the things his parents would cook with growing up, and which brands are his go-to.
Saag for sale at Quality Foods
Mangoesfor sale at Quality Foods
It’s a connection to food shopping that homogeneous British supermarkets seem to lack; it encourages you to interact with the ingredients, picking a favourite and prioritising quality. I can’t help but be envious of the connection expat Indians can have with the ingredients and produce of their home country – I’m lucky if we get New Zealand marmite over here, and have dwindling options for sourcing a Kiwi pie. But then, on the shelves, I spotMilo – a classic malted chocolate drinking powder popular throughout the British colonies, New Zealand in particular. I’m not quite sure how to label the emotion that ran through me in that moment – nostalgia, perhaps, peppered with a sense of familiarity – but it was comforting in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. I can’t even imagine how it must feel to have a whole supermarket’s worth of that feeling.
There isn’t much chance for me to get too morose in the bowels of homesickness, however, because we are off to our next and final stop: Saravana Bhavan. “This is India’s equivalent of Zizzi or Nandos,” Sharma notes as we walk through the doors. “There’s hundreds of outlets around the world.” An enormous map on the wall indicating the location of every Saravana Bhavan confirms this; there’s even a few across Australia. Unsurprisingly for somewhere that operates on this scale, the menu is lengthy, but “South Indian food is definitely the specialty,” advises Sharma.
Masala Dosa at Saravana Bhavan
Rasa Vadaat Saravana Bhavan
We let him order for us, and dishes start arriving within minutes. Masala Dosa (a thin, crispy pancake filled with mashed potato) balances haphazardly on a silver dish amongst a medley of chutneys. Rasa Vada sees two fried lentil balls bob buoyantly in a spicy broth. Crispy Gibi 64 – deep fried cauliflower coated in a spice mix and served with ketchup – is like popcorn, in that you can’t stop your greedy little fingers from popping them in your mouth, one by one. It was around about this point that I began to feel like I might burst. This job pushes the limits of your stomach at the best of times, but this day – partly due to my own self restraint failures – had really tested the capacity of my professional ability to consume.
On the tube home, I thought about the idea of London as a collection of villages. It’s something I’ve said to people a lot; and something I do genuinely think is true. Southall isn’t all that different from where I live – Bethnal Green – in that both became home to a large South Asian population, and yet it feels so different in both pace and vibe. Where Bethnal Green remains at the intersection of gentrification, Southall feels so entirely its own. It is a testament to the significance of Indian migration to England and the impact the food has had on the culinary canon that someone like Sharma at BiBi can have somewhere like Southall to go, whether it’s to educate staff and journalists, or simply buy the mangoes he knows so much about.