The lungs of London

Hampstead Heath, London We have the great good fortune to have friends in Highgate who live on the Heath, 790 acres of grassy public space which encompasses one of the highest points in London. William Pitt the Elder is said to have coined the phrase “Lungs of London” in the 18th century, when the city’s three main parks – St James’s, Green and Hyde – were under threat from rapid urban expansion. Now every city, including our own, uses that phrase to lobby for and to protect their own green spaces.

The Heath is rambling and hilly, with ponds, recent and ancient woodlands, swimming ponds, playgrounds, and a training track. The southeast part is Parliament Hill, whose view over London is protected by law.

Our friends’ location is irrelevant to our enjoyment of them as long-standing treasured parts of our lives, but it is always entertaining to tour their neighborhood. (Their home not shown so don’t even try to guess.) Their enclave has changed over the decades, and finally attracted the attention of those Russians now classified as oligarchs.

The Russians’ edifices tend to be the ones not visible from the private road, but almost all of the houses warn of security systems in operation.

The last time we were here, we were walking with our friend when he was stopped by a German journalist and photographer to discuss his feelings about his Russian neighbors in view of the Ukraine crisis. He so rightly shared his opinion that their homes should be taken over and the proceeds used for the refugees. Very exciting.

Don’s Food Corner

Yesterday’s cuisine was Indian food. For me, entering an Indian restaurant comes with some weighty baggage. In the early 1980s I got hooked watching a PBS cooking instruction series on Indian cookery hosted by Madhur Jaffrey. I got the cookbook that accompanied the series, bought all the necessary spices and accouterments and jumped into trying to replicate these often-complex dishes. Over the years I think I’ve become fairly adept at doing just that.

Then, we formed a friendship with a couple who actually hail from India — Sunita and Jay — whose first-hand knowledge of Indian cuisine we often get to enjoy just by going to Brooklyn. (Sunita cooks; Jay gathers the ingredients and pours the drinks.) I’m not going to say that I try to compete with Sunita, but she certainly has upped the ante for me to sharpen my game. They are kindly appreciative of my efforts and are shown here enjoying the cuisine of Mexico — which Sunita will probably master.

Add to that experience is the four months we spent in India two years ago, tasting the delicacies and regional specialties of nearly every part of India. (When I was getting ready to “celebrate” a very, VERY significant birthday that was taking me from old age to really old age, I was asked what I wanted to do for that birthday. My response: “I want to go out for Indian food — in India.”)

Entering an Indian restaurant, therefore, is a complicated process. We can’t taste everything on the menu, even though we’d like to in order to compare with my own take on traditional recipes, to those prepared by Sunita, to those prepared in India, and those prepared in other Indian restaurants in America and England.

England, of course, has the longest and most intense relationship with India. (Hello, empire.) As such, the foods of India have traveled to England both unadulterated and wildly adapted to fit English taste. Like Chinese food, Indian food is a mainstay of the English table — especially in the form of take away. In fact, I read somewhere that Chicken Tikka Masala is the most popular dish in the UK — outstripping fish and chips!

But Tikka Masala is a pure British invention with only a vague nodding acquaintance to anything you’d find in India. Just like those Chinese-American concoctions like General Tso’s Chicken that have nothing to do with actual dishes found in China.

Knowing all that, the choices we faced at today’s Indian restaurant were to visit authentic Indian dishes or try something that is actually a British invention. We decided on both.

On the traditional side, we had a sampling of starters — tandoori chicken, fried shrimp, onion fritter and a lamb shish kebob. (Nicely seasoned, but I thought a little over cooked and dry. I’ve had — and made — better.)

Also on the traditional side was chicken korma. This mildly seasoned and creamy curry is probably one of the original sources of tikka masala. Foreign tasting, but not TOO foreign. The sample we had today was fully recognizable as something you would find in any American Indian restaurant — and one that can be easily replicated at home.

For the adventuresome side, I selected a dish called Pathia, which is a wholly British invented dish. It’s very popular in the UK. I’ve never seen it on an American menu. (And Sunita had never heard of it.) A little internet research revealed that it is a dish that has Persian origins, but has been put through the British cultural grinder to create something new.

Using either chicken, lamb or vegetables, the tomato-based sauce is hotly spiced (or I’d say medium-hot as it was presented in this particular restaurant) that also has a sweet-and-sour profile. It was pleasant, not too complex and easy to take, which is why it is so popular among the British. I’m surprised it hasn’t migrated onto American menus.

The rest of the meal was rounded out with perfectly prepared basmati rice, a rather sweet raita (yogurt condiment), traditional naan bread, and some Indian beer. I just wish we had room to sample some more, but I fear this was the only chance we’ll have for Indian food before we leave the UK. Glad we made the most of it.

2 thoughts on “The lungs of London

  1. Oh my! Coming from Don is a validation in itself. Takes one to know one. Don, you are the only person who is not Indian dishing out complex Indian dishes every time you cook for us. Jay is still talking about your Lamb Rogan Josh you made when we came to dinner more than a decade ago! And my mom’s so fascinated about your knowledge of Indian food. (You know I talk to her about your cooking any chance I get). Dinner at our place is pending.

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