London Diaries 4: A Sunday stroll with Robin Majumdar, One of London’s First Food Bloggers

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Talking of food bloggers, yesterday I was part of the first India Hangout of Zagat, as a part of their #AroundTheWorld series, with Sandeep or Bong Mom, Monika Manchanda & Archana Doshi. The hangout was moderated by Josh and was great fun. You can click on the link here for the links to the blog bios and to the half an hour long Hangout.

The Great Salami of Simon Majumdar’s Eat My Globe

The one person I was very keen to meet when I went to London earlier this year was TGS or the The Great Salami.

Confused? Well get hold of Simon Majumdar’s book, Eat My Globe’ and you will see that this is how Simon refers to his elder brother, Robin Majumdar. Robin and Simon Majumdar were among the first food bloggers of London and jointly wrote a blog called Dos Hermanos.

After being in touch in the virtual world for a while, Simon and I finally met when he came to Mumbai this time.

Robin, who is on twitter as @Hermanoprimero, gave me loads of good tips during  my trip to Spain, a favourite of the Majumdar brothers. We were yet to meet when I landed in London.

Soho prelude

Robin continued to by my lighthouse in London too, his hometown.

A tweet to Robin helped me figure out life on my only evening by myself during the two week trip of Barcelona and London. I was at Soho, had skipped a formal engagement and was savouring the rare solitude.

I was at the Starbucks beside Ben’s Cookies and tweeted Robin for suggestions for ‘typical London fare’. He tweeted back with a smiley saying ‘ramen and burgers are typical London fare now’. Someone on his timeline picked up his tweet asking for recommendations and replied back suggesting Bone Daddies. I stepped out in search of Bone Daddies down the colourful and busy lanes of Soho on a dark, wet evening.

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Got lost, shopped for souvenirs, asked for directions, stepped into another Starbucks where the folks didn’t know the directions but offered the use of their wifi for Google maps, and soon I found Bone Daddies on a quiet lane by asking folks for directions the old fashioned way after I couldn’t decode the maps.

At the end of the Soho rainbow lay  pot of pork belly ramen (around 16 GBP with an ice tea) at this restaurant set up by an Australian. The pork belly ramen at Bone Daddies was  just what the evening needed. Fragrant, light, beautiful textures, great flavours in the broth, lovely pork belly slices, a nice contrast given by the firm ramen (noodles), the sort of delicate silken touch in Asian dishes that I so like.

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The Great Salami I presume

I asked Robin if we could catch up as he was in town and I would really like to meet him. He immediately suggested that we meet on Sunday morning when he normally sets off for a walk around his favourite parts of town. I jumped at the opportunity and landed at The Salvation Jane cafe, close to my hotel, The South Place Hotel, and met up with Robin who greeted me with a huge smile.

“Hey you do look a lot like Simon” I said

Robin beamed and said “I’ve more hair on the head though”.

Brick Lane Tales

A great cappuccino for me and a macchiato for him in our hands and it was time to set off. We first headed down Shoreditch and into brick Lane. We stopped, appropriately, outside a road called Bacon Street.

There we were the two of us. Both British born. One full Bengali who went back to Calcutta via Iran and then to Mumbai. The other, half Bengali and half Welsh, who stayed back in England. United by a book and social media, we stood there talking about immigration patterns.

Robin gave a live commentary, while we walked down the streets, and explained that before Brick Lane became a Bangladeshi settlement, the Huguenots, then the Irish and the Jews after them had made it their home too. The  signs that remained of the Jews today were in the form a couple of popular bagel shops or ‘beigel’ as they were referred to originally according to Robin. He also told me that these were also the lanes which Jack the Ripper lorded upon once. You are not short of character and colour at Brick Lane.

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Two Bengali boys in The City

Complete change of scene after this as we headed out of Brick Lane and then on to Liverpool Street to roads surrounded by majestic Victorian buildings. The sort of buildings one sees at Kolkata’s Dalhousie and a few at Mumbai’s Fort but many more, resplendent in marbled glory.

‘This is The City’, said Robin.

Once the commercial capital of London and, in the heydays of the empire, of large parts of the world. Many banks and treasuries were based here. From what I understand, many of these have shifted to two new commercial hubs created in London. Just as Dalhousie has been eclipsed by Salt Lake in Kolkata and Fort by BKC, Parel and Andheri in Mumbai.

Life, for even the mightiest, is transient. The Bank of England AKA ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street” is still there though as Robin pointed out.

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We then walked up a mall to a terrace at the One New Change, HTH, where one gets some of the loveliest views of London. I stood there, looking on, captivated by the beauty of this city which beautifully balances the past with the future. Chimes of distant church- bells giving a sound track to this sepia tinted experience. 

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The London Wall & the world of blogging

We walked on, past lanes decked with history as Robin stopped to show me walls from the old city of London.

No, in case you were wondering, we did not just talk about history. We chatted about our experience as bloggers. Of starting off as folks who had a point of view on restaurants which we wanted to share. Of doing this at a time where blogging was just a hobby for blogger. Of a time when it was a place for folks to de-stress or express themselves outside of their daily routines and jobs. Of a time before blogging was ‘glamorous’ and of the transition from hobby blogging to near ‘professional’ blogging with a number of blogs surviving today almost entirely of hosted blogger events. We spoke of exploring and discovering new social media and of twitter and how it connected so many of us. We spoke of a sense of fatigue setting in when it came to exploring new place in our cities and how we tended to stick to our favourite places.

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Somewhere I sensed that Dos Hermanos (two brothers in Spanish), without the two brothers writing there, was no longer the same.

As The City reminded us, life moves on, Robin and Simon have found new ways of living up to their love for food in a way which worked for both of them. 

One of the early philosophies of blogging was to share what one knew with the world at large. Robin did just that with me that Sunday morning and I would be foolish to have not made best use of it. So I headed to my hotel, The nifty South Place Hotel where the folks at Chowzters had put us up, after Robin and I bid farewell to each other. A quick shower and it was time for lunch. The Chowzters Awards  were in the evening so I decided to take advantage of my second last afternoon of the trip and retrace the path Robin and I took  earlier in the morning.

Beigel Bake at Brick Lane

I walked down to Brick lane. It was around 3 pm. Very different from the morning. The roads were packed with hawker stalls, tourists, shoppers with not and inch of free space anywhere. A madding crowd which was so far from the peaceful, lazy, calm streets that I saw when Robin and I went there at around 11.30 am.

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My first food stop I knew would be the bagel shops of the early Jewish settlers. History with each bite was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. The only problem was that I was a bit lost as the streets looked quite different now that they were crowded. Thankfully a Bangladeshi corner shop owner pointed me in the right direction to the Jewish bagel shops, told me which of the two was his favourite, and in a very Camp David moment strongly recommended that I try the beef bagel.

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I finally reached the Beigel Bake and queued up. Yes, in London everyone queues up, and most of my talks with people started with the weather. Some stereotypes are true after all.

The queue moved pretty fast and soon I was inside a shop that reminded one of Wengers in Delhi and Merwans at Andheri. The queue moved ahead and I was at the counter with ladies straight of a Woody Allen black and white flick taking one’s order.

I went for the classic. Bagel. Hot salt beef (the other option was smoked salmon). Mustard? Yes please.

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I paid at the counter. .At less than 2 pounds probably the cheapest thing I ate at London by far. A lady sitting by the window cut out a slice from a hunk of beef and put it into my bagel and added mustard. I stepped out with my bagel and was surrounded by folks who had come out of the shop, bagels in hand, eating, chatting, photographing. I photographed my bagel and then took a bite.

The bagel was soft…bunnish…apparently bagels don’t have to be chewy (!) and the meat of the beef was incredibly soft, delicious and epiphanic. One of my most memorable eats in London.

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The bagel was quite filling and I wondered what to eat next. Robin said that there were some interesting street food stuff going on here and he was right. There were halls with street food counters and hawkers on the street too. There was food from all lover the world, the aromas and sight of which were enticing. French desserts, loads of Asian curries, some Indian and loads of Ethiopian and Arabic and a bit of Jamaican too. I was in a dilemma.

I was spoilt for choices and I knew that I couldn’t eat much more and I wanted to choose wisely.

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Spicy roots at Amar Gaon

Which is when I took inspiration from our walk in the morning. There was a lane where the sharp, spice lade, overpowering aromas of ‘Indian’ food assailed one. This lane was the lane of the ‘Balti Houses’. ‘Indian’ restaurants run by Bangladeshis of Sylhet. Well, as Lizzie Collingham points out in her excellent book, Curry: a tale of cooks and conquerors’, when the Sylhetis had first set up shop in the UK, they were still Indians.  The smell of spices were rather strong and seemed a bit out of place. I was quite tempted to head to the Far Eastern food courts. However, after trying a Jewish beigel, trying some of the Bangladeshi ‘Indian’ fare made sense.

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I noticed a restaurant called Amar Gaon (My Village) which had advertised itself as a Bangladeshi restaurant. This place, as I found out, is a couple of years old. Probably a new wave of restaurants which don’t shy away from calling themselves Bangladeshi and not Indian. I decided to step in here for the rest of my lunch. A good way to continue with the history tour that Robin gave me earlier in the morning and connect with my Bangladeshi roots too in the country where I was born.

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The ambience at Amar Gaon is quite Spartan. You step in and there is a mishtir dokan (sweet shop) sort of counter with the food kept there. You place your order and they heat the food and get it for you. Since I had had an overdose of meat I chose fish. Chital maccher chutney and ilisher deemer jhol. Both dishes fairly new to me. I ordered some rice to go with it and the entire meal came to about 16 pounds.

I sat down and looked at the paper towel roll on the table. Looked rather kitsch. A bit later I realised the towel was there. The food was searingly spicy. The sort of heat which made you sweat profusely. I obviously was too many generations removed from Bangladesh to handle this sort of heat in my food. I did manage to finish a large part of the dishes with rice but the overall experience was quite overpowering. The chutney had an interesting mix of greens in it which made the dish quite a delight but the hilsa egg roe curry had too strong a hit of turmeric for the delicate flavours of the roe to come through. At the end of the meal I was so fired up by the spices that I took off my jacket on the way back to the hotel even though the evening was nippy by Mumbai standards. This was my second experience of  a Bangladeshi restaurant outside of Bangladesh in recent times. The other was at Kasturi in Kolkata .

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With that my Hermano Primero walk of London came to and. I was indeed privileged to see London that Sunday through the eyes of someone who loved the city and took the time out to share his favourite side of the city with me.

No pictures of the man who helped me discover his London you ask?

Well the TGS is a truly old fashioned blogger. The sort that treasures their anonymity.

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The balti stories of Brick Lane

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