On Edgware Road, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in Iraq. Burqa clad figures were out shopping: at one end of a side road, a vegetable market had been set up. Fabric shops sold lacy lengths of cloth with liberal helpings of glitter. However, it was the small grocery shops that were the most interesting. Each had as its focus, a butcher counter where cuts of meat lay marinating in trays. Depending on whether the shop was owned by Iraqis, Lebanese or Turks, there would be tins of tahina, pomegranate molasses or vacuum-sealed packets of vine leaves. I, needless to say, stuck out like a sore thumb all along Edgeware Road. One Iraqi shopkeeper couldn’t bear the suspense of figuring what exactly I was up to, prowling around his shelves groaning with salted watermelon seeds and asked me outright what I was looking for.
I made up some fib about looking for za’atar and was promptly handed a packet which I felt constrained to buy. The little corner shop whose name board was written in Arabic was not so much of a store as a convivial club where everyone knew everyone else who shopped there.
The Saudi end of Edgware Road had a grand air about it. Shops selling souvenirs made entirely of gold leaf did a side business in thirty types of baklava. Nearby, the Lebanese quarter was a trifle more cultured. There was a Maroush delicatessen opposite a branch of Maroush, the restaurant that, for a couple of years, housed itself in a hotel in Delhi. Iranians and Moroccans didn’t feature anywhere the Edgeware Road. For that, I had to travel in a black cab whose drivers are mines of information about their city.
The cabbie who took me to Golborne Road in the Notting Hill district was himself a hobby cook who wanted to buy a tagine and so, was enthusiastic about helping me find the Moroccan shops. However, all my hopes were dashed at finding an Agha clone in Golborne Road. All that there were, included cafes filled to overflowing with middle-aged Moroccan men and hair-dressing salons. There was one antique shop and one crammed-to-bursting store run by a Gurinder Singh that was a serious contender for the best stocked shop in London. There were spices for Moroccan food, there was picalili, jerk seasoning, sugar crystals steeped in saffron – whatever ethnic cuisine you wanted, Mr. Singh had the ingredients.
I ate just one Indian meal during my stay in London, at Chor Bizarre at the upmarket Albermarle Street. So impressed was I that I called for the chef and asked him where he bought his spices from: their flavour was far more assertive than anything I’ve tasted in a restaurant in India, or even in my own home. He gave me an address in Drummond Street, in the vicinity of Euston Station. It advertised itself as the original Patak’s and indeed it was extraordinarily well-stocked. I even spied the ultra-Gujarati dhania dal which is essentially the kernel of coriander seed, eaten in Gujarat as a post-prandial mouth-freshener. On the same quiet street were a couple of Indian restaurants, chaat shops and mithai shops along with a row of Bangladeshi shops. Unlike Brick Lane whose row of restaurants cater to British diners, the shops on Drummond Street sold to Bangladeshi residents of London, so there was hilsa, guaranteed to be from the Padma River, panchphoran the classic five-spice mix, there even were newspapers published in London, written in the Bengali script full of local news.
I suppose my favourite ethnic shops have to be the four Iranian shops in a quiet corner of Kensington High Street. Super Bahar was featured in Time Out London (the source of all my information in the first place) but the shop I found most quirky was Zaman, flanked by Super Bahar and Bahar Patisserie. Zaman was run by an exquisite young lady, catered to all sections of London’s residents as well as Iranians and was stocked from top to toe with irresistible ingredients. There were sour cherry syrups, Iranian pickles that bore a strong resemblance to their Kashmiri counterparts, shredded orange zest for flavouring curries called khoresht, dried mulberries….I can’t imagine any store in the heart of Tehran being better kitted out.
The young lady, whose home was on the premises, told me that most Iranians who had made London their home, lived in the vicinity. Next door, Super Bahar had positioned itself rather cleverly as the least expensive source for Iranian caviar, the better to attract British customers to this obscure corner of Kensington Street.