Brixton Market in a Bowl
Around 2010-2011, like many of you, I made the trip down to Brixton to see what was going on. At the time I was fresh out of university and regretted spending so long away from the city, so I went into overcompensation mode trying to learn as much about London as I possibly could. Being a North London boy, Brixton for me was unknown territory. I was lured down by the promise of food: a new pizza parlour called Franco Manca, a rare Mexican joint called Casa Morita. I was doing some work for Yianni who would eventually open Meatliquor and I was recommended by him to go check out this new place called Honest Burgers in Granville Arcade. And there was so much more than this: small not-quite-restaurants everywhere with open kitchens, all in one place. London hadn’t seen anything like this before - it was, for that moment, easily the single most exciting food venture happening in the city.
I look on that era with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. Jay Rayner wrote at the time “Eventually, of course, the bitching will start – it always does with London food ventures. Some will complain that the soul of the market has gone, others that it has become closed off to locals. There may be rows between landlords and tenants. But for now it's thrilling and bringing lots of people to Brixton who might otherwise not think of coming here. That has to be a good thing.”. I thought that at the time too. In fact my friend Queelim was papped eating at Kaosarn for an article on gentrification and he often jokes he literally became ‘the face of gentrification in Brixton’. But I wonder if it was such a good thing in the end. While the markets have broadly stayed the same, around it there has been a proliferation of mediocre street food businesses disguised as social ventures, as explained by Ruby Lott Lavigna in her article on Pop Brixton, that pretend to benefit locals but do no such thing. Meanwhile, some of the older Brixton disappears: the loss of the Colombian butchers and arepa stand on Pope’s Road (demolished by Mike Ashley for a Sports Direct) is something that cuts me deeply to this day, as well the disappearance of the Guyana Roti Van run by Aunty Maureen. Along with El Rancho de Lalo they were arguably the best food businesses in the area, and predate the regeneration ─ by focusing solely on the new we did Brixton a disservice.
Which brings us very neatly on to Nanban. Now Nanban isn’t in the market proper but is one of the newcomers. It’s also a ramen joint. Ramen is another of my bugbears because it’s often done not well here at all, or it’s a slavish imitation of something someone once tried in Japan. Nanban is neither of those things. What’s always interested me about Nanban is that it seems to me how ramen should be: adaptable to its surroundings, willing to soak up the influences of its community or city. Tim Anderson, who owns Nanban, knows this and instead of trying to recreate Japan has instead put Brixton Market in a bowl. The soul of Brixton is not the restaurants, it is still the shops who supply them and provide all the communities that make up Brixton - Caribbean, West African, Latin American, white people who can’t afford East Dulwich - with their food. Tim has written the following piece for Vittles which is part recipe for my favourite Nanban dish and part guide to Brixton Market, a market which is still providing the definition of ‘essential work’ while this crisis is going on. If you live in Brixton, then do try to add these shops to your rounds, and if you don’t, well, you almost certainly have your own version somewhere near you.
Brixton Market in a Bowl
Brixton Market is known for its African and Caribbean food, but it’s so much more than that. I’m struggling to think of any region in the world that doesn’t have at least a few of their staples represented there – everything from Iranian pistachios to Portuguese linguiça to Brazilian pão de queijo mix. (You can even get a good dark Scandinavian rye from Brixton Wholefoods.) The range of products available in Brixton Market is so vast it’s actually hard to write a shopping guide without some kind of framework to narrow it all down, so this guide is structured around the recipe for our signature dish at Nanban, the ‘Lazy Goat Ragù-Men.’ This dish is a good example of the interactive ethos that’s informed so much of what we do: our chefs, our customers, and of course Brixton Market itself have all helped shape it. It started off as a version of a Jamaican curry goat recipe, until our sous chef at the time rejigged the masala, modeling it on his Sri Lankan mother’s mutton curry. A former manager suggested we change the name to ‘lazy goat’ because it no longer really resembled a traditional Caribbean curry goat, and to emphasise how soft and tender the meat was. I came up with ‘ragù-men’ to signal that it wasn’t a typical ramen, with something more like a meat sauce rather than a broth, but it wasn’t really a mazemen either. It’s like the whole of Brixton Market in one bowl, and I think it is probably the best thing we serve.
Your one-stop shop for just about anything in Brixton, but especially spices and other dry stores, will be Nour Cash and Carry, stalwarts of Market Row for twenty years and counting (and unfortunately still under threat from their landlord). But have a look at their fresh produce, too; they often stock exciting rarities like fresh callaloo and curry leaves. For the curry goat, pick up:
25g hot Madras curry powder
10-12g cinnamon (cassia) bark
5g (about ½ tbsp) ground coriander seed
3g (about 1 tsp) mild Jamaican curry powder, or you can just use turmeric instead
3 pods cardamom
2 pieces star anise
Nour’s only legitimate rival in the Brixton spice trade is Aziz Cash and Carry on Electric Avenue. In my opinion this is also the place to get fruit and veg – the juiciest mangoes, the sweetest purple sweet potatoes, the fruitiest Scotch bonnets, and the looooooongest spring onions. They’ve also got fun stuff in the freezers, like yuca chips, guava pulp, and whole tamarillos, and an amazing selection of whole grains, pulses, and the like, so hit them up for all your buckwheat, moghrabieh, black quinoa, or Thai red rice needs. At Aziz you should get:
100g tomatoes (either fresh or tinned will work; we use fresh)
500g (about 2 small or 1 large) onions
15g root ginger
25g red Scotch bonnet chillies
2 spring onions
For more fresh fruit and vegetables, there’s Esme’s Organic and Herbal Products in Market Row, and the veg stall at the Brixton Road entrance to Electric Avenue, next to Boots. The former has some really unique produce very rarely found elsewhere in Brixton, like ugli fruit, nopales, and fresh sorrel. The latter have no sign, but they’ve got some of the best seasonal European produce in the area, like globe artichokes, blood oranges, cobnuts, purple kale, and really, really good English sweetcorn.
The only dedicated East Asian grocer in the Brixton Triangle is Wing Tai, and although an enormous portion of their footprint is dedicated to noodles, they still have the space to house an impressive range of products from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Their fresh seafood is usually pretty good, and they’ve got Asian produce that’s hard (or impossible) to come by elsewhere in the market, like nashi pears, enoki mushrooms, and a variety of Southeast Asian herbs. (It may also be a good idea to stock up on frozen dumplings while you’re there.) For the curry goat, you’ll need:
4g (about ½ tbsp) Korean chilli flakes (gochugaru), or similar
150-200g menma (Japanese brined bamboo shoots, or a similar Chinese product), un-drained weight
a couple spoonfuls gochujang (to taste)
3 tbsp Japanese soy sauce, plus a little more (to taste)
4 portions ramen or similar alkaline noodles (see notes below)
shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice chilli powder)
The Colombian Carniceria Los Andes in the Village is probably the best butcher in Brixton Market proper; their pork in particular is very good, and their chubby house-made chorizo is exceptional. But we get our goat from Jones, the Butcher,just up the road in Herne Hill, where it comes deep red with plenty of intramuscular fat to keep it from drying out during the braise. Plus, they do home deliveries – if you’re placing an order, do yourself a favor and add a pack of their exemplary streaky bacon. It’s so good it casts all other bacon as just shadows on the wall of Plato’s bacon cave. But for the curry, you’ll need:
1.2kg goat leg (this is the total weight, with the bones and fat and everything; if you’re getting trimmed/boneless goat it’ll be more like 1kg)
We use West African dried, smoked prawns as part of the ‘seafood sawdust’ that garnishes our curry goat and other dishes. Traditionally, these are used to bring a rich, smoky savouriness to all sorts of West African soups, stews, and sauces, such as shito, Ghana’s ubiquitous pepper sauce. They are in many ways analogous to anchovies in European food or to the myriad preserved seafood seasonings of East Asia, and they can often be used as such. However, they are not as salty as, say, fish sauce or shrimp paste, and more distinctly ‘prawny.’ Get some, grind them, and add them anything that would welcome a heady shellfish umami, like fried rice, tom yum, or a classic bisque, to give you a few ideas. They’re available all over Brixton, but we buy them from Brixton Foods on Electric Avenue, mainly because they have the most consistent supply of the BIG bags of dried prawns. Pop in and pick up:
40g dried smoked prawns
You will also need:
500mL chicken stock
300mL water, or more, as needed
neutral vegetable oil, for frying, as needed
Once you’ve made the rounds and have your ingredients, let’s cook! This curry is pretty easy to make, but it does take time. If you don’t have/don’t want noodles, it’s just as good with rice or flatbreads or ancient grains or whatever you like – but you should let the liquid reduce during the braise more, so it’s more saucy and less brothy.
Preheat the oven to 150ºC.
Trim up the goat leg and cut it into big chunks, about 2 inches across. You can have the butcher do this for you if that’s easier. Basically, you want to get off most of the thick, yellowish-white fat that runs through the leg, because too much of it will make the curry greasy and give it an overly goaty aroma. Discard the fat but keep the bones.
Roughly chop the onions. Peel the ginger and slice it thinly against the grain to break up its fibres. Combine the onions, ginger, tomatoes and 5g of the Scotch bonnets in a blender or food processor and blitz to a rough puree (if it’s not blending easily, add a splash of water).
Pour a glug of vegetable oil into a deep casserole and set over a medium-high heat, then fry the goat chunks until brown on all sides. Do this in batches (otherwise they’ll steam rather than sear) and remove each chunk when they’re nicely coloured.
Lower the heat to medium and add the onion and tomato mixture. Stir well, scraping up any bits of goat that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the mixture begins to brown, then add all of the spices along with a big splash of water and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. If they get too dry and start to catch, just add a bit more water.
Break up the kombu into pieces about 2-3 inches across and briefly rinse them under cold water. Add them to the pot along with the seared goat (and goat bones, if you have them), the chicken stock, and the water. Stir well. The liquid should cover the goat; if it doesn’t, add a bit more water. Place a lid on the casserole (or, if you don’t have a lid, just cover the top tightly in foil) and whack it in the oven. It’ll take about 5 hours to cook, but start checking it after 2 hours. The goat should remain (mostly) submerged in the liquid for the whole cooking time, so add a bit more water as needed each time you check it. Keep checking the goat every hour or so until it is quite soft – when it can be easily torn with chopsticks or tongs, or cut with a spoon, it’s done.
Meanwhile, make a couple of key toppings:
Scotch Bonnet-Pickled Bamboo Shoots
Combine the brine from the bamboo shoots, the remaining 20g of Scotch bonnets, and the 3 tablespoons of soy sauce in a blender and blitz until liquefied. Pour this mixture back over the menma, stir well, and marinate for at least two hours. Keep in the fridge for up to a month.
Spread the prawns out on a baking tray and toast in the oven for about 15-20 minutes until aromatic and slightly darkened, then remove and leave to cool completely. Grind the prawns to dust using a spice mill or blender, then grind the katsuobushi to a powder as well. Mix both powders together. This will keep in the cupboard in an airtight container for about a month before it starts to smell like ammonia.
Back to the curry: after 4-5 hours, the goat should be nice and soft. Separate the meat from the liquid with a slotted spoon and leave the meat to cool until it’s no longer too hot to handle. Remove the whole spices, goat bones, and kombu, and discard. While the meat is still warm, break up any big pieces with your hands (nothing should be bigger than bite-size) while removing any squishy pockets of fat or tough bits of connective tissue.
Whisk a spoonful or two each of gochujang and soy sauce into the liquid, and taste; add more of each or both if you want it spicier/sweeter/saltier. Add the picked meat back to the liquid. The curry will keep in the fridge for about five days, and it freezes well, for several months. Reheat to serve.
What makes ramen ramen is the addition of kansui, a solution of alkaline salts; namely, sodium carbonate and/or potassium carbonate. These salts change the structure of the gluten in the wheat, giving ramen its characteristic snappy chew. So when you’re buying noodles for ramen, you should check the ingredients to make sure they contain one or both of these salts – if they ain’t there, it ain’t ramen. Often they are listed only by their E numbers: E500 and E501. Fresh (or frozen) noodles are best, of course, but if you can’t get them, dried or instant are fine. Try to use ramen that’s on the thicker side – about spaghetti width or wider.
Wash the spring onions and slice them thinly. Have your curry goat hot and your garnishes ready. Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil and drop in the noodles. Cook according to the package instructions, or until al dente – this will likely take anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Drain well and briefly rinse under hot running water. Transfer to deep bowls and top with the curry, then the garnishes. Stir everything well before tucking in.
Tim Anderson is the owner of Nanban in Brixton https://www.nanban.co.uk/ . His fee for the article was donated by Vittles to Mosaic Clubhouse, a Brixton charity which supports people with mental health issues
The illustration of the Ragu-men was done by Rachel Kett