Today I'm wrapping up my holy trinity of Chinese New Year posts with Silk Road. We started our voyage at C&R in peninsular Malaysia with six centuries' worth of migrant southern Chinese recipes. Next we travelled back up to mainland China for the refined yet familiar Cantonese fare of Pearl Liang. Finally, I invite you to journey with me to Silk Road, serving food from the furthest reaches of northwest China by way of Camberwell. Silk Road serves food from the gigantic Xinjiang province which borders on Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a culturally unique location immediately discernible through its flavours. I'm embarking on new territory here as this is a style of Chinese cooking that is completely new to me; chances are it will be new to you too!
There's a kind of magic in stepping out of the pouring British rain and into the warmth of the restaurant, the rough and tumble interior of which would not be out of place in China itself. The huddles of people waiting around the door and the buzz of the packed long tables are testament to the overwhelming popularity of this place (and indeed, don't bother turning up if you don't have a dinner reservation here as you'll be queueing all night). Hustled to the back of the restaurant, blessedly miles away from the wind and rain, we started safe with dumplings. Yet what dumplings. Fried to perfection and stuffed with soft, wonderfully flavourful beef and onion. A strong start.
But it's where the menu takes a sharp turn away from the easily identifiable dishes that things start getting exciting. A plate of shredded kelp salad with chilli, Szechuan pepper oil and garlic was reminiscent of a Japanese sunomono salad in texture, but with far punchier flavours.
As soon as the waiter set these grilled swordfish skewers down in front of us I knew we'd found something special. This dish speaks volumes about the rich culinary history of the Silk Route: kebab dishes immediately conjure up visions of the Middle East. In fact, shish actually came to Xinjiang through the Uyghur tribe, a Turkic ethnic people who migrated from Mongolia into Northern China over a millennium ago. This fish had an amazingly smoky flavour brought out with paprika and I found myself fighting my family for the meat. For an incredibly cheap lunch, a fish skewer plus vegetables would suit me just fine.
Another set of skewers, and not one that you would immediately associate with a Chinese kitchen. These lamb shish, roasted over charcoal and rubbed with cumin and chilli, were absolutely spectacular. And of course, memories of Central Asia immediately sprang to mind as I bit into the meat - particularly images of snacking on kofte in Istanbul.
Another interesting dish, especially to a girl who considers herself somewhat of a noodle connoisseur. These Xinjiang style noodles are hand-pulled into all shapes and sizes, stir-fried for a deliciously chewy texture, and doused in a broth flavoured with tomato, onion, chillies and pieces of lamb. It's a flavour profile that irresistibly reminds me of Italian pasta, and leaves me in no doubt that Marco Polo must have brought noodles back to Italy (controversial, I know...)
An undisputed highlight of the meal was the double cooked pork - incredibly thin slices of pork belly with shallots and onions, coated in a tangy sweet sauce. One of those dishes where the family ate in silence, interrupted only by sighs of contentment. Make sure you order this.
This 'big plate chicken' wasn't what I expected at all. I'd pictured a large dish of Chinese-style chicken. The reality was far more interesting: a trough of soup brimming with wide, hand-pulled 'belt' noodles added at the table. These were unlike any noodles I'd ever eaten before and actually comparable to sheets of lasagne, spiced up with chunks of chicken, potatoes and green peppers. This was hearty, filling, simple food that I can imagine has been eaten by rich and poor alike for centuries. It's apparently the most popular Xinjiang dish in China, and it's not hard to see why.
And at the end of it all...the remnants of the home-style cabbage. Crunchy young leaves drenched in silky sweet soy sauce and piquant red chillies - well, they obviously went down a treat. So much so that I didn't realise that I hadn't taken a picture until I'd had three helpings.
Silk Road is undoubtedly one of my new favourite restaurants in London. It's been around for a good while but shows no signs of decreasing in popularity. It's also incredibly good value for money (our bill came to about £13 per head). Don't be put off if you're not a south Londoner - this sort of food is worth travelling for.
I hope you've enjoyed my trilogy of Chinese New Year posts! C&R, Pearl Liang and Silk Road show just how amazingly diverse Chinese food can be in the different regions in and outside of China. All three are worth venturing to for different reasons and I would recommend each and any of them to any brave soul wishing to expand their knowledge of Chinese food beyond prawn toast and spring rolls! Tomorrow marks the end of CNY (and the Lantern Festival), so a final gong xi fa cai to all: go out and feast on the food of the Middle Kingdom for one last night.