Living in the East End of London might seem like an odd decision. Nobody has ever heard the suburb I live in. People look at me aghast when I say the postcode is E16. Friends ask me “do trains run there?” (do I look as if I walk everywhere?!?) But there are huge plusses. I don’t have to take the Tube to work. I wake up to the sound of wood pigeons in my garden. And I live in a suburb full of people that weren’t born here, so there are all kinds of specialist shops and exotic foods on offer within a 10 minute drive from my house.
One of my favourites is China Square – a huge Chinese supermarket in Barking. We happened upon it one day while driving somewhere else and spotted it from the A13 motorway and just pulled in on a whim. There’s a restaurant attached which has a promising-looking menu but doesn’t have the most auspicious location for ambience (don;t know what the Feng Shui master woudl say about the A13 running past your front door and a warehouse-like supermarket under the same roof…). So we haven’t ventured in there yet. But we do patronise the supermarket rather a lot.
We usually come home with bags full of goodies like black bean & garlic sauce, creamed sweetcorn (something that’s on every supermarket shelf in South Africa, but strangely absent from UK shelves), noodles and soy sauce – and change from a tenner! The creamed sweetcorn, for example, costs £1.10 from South African shops in London, but you can get a tin (different brand, same taste) at China Square for 62p! And I am assured by Greg, my foodie friend in Sydney, that the soy sauce we bought (Pearl River dark soy sauce) for only £1.20 for 750ml is top notch. They also have fridges where you can buy meat (we got a huge rack of pork ribs for around £3!), wonton wrappers and frozen pork char sui buns (sublime). And if you are in need of utensils to cook your purchases, they also sell a huge selection of catering equipment – you can get any size of bamboo steamer you like, from intimate-dim-sum-for-two to catering-steamed-rice-for-twenty size steamers.
A couple of weeks ago, Nick went and came back with a big 1kg box of New Zealand green-lipped mussels, for something like £2.50. Now I have always loved mussels. I have memories as a teenager of joining my friend Alison and her older siblings and friends on early morning trips to the beach where we’d each be given a plastic bag and a knife and sent off to collect the 25 mussels each that our permits allowed. After coffee brewed over a fire on the beach to defrost our cold hands, we’d all head back to Ken’s place for a feast. I used to watch in wonder as he soaked the mussels in sea water, removed their beards and then boiled them. After he’d got rid of the ones that hadn’t opened, we all joined in removing one shell from each mussel and laying the rest out on baking trays while Ken prepared the garlic butter. I still rememeber Ken’s mom owned the first garlic crusher I had ever seen and I remember being fascinated – in our house you used garlic flakes or nothing! Anyhow, once the butter was done, each mussel shell got a good dollop, after which the baking trays were covered with aluminium foil and put on the barbecue until the butter was melted. Mmmmm!! Little shells of fishy, garlicky goodness.
This was also pretty much my standard order in subsequent years at the Knysna Oyster Company in Knysna (the years before I discovered the delights of oysters, that is!!). The Oyster Company is one of my and Nick’s favourite places to eat and we always make sure we stop there on the way between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town – not only to eat some fresher-than-fresh mussels and oysters with the Knysna lagoon lapping at our feet, but also to get one of their great styrofoam take-away boxes of oysters to take back to PE or Cape Town with us. I first started going to the Oyster Co. in about 1988 and have seen it grow from a rustic hut attached to the commercial oyster farm to a proper restaurant with a full menu and decent wine list – I can highly recommend it for anyone heading to Knysna! But I digress… What I was getting at was the fact that I was used to having my mussels grilled in garlic butter, full stop. And then on a visit to our friend John in Jersey I caught sight of a big bowl of moules mariniere – I was positively salivating in my grilled chicken Caesar (or whatever else I had carelessly ordered!). I vowed that the next time I ate in Jersey, that was what I’d order. And so when we visited Jersey again in 2003 and went to the absolutely fabulous Zanzibar on the beach in St Brelade’s Bay, that’s exactly what I ordered, and I was sold. And this love affair has continued through a visit to Belgium (home of moules & frites!) and various Belgian restaurants in London.
So when Nick arrived home with this big box of mussels, there was little doubt in my mind what we would be having that night – some variation of moules & frites!! A quick look through the cupboard revealed that it was unlikely to be an exotic creation like green Thai curry mussels (!), and so after an audit of what I had available and a trawl through the internet mussel recipes, this is what I came up with:
1kg mussels on the half shell
splash of olive oil
2 chopped leeks
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
bunch fresh chopped parsley
150ml vegetable stock
150ml white wine
Melt the butter together with the oil, gently fry the leeks & garlic till soft. Add 2/3 of the parsley, stir for 1 minute. Add the wine, stock and salt and pepper to taste. When boiling, add the mussels. Cover for 2 minutes, then stir and boil for a further 3 minutes. Serve.
Easy peasy. Served with oven chips (hey – I’m basically a lazy cow!), it was fab fab fab. Quick, easy (especially since you didn’t have to get the mussels off the rocks or any other nasty manual labour!!) and a definite party trick next time I have guests over. Plus, if you can persuade the guests to do what we did and eat largely with your hands and slurp up the sauce in half-shells, you’ll sure save on washing up…
China Square 640 Ripple Rd, Barking, Essex, IG11 9RY
Knysna Oyster Company Long Street, Thesen Island, Knysna, 6517, South Africa Tel +27 (0)44 382 6941
Zanzibar Restaurant St Brelade’s Bay, Jersey Tel. +44 (0)871 4743 881