From squeaky Syrian cheese to fragrant Laotian broth, there’s never been more opportunity in Britain to enjoy food from other cultures. BBC Good Food celebrates 10 entrepreneurs who have introduced us to exciting new taste sensations.
From war-torn Syria to food glory in Yorkshire
Before Razan Alsous escaped to Britain from the chaos of Damascus, she had never worked in food. Five years on, her deep love for halloumi has made Yorkshire Dama Cheese one of the region’s hottest new food items. The factional fighting and military checkpoints had already made daily life in Damascus terrifying, but when an explosion rocked her husband’s office in 2012, Razan knew it was time to leave. Given their dramatic back story, the poor quality of halloumi in UK supermarkets may seem trivial. But for Razan, it was a culture shock.
In Syria, which exports halloumi (‘hallum’) across the Middle East, the cheese is a prized staple eaten in meze-style feasts. The halloumi Razan bought here was, she says, “tasteless” – just rubbery and squeaky. “I started to think: why not make it?” Inspired by Yorkshire’s beautiful cow’s milk, Razan experimented, first at home, then in her brother- in-law’s former fried chicken shop. Since being unveiled at the 2014 Harrogate Fine Food Show, her creamy, full-flavoured Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese has won a raft of awards and the approval of chef James Martin, who featured Razan on BBC Two’s Home Comforts. Now based near Halifax, the growing Yorkshire Dama team makes several cheeses and labneh, which are sold in delis across Yorkshire and online.
Mastering Mexican food up north
Tired of lame burritos? Meet Enrique Martinez (above) who is going the extra mile to ensure that his four Pancho’s Burritos outlets – in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool – would pass muster even in Mexico City. Enrique imports many of his ingredients including dried chillies, corn tortillas, even salt. “Mexican bay leaves are completely different, too,” he says. “It’s all about quality ingredients.” The first Pancho’s Burritos menu extended beyond burritos to quesadillas, tacos and tostadas, but it also included cactus sauces, a chilli inspired by picadillo (the forerunner of classic chilli con carne) and ad-hoc specials, such as a pozole stew made with real hominy corn. But if you over-indulged the night before, Enrique recommends the mutton and pasilla chilli stew, a spin on slow-braised barbacoa: “It’s a dish Mexicans do on hungover Sundays with corn or rice, as a hair-of-the-dog.”
Social enterprise and south Indian food
Chennai-born Shanthini Ramanan (above left) and her daughter Abi help transform the lives of marginalised South Asian women via the medium of masala dosa and biryani at London’s Papi’s Pickles. As soon as Shanthini arrived in Britain in 1986, she began to scour Yorkshire for fresh coconut and block tamarind, while fermenting her home-ground dosa batter in a tiny airing cupboard. In 2014, this dedication took on a new purpose when she and Abi launched Papi’s Pickles, a catering company, pickle manufacturer and Borough Market stall that trains and employs marginalised South Asian women. The women are mainly – but not exclusively – ethnic Tamils who fled to Britain to escape Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war. Such women often arrived in the UK not just traumatised and bereaved, but with little English or education.
Papi’s, she says, is more than a job. “It’s opened up a new world for them,” she explains. The decision to centre Papi’s outreach work around food is significant. Shanthini is a trained psychotherapist, and talks of the love poured into cooking Papi’s masala dosa, chaats, coconut biryani or Sri Lankan-style deep-fried lamb parcels as a kind of “spiritual” healing. “If a customer wants our food, it’s an honour. We believe they bless you, indirectly, by eating the food.” Papi’s has a collaborative structure, designed to offer employees the maximum support and respect. “We don’t have designated jobs. Everyone pitches in and does everything together.”
In 2012, Taiwan-born Erchen Chang (above middle) was selling bao at London street-food events. Today, these steamed bun sandwiches (inspired by Taiwan’s larger gua bao) are a UK-wide sensation. Erchen now runs two outlets of the appropriately named Bao in London and, together with her co-founders, is embarking on a far grander mission. Their latest restaurant, Xu, is a glamorous evocation of 1930s Tapei that explores Taiwan’s distinctive, Japan-influenced cuisine. Dishes such as tomato and smoked eel and Iberico pork collar marinated in char siu are served alongside fascinating seasonal cocktails and rare teas.
East Asian explorer
Saiphin Moore, who runs Rosa’s Thai restaurants, was born in Thailand. But her most recent venture, Lao Café in Covent Garden, celebrates the food of neighbouring Laos, her family’s ancestral homeland. Laotian cooking deploys similarly fiery, salty, sweet and sour flavours to Thai, but it is distinctive in several ways (think less coconut milk and more egg-washed, charcoal grilled rice patties). Try the grilled fermented sai gork sausages, mushroom broth with ant’s eggs or minced duck laab salad.
As the son of chefs, Damian Wawrzyniak was destined for kitchen life. His career so far has been remarkably varied, including a period working in Pakistan, a stint at the world-famous Noma, and even showing Mary Berry how to bake babka on BBC Two. At his Peterborough restaurant – the rustic, Poland-inspired House of Feasts – Damian wants, he says, to “challenge the idea that Polish food is all cabbage and schnitzel”. He takes traditionally brined meats and pierogi, along with plates of sourdough and smalec (spreadable, cured pork fat) and gives them a sharper, more refined edge.
Leeds-based Iranian chef Afsaneh Kaviani, who was a finalist in the 2012 series of MasterChef, says that she “promotes Persian food the way it’s served at home”. To Afsaneh, who runs supper clubs under the name Afsaneh’s Persian Kitchen, this means sharing feasts of rice dishes (layered with dill and broad beans, or topped with fried saffron carrots and nuts) alongside roasted lamb, slow-cooked stews or chicken in walnut sauce with pomegranates.
Martin Auer runs a street-food stall in Edinburgh that sells knödel bread dumplings. These novel dumplings (filled with beetroot, spinach or cheese and served with cabbage salad and a beurre noisette dressing) are a favourite in Martin’s native South Tyrol, a historically Austrian region of Italy. “But here I don’t have much competition,” he laughs. Martin also runs an Alpine-style café called Alplings where the menu includes homemade German spätzle noodles with Italian sauces such as carbonara and pesto.
Cypriot goat aficionado
Born and raised in rural Cyprus, Nadia Stokes grew up with kid goat meat as an integral part of her diet. However, when Nadia moved to the UK, she was unable to source good quality meat reared to high welfare standards. Now, through Gourmet Goat, her award-winning stall at London’s Borough Market, Nadia is pioneering the use of kid meat (as well as veal and mutton) in a variety of authentic and appetising Greek- Cypriot dishes.
Every Saturday at Netil Market in east London, Makda Harlow’s (above left) Lemlem Kitchen serves ingenious ‘afro-tacos’ from a hut modelled on the famous Tagliero petrol station in the Eritrean capital Asmara. A doubled-up disc of taco and injera (a lightly sour, spongy flatbread), the afros are topped with the fragrant, rich stews that define Eritrean cooking – like cardamom-and-coffee-braised beef or berbere-spiced zigni lamb.
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