Bowled over by Bagan, London
Would your idea of a perfect Saturday night involve sitting on a table full of strangers, being fed from bowls and watching as the chef cooks your food? What was that? You’d have more fun at the dentist? Well then, you obviously haven’t eaten Bagan!
Bagan translates to ‘bowl’, and I for one am happy to eat a cuisine that’s all bowl and spoon. With the weather as it is, you really want something hearty and gloopy, something you’re in danger of burning your mouth on – yes, give me a furry tongue in the morning please.
Things start well: the doctor-cum-chef, founder, and brains behind Bagan; Cordelia Peel doesn’t even break a sweat. It seems like nothing would phase this girl, welcoming us all as she talks about her passion for food from her Burmese heritage, moments before the first bowl arrives at the table: a Gin Thoke (Burmese ginger salad). As well as the heat from the ginger, it’s crunchy and strong with chickpeas, cabbages, garlic and nuts. I really could eat this as a last supper and die happy.
As for sitting on a table with strangers, this goes well too. It’s like a wedding without family politics ruining it for you, and it’s nice to chat and be chatted to, in a city where small talk is so very often second to none.
The home away from home feasts (£40pp) move around the city, and tonight’s kitchen is in the London Cooking Project, which is situated in the middle of a housing estate in Battersea. There are more than a few ‘am I going the wrong way?’, ‘will I get there alive?’, ‘tell my mate Mike he can have record player’, thoughts on my way to LCP, but before I know it, I’m inside and tucking into my second bowl: red lentil and tamarind soup.
The soup feels like it’s good for you as it goes down, all warm and wholesome with an earthy, pulse flavour, but it doesn’t bring any fireworks – just like that pot on the shelf in your bedroom, it adds to the ‘shabby chic’ vibe you were going for, but standing alone it’s nothing special – just there to do its job, appeasing to the Burmese tradition of four courses.
The best flavour comes from the main dish with its island of fragrant white rice and sea of Burmese Style Dal. Eating this feels like walking out from the cold into a house with the heating on, complemented by a sharp tomato and red onion salsa and crispy fried onions, it gives you all the textures you could possibly want.
As the last faultless bowl arrives – coconut rum ice cream, with a mango coulis so yellow it should have had a smiley face, and a buttery black sesame shortbread – I wonder why there isn’t more of this kind of experience around, there isn’t any notepad to take your order, no grumpy waitress on minimum wage that doesn’t want to be there, and no complaints from other customers because they ordered first.
This isn’t fine dining, it’s raw, it has soul, it’s not trying to be a duck jelly or a frog tart, but still knocks your socks off with an experience you’ll want to follow to the next destination, be that in a house, school, bungalow or loft. So, pop your socks back on and eat Bagan one bowl at a time.