Last year, riots broke out in the Algerian capital, linked to food prices, housing shortages and rising unemployment. Because of its reliance on imports, the country frequently experiences acute food shortages and food price inflation. Currently produce such as chicken, mutton and beef is sold at prices which are well out of the reach of most of its middle-class population.
I try not to take it for granted that we don’t have this problem here in London. Or anywhere else I’ve lived, for that matter. Estimates/the BBC suggests that British households throw out more than 4.4 million tonnes of edible food every year. Waste not, want not, and count your blessings, I say – so Algeria is country number two on my list. I am only trying to make sure that no food in London is wasted – it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Wait a moment – haven’t I already covered A? It might be a better idea to cover only one country for each letter, I’ve been told, and then start over again when I’m done the 26. I don’t think this is a better idea. And this is my project, so I make up the rules. Algeria it is.
Conveniently, there is an Algerian restaurant around the corner from my house. And we all know how much I hate to leave Brixton unless I have to. Why should I? With Brixton Village at my fingertips, there really is no need.
Khamsa on Acre Lane has received rave reviews across the board since its opening in 2009, and I have to admit that last night was not the first time I’d been. But on my first visit, I didn’t make it to dessert, and I thought that was reason enough to head over a second time under the auspices of a new hobby. Maybe this is cheating. But again, this is my blog and my rules.
Algeria’s national food is couscous. I do not like couscous. Quinoa, yes, bulghur, yes, couscous – it’s gotta be made real well for me to enjoy it. Luckily, Khamsa makes it well. Other things to expect from an Algerian meal – an abundance of lamb (including merguez), tagine and lots of earthy spices, like ras el hanout. Also, hummus.
If you looked up the term “diamond in the rough” in the dictionary, you would, or should find a picture of Khamsa beneath. Acre Lane is not a nice road. Once, I bought a bottle of vodka after leaving the Grand Union (bars close early in England) from a shop which keeps all of its stock behind bullet-proof glass.
Once you are inside, this is irrelevant.
Spread over two floors, the restaurant is decorated with local artifacts – including miniature ukuleles – decorative tagines, and a very large squash. Apparently, the ukulele is the new recorder, and is very popular amongst Shoreditch hipsters and primary school children.
The atmosphere is very warm – both in terms of design and service. Once the door closes behind you, the noise of the city disappears and you could easily imagine yourself at a small cafe in North Africa, or even in someone’s home. The downstairs bit (I only ventured down right before we left, to find the toilet) is especially intimate – exactly the type of place I could see myself hiring out for a celebratory meal with close friends, or a special birthday, which for me, is not 30 this year.
The menu changes every three months – unfortunately for me, there was no hummus on offer this time. But no matter – we ordered the selection of seven salads for two people – even though we were four. Served with homemade bread made with saffron and semolina, this was a good way to start the evening, providing you like lentils, chickpeas, carrots and beetroot, seasoned with cumin and presented beautifully in a star-shaped dish. This was a no-brainer, really. Yum.
My loyal foodie friends Jon and Emma chose to share the daily special, a braised chicken tagine, prepared with sweet potato (Emma loves potatoes, and has been known to order a potato dish, with a side of potatoes) spinach, sultanas and almonds. Seeing as we’d been there before, Duncan and I both went for kebabs with couscous – Duncan the lamb, and me the chicken – and again, the couscous was so fluffy, it could have been a cloud. What does a cloud taste like, you ask? This. It tastes like this. On a related note, if you like clouds, you will love the book Clouds That Look Like Things. A party trick like no other.
The best thing about Khamsa is that the food is made to order. This may not sound as impressive as it is, but believe you me, there is something very special about knowing that your dish is bespoke and wasn’t put together using pre-cut, re-heated ingredients, no matter how good they taste. (I’m not a snob – I go to Prezzos too). The kitchen is located in the same space as the dining room, and you can hear the garlic sizzle and smell its aroma fill the room while the husband and wife team who run the restaurant prepare your meal themselves. This is the beauty of local business. There’s no pressure to pump out as many identical florentine pizzas or chicken katsu curries as possible, and the food evokes a certain sense of ownership; it is fresh, it is authentic, it is healthy and there is no middle man offering you 50% off if you use your Tesco club card points. Not that you need to – at £15 a head, we thought dinner was a steal.
Should this not be enough, they offer an assortment of mint teas, fresh juices and baked goods to take away – but once again, I didn’t make it to dessert. This is the type of place that I wish more people knew about – but at the same time, am glad they don’t. At least not until next time.
Need to know:
140 Acre Lane
Nearest tube: Brixton
See website for opening hours (www.khamsa.co.uk); closed Mondays. Bring your own wine, but not your own soft drinks – the owners are boycotting big companies which sell them and ask that you respect their philosophy.