Birmingham doesn’t love itself enough. When BBC researchers asked the city’s residents where the channel’s first soap opera should be set, they said if it was set in their home town they just wouldn’t watch. Londoners didn’t have the same problem. Which is why we ended up with EastEnders. When I asked David Lodge, the novelist, why the place had low self-esteem, he reckoned it had something to do with being in the middle of England. “Southerners think of Birmingham as being in the North, and Northerners associate it with the South. This deprives its citizens of strong sense of social and cultural identity.” But times are changing.
The Digbeth Dining Club is part of that change. The winner of the Best Street Food Event at last year’s British Street Food Awards was in the rough, exciting, young area of the City, and we were delighted to have them host the Central heat of the 2014 Awards. There were well over 2,000 hungry mouths to feed at the heat on Friday, and everyone sold out. Apart from Platinum Pancakes. Pancakes never sell out. The winner? With a guaranteed place at the final of Awards, in Leeds on September 26-28? The heavenly Buddha Belly.
Sai Deethwa is a third generation street food trader. Her Auntie, back in Thailand, was in the business, but – to begin with – Sai wasn’t convinced. “I didn’t fancy standing outside” she says. After she made it into the final 24 of Masterchef 2012, street food seemed to allow her the opportunity to be her own boss and sell her own menu. So she set up Buddha Belly. Her food is cheffy but, as Thurber said, ‘Seeing is deceiving – eating is believing’. Her chicken is beautifully moist, and her vegan yellow curry, with toasted cumin and coriander seeds, is sweet and comforting. So, for now, she’s happy enough to stand outside. But catch her while you can.
But there will be more than one BSFA finalist from the Midlands. Too early to say for sure, but I just know it. We could take our pick. The Original Patty Men, for instance, had a real Shoreditch look – the beards and the tattoes. But the togarashi seasoning in their Sumo Burger – especially the chilli powder and szechuan pepper – gave them a unique feel. There was wasabi ketchup for heat. And ribboned cucumber, pickled in mirin, for sweetness. Interesting texture. Not piled too high. And a good shot of alcohol off the sake. I was a convert.
It didn’t end there. The Meatshack burger worked beautifully as an amalgam of ingredients. That’s something McDonald’s does really well in the Big Mac – you don’t taste the bits, you taste the whole. You have to slow down and think about the separate flavours to notice things like the sauce and onions. But it was worth pulling apart Paul’s Jam Pudding burger. It was smeared with bacon jam (onion jam meets smoky bacon) and grated black pudding. Not Bury black pudding, you understand. Paul felt it too commercial (“it’s in Asda now”) so he went for Stornoway instead. Delicious.
Andy from Low ‘N’ Slow was serving a beef rib that was the best I’ve had in a very, very long time. The man is a true Doctor of meat. He knows all there is to know about the science of deliciousness. He imports his ribs from Dexter farms in America, and understands about the need for fat. It’s what carries the flavour. The queue for meat like this was ridiculous, but – trust me – the perfection was worth waiting for.
Then there was Manila Munchies which offered up something really different – tender pork skewers that had been marinated in soy sauce, ketchup, lemonade, honey and sugar pepper (the authentic taste of Manila I’m told) and a vivid green pandan jelly with young coconut, swimming in cream and condensed milk. For those that reckon street food is still about hot dogs from a can, sold from a rusty metal handcart, think on.
Yes there were hot dogs. But Chillidogdogs served up proper A W Lashford sausages. Yes there were toasted sandwiches. But the Jabberwocky offered up a God-sent filling of black pudding and pheasant. And yes there were pizzas. But the pizzas from the Spectacular Goat (with bunting and Cath Kidston curtains) came topped with goat’s cheese and rocket – not doughy at all, and browned in all the right places.
Esmie’s homemade dumplings (more like crisp, fried pittas) stuffed with fish and handfuls of fresh salad were a real find. And so was Pietanic. This converted ambulance served homemade pies, out of a pie warmer, with big scoops of mash and ladles of homemade gravy. Rabbit and pancetta is the pie to ask for. The rabbit comes from a nextdoor neighbour that’s handy with a shotgun – the thick pastry comes from the angels.
To round it all off, you might think that a waffle is just a waffle. And in many ways it is. But presentation at the Bournville Waffle – from the beautiful vintage caravan to the good-looking team and their colour-coordinated aprons – is what rates this outfit as a cut above the rest. The precision cream delivery? Like professional pastry chefs. The flaked chocolate topping? Placed – just so. And the fruit jus? Drizzled with the accuracy of a surgeon. That’s why we’ve already booked them in for Trinity Kitchen this September.
On to Bristol this Saturday for an extraordinary line-up that includes the best traders from the South West and Wales, including Dorshi, the Cauldron and Vee Double Moo. Then it’s Manchester, London, Brighton, Norwich and Edinburgh. It will all be down to the public vote again (download it over at www.britishstreetfood.co.uk/app), but they will have to be going some to improve on what I ate in Digbeth. We’ll see you in Leeds, Sai.