Lip-smacking Mekong magic… in a Soho pub
The Sun & 13 Cantons
21 Great Pulteney Street, London
I’m not sure why I’m quite so mad about the Mekong. It’s not the longest river on Earth, nor the widest. Not even the most dramatic. But this south-east Asian waterway had a hold on me way before I ever actually saw it. Perhaps it was the surfeit of Vietnam films devoured as a teenager. Even though the two most famous, Platoon and Apocalypse Now, were actually filmed in the Philippines. Still, it seemed impossibly exotic, with its palm-fringed banks, vast freshwater stingrays and catfish the size of cows.
I first gazed upon its muddy, sinuous curves as it flowed languidly through Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s the lifeblood of that great and ancient Buddhist city. And it was on its sultry shores that I fell in love with Laos, one of my favourite countries on Earth. The people. The landscape. The food. Buffalo larp and sticky rice; dried, cured river algae called kaipen; the char of coals; herbs of every hue and tang; padaek (fermented fish sauce), fiery, sour tams (a sort of pounded salad), herb-flecked sai ua sausages and the ubiquitous jaew or jeow, dipping sauces made in a mortar and pestle.
Jeow Jeow in London’s Soho. Flavours here shout and holler, jostling boisterously around the mouth
And Jeow Jeow is the name of a pop-up, open until September, in The Sun and 13 Cantons, that Soho pub where I first tasted Asma Khan’s cooking. Lucky me. Anyway, chef Tania Knott makes no spurious claims to pure authenticity, instead describing the food as ‘Mostly Mekong, based on a love of Thai Isan and Lao food’. Now in the interests of transparency and all that, Tania is a friend. So if the food was dire, I probably wouldn’t review the place. But it’s not.
She’s a damned fine cook, last seen shaking the pans at Snaps and Rye in Notting Hill. But she skips merrily from Scandinavian food to something altogether more fragrant, sharp and spicy. Flavours here shout and holler, jostling boisterously around the mouth. There’s a stir-fried pork and pineapple dish with just the right amount of acidity, and a discreet grumble of chilli. The jeow is made with pork floss (the buffalo skin used in jaew bong proving rather difficult to get hold of in Soho) and has all the deep, rich umami grunt you could ever crave. Hot as hell too. Edges are kept very much rough. Thank God. Scoop up sticky rice, roll, dip, eat.
There’s a glorious larb with pork and brown crab meat, fistfuls of herbs and that discreet, toasted crunch of roasted rice powder. An English take on a Laotian classic. The version with Arctic char is clean, lithe and bracingly sour, the fish farmed in Dorset by a Dane. Trout is very lightly battered, fried and served with fennel and celery. There’s a whisper of sweetness, and a sly chilli jab. Again, not what you’d call authentic but then that’s not the point. She captures the spirit of Laotian food in every bite. With a bit of Isan in there too.
Jeow Jeow is a bracing blast of brow-beading, lip-smacking, palate-cheering delight
Home-made sausage is magnificent, tart, stained yellow with turmeric, and studded with chilli and lemongrass. Wrap in lettuce leaves, pile on more herbs and chillies, slather on the sour peanut jeow and devour in one glorious, umami-packed bite.
A mild sweet-and-sour cucumber salad soothes any throbbing taste buds, and a properly hot and stinky som tum comes with a surfeit of chewy dried prawns. Best of all is a devilled lamb faggot, made with liver and kidney and chicken livers, in a tamarind broth of delirious brilliance. Hot, sour, sweet, salty, all in one slurp.
In a country where Thai food is so often so bland (and Laotian food near non-existent, save the lovely Lao Café), Jeow Jeow is a bracing blast of brow-beading, lip-smacking, palate-cheering delight.
A little Mekong magic, in this most British of Soho pubs.
About £25 per head