Mackerel glisten under the fluorescent light, their skin all black, silver, blue and green iridescence. Lap-fai Lee picks one up, checking the fish for freshness. He smiles: “This is one of the best places for fresh fish and seafood in the country.”
Lee is taking me on a tour of Birmingham’s Bull Ring Indoor Market — it’s primarily a fish market, but also sells meat, vegetables, fruit, household goods and clothes. We saunter from stall to stall, inspecting marine life from British shores as well as seas far away — live lobster and crab, lemon and Dover sole, brill and plaice lie side by side with tropical-hued fish from warmer waters. Butcher stalls display regular cuts of meat as well as animal heads, tongues, trotters and innards; all of it reflecting the city’s diverse palate and passion for nose-to-tail eating.
In Birmingham, you’ll find cuisine from more than 25 countries, and a look at the raw produce in the market gives an insight into local tastes. For this is a city with a large racial mix: there are big Pakistani, Indian, Irish, Jamaican, Bangladeshi, Polish, Somalian and Chinese communities. It may be famous for its Balti Triangle, but there’s much more than curry to try here.
From the market, we cross to the city’s Chinatown for dim sum at Ken Ho. We’re served char siu pork baked in flaky pastry puffs, tripe in satay sauce and har gau, which turn out to be some of the best pleated shrimp dumplings I’ve ever eaten. “The dim sum selection is the freshest in town; the menu is relatively small so everything is handmade,” Lee says.
At nearby Peach Garden, ducks with burnished skins hang from hooks behind steamy windows. Inside, as he marvels at the crackling on his crispy pork belly, Lee tells me: “A plate of Cantonese roast meats and fluffy white rice is the best pound-for-pound meal you can get in Brum.”
Lee — whose parents arrived in Birmingham from Hong Kong in the 1970s — is an expert on the food of his home city, as well as various regions of the world. At Loaf, a food-based social enterprise, I attend his Thai cuisine class. With a mountain of glorious produce before him, all bought in Birmingham, Lee tells us that the five tastes key to Thai cuisine — sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter — should be balanced across the whole meal, not necessarily in each dish. We learn to make tom yum soup, green papaya salad, unctuous beef cheek massaman curry with fried potatoes, a southern dry curry of minced pork (khua kling) and deep-fried sea bass. The food is terrific — better, to me, than many of London’s hippest Thai hangouts.
Yet it’s not just multinational cuisine that puts Birmingham on the culinary map. It vies with Edinburgh as the place outside London with the most Michelin stars — each city has four. And at Carters of Moseley, it immediately becomes clear why this young upstart of a restaurant attracted the star-givers more often drawn to stuffy and staid fine-dining establishments. The ethos may be ‘simple, affordable, fun’ but much of the food is truly astonishing. There’s Dorset oyster cooked in aged beef fat; sourdough made with flour from nearby Sarehole Mill, served with Exmoor caviar and Tamworth pig fat butter, sea salt and caramelised onions; and burnished Cornwall mackerel with English yuzu juice, light soy and rapeseed.
Chef Brad Carter tells me: “Our main ingredients are sourced from the UK and we only import really special things that we can’t replace — things like bianchetto truffle. It’s great to be able to get wasabi grown in the UK, as well as yuzu and kaffir lime.” Together with his wife, Holly Jackson, he’s been running Carters for seven years.
Another of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants is Simpsons, housed in a lovely light room in a mansion in Edgbaston, a leafy suburb a mile from the city centre. Things are a little more traditional here, the cooking extraordinarily adept. The tasting menu features a carrot broth that has a depth of flavour you’d never expect from a vegetable soup. Chef Luke Tipping says his cooking is inspired by the very best of what’s in season: on my visit this means dishes like flamed mackerel with oyster emulsion, kohlrabi, buttermilk and dill oil; and Norfolk quail with salt-baked risotto, pickled walnuts and watercress.
A city once filled with the clanks and hammering of industrialisation, Birmingham now seems to echo to the sound of the shaker as a creative cocktail revolution takes hold. At independent hotel The Edgbaston, cocktails and afternoon tea are served in a decadent, art nouveau-inspired room. The Little Black Book is the menu, with the city inspiring the names of cocktails: there’s Peachy Blinders (a nod to the BBC’s locally set Peaky Blinders), the Fruit Cup (inspired by the Bull Ring Indoor Market’s exotic fruits), Mr Blue Sky (named after a song by Birmingham band ELO) and Red, Red Wine (UB40 are also Brummies, you know). “We’re telling stories through drinks,” bar manager Tommy explains.
And it’s not the only excellent drinking den in town. At 40 St Paul’s, a booking-only joint with 140 gins, drinks are based around a flavour wheel, while at Smultronstalle (meaning ‘place of wild strawberries’ in Swedish), an eight-seater bar in a secret location, I’m truly blown away by the cocktails-as-art concept. Owner and drinks maestro Robert Wood, who previously worked at both The Edgbaston and 40 St Paul’s, claims it’s the only bar in Europe with a cocktail tasting menu.
“We like to build a coherent progression of flavours and have tailored three unique menus which provide what we consider to be the best representation of the current landscape of drinking,” he says.
An amuse bouche of a piece of fermented apple finished with apple eau de vie tells me that Wood approaches drinks with the mind of a chef. All served in gorgeous glasses and cups, we move from Dijon in Winter (champagne granita with honey and blackcurrants), to Red, Red Rose (a concoction using the popular wine-based aperitif Lillet Rose), through several more tipples to what he describes as the ‘crescendo moment’ — his Cherry Bomb. For this, cherry liqueur is combined with kirsch oloroso and cherry reduction for a triple hit of the fruit.
What enchants me most is the story of Hawaiian Host, named after Wood’s favourite chocolate macadamia nuts — he’s tried to capture the flavour of the sweets he ate as a child on holidays to Hawaii; he even asked a scientist to extract and distil the essence and aroma of empty Hawaiian Host cardboard boxes. I’m utterly enthralled. Birmingham might be Britain’s second city, but right now it’s making a serious claim to being the first for cocktails.
A taste of Birmingham
A bakery and cookery school in south Birmingham, Loaf is a workers’ cooperative building ‘community through food’. Classes include Thai cooking with Lap-fai Lee, various types of baking, knife skills, bao and dumpling making, and a seafood masterclass. Thai cooking classes from £70.
Carters of Moseley
This cosy place is culinary dynamite. There’s a youthful vigour not just to the cooking, but to the wine list and the knowledge of the waiting staff. Dishes include Tokyo turnip, duck leg and aged Berkswell; and cod, Musselburgh leek, ramson and buttermilk. A four-course lunch menu costs £40, six courses is £60. Dinner menus from £45.
The light, airy room and nature-inspired decor are perfectly matched to the well-thought-out seasonal food at this restaurant in the suburb of Edgbaston. Simpsons has held a Michelin star since 2000 but the food has moved on since then, incorporating modern techniques and flavours. Chef Luke Tipping also offers The Eureka Kitchen Chef’s Table, for eight to 10 guests, who can watch as he prepares their meal. Three-course lunch menu is £45. Dinner tasting menu £110 for seven courses and snacks.
Staying Cool, in the city centre Rotunda building, has self-catering apartments from £99 per night. Virgin Trains offers one-way tickets from London Euston to Birmingham New Street from £8. visitbirmingham.com
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)