Rasa – the one on Stoke Newington Church Street

I’ve been meaning to write something about Rasa for ages. Maybe it’s because it has been such part of my everyday life that it doesn’t feel like I’m “going” somewhere, but given that I have been there so many times, it seems ridiculous that I’ve never mentioned it.

In truth, it has been part of my life, on and off, for nearly 20 years. I’ve been there with colleagues, friends, boyfriends and husbands – hell, I’ve even been there with my old headmaster.   And for pretty much the first time in over thirty years, I will be without a home in a London “N” postcode and Rasa will become somewhere that I have to actually go out of my way to get to.

I remember the very first time I went.  I had been persuaded, yet again, by my somewhat culinarily unimaginative husband, to go to the Anglo-Asian, that temple of mediocrity on Stoke Newington Church Street. I noticed the new garish pink frontage across the road from it and like a bright new shiny thing,  I was drawn to it.

Him being strictly come carnivore, I remember there being some resistance to my suggestion that we try it.  No meat, he said. Oh dear, I said.  So we crossed the road and went in and little did I know then, but this was the start of a love affair still going to this day – the one with Rasa,  that is, not the (ex)-husband.

The food is South Indian vegetarian,  but not what you get in those restaurants at the back of Euston – you know the ones I mean. They’re all much of a muchness. Okay, but nothing special. Unlike here.  This food is Keralan,  which means an emphasis on coconut,  great chutneys and freshness. Not wildly hot,  it is still recognizably South Indian vegetarian as a genre  but it’s quite different in execution and subtlety.  I don’t think the menu has changed very much since 1994, and I’ve been ordering pretty much the same things ever since then.   I just don’t get sick of it. Ever.

And really, I do have the same things every time.  I don’t know why I don’t get bored  but I just don’t. I never get bored of boiled eggs and soldiers either. Or chips peas and gravy.

I particularly love it when I go with new people, who have no idea about the menu and ask me to order on their behalf. Joy. My inner control-freak gets to be centre stage and I can stop worrying about whether they will order the wrong food i.e. something I don’t usually order and won’t want to share.

It also means that I can not only get in all my favourite dishes, but also the second-tier ones and even experiment with something I don’t usually order.  I will always start with the popadoms and crunchy savoury snacks,  served with seven or eight different types of freshly prepared chutneys – a world away from the glutinous gloopy mango chutneys and yogurty thing found in your trad Indian.

Then maybe cashew nut pakodas and always the bhel puri, a chickpea/tamarind/puffed rice dish.  I do like a bit of tamarind, don’t you?  I will then order a rava dosa. It is “a large lacy, crispy pancake made of semolina and rice flour batter mixed with ginger, green  chillies and cumin seed. Served with sambar (lentil and vegetable sauce), coconut chutney and spicy potato masala”. It will be one of the best £5.95’s you’ve ever spent.

If you are my novice victims  guests, I will generally order the nair dosa for you,  because it’s a B-list dish for me but it looks good.  It’s that big and impressive ” look at me” pancake, that I always think will be a bit too much of a faff to make at home. I still like it (obviously) but it’s not on the A-list.

I will then order kathrikka curry, which is tomato yoghurt and onion based;  tamarind and lemon rice;  a spinach and toor dal;  possibly some pooris;  tindori thoran (tindoris are like mini cucumbers)  and then,  my star dish, the main attraction,  the dish that never disappoints –  bagar baingan.

This is  an  aubergine – based curry,  but that really doesn’t tell you anything.  It is actually just pure mouth-joy.  Mainly sauce, it has a texture like melted ice cream, a colour like a pale latte and a swirl of yoghurt on top.  Dig in and you will find gooey, melting fried aubergine pieces.

For  years, I wondered what the sauce actually was,  because I  couldn’t work it out.   Only when I got the cookbook did I see that it was mainly made of yoghurt, onion paste,  cashew nuts,  cream and coconut. Oh. It doesn’t sound very exciting does it?   I was disappointed,  expecting a killer ingredient and those things don’t sound as if they might, together, make deep joy in your mouth, but they do. Trust me.

Scoop it up with the excellent flaky paratha or the uzhunappam,  a crispy bread with shallots, cumin and roasted coconut and you have heaven on a plate.

I understand that there are desserts but quite frankly, there has never been a time when I haven’t over-ordered to the point of needing subtly to undo clothing,  so I can actually just breathe and dessert, in those circumstances, always just seems a little de trop.

The thing is, in case you hadn’t noticed, I have a real soft spot for this place. There are, indeed, other newer places which have interesting and inventive Indian food. I love the food at  Dishoom, for example, and Roti Chai, and  there are many others.

Dare I say it,  some are better/finer/more inventive, even. But I have a real fondness for this place.  It’s been doing what it does well for nearly 20 years.  It has won many awards  but has never been anything but great value. It is run by a really lovely gentle man, Das, who is passionate about the cuisine and who has built a little Rasa-empire on the back of it and  most importantly it has never served me a bad meal.  And for that I am truly grateful.

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