Soul ‘n’ Surf – Shaking up the neighbourhood

To say they opened only 7 months ago, Soul n Surf on Great Ancoats street is already causing  quite the stir. You’d be forgiven for thinking their Instagram account is shared by two different venues, as they go from chilled brunch to serious club scenes. It’s a vibe and it’s all down to  partners Titi, Ayo and Ben – not to mention the brains behind the brunch, manager Billie. 

I sat down with Billie and Titi – who’s head chef, as well as co-founder.  We friggin LOVE a woman in charge so it was great to hear about her journey and how the fusion of West African and Soul Food from America’s deep south, came to be.  

Titi, who – “I started over lockdown doing catering from my home, serving seafood on a tray.” I  realised that there was a demand for this kind of food and people were surprised, saying ‘I didn’t  know you could have Jollof rice and lobster’ so it was different.

The concept, Titi explains, is that you can have traditional Nigerian food, “and it doesn’t have to be native, but it can be modern. Anyone that walks in can enjoy our food. It’s for everybody.” 

When I tell you the way Soul n Surf is multi-faceted, what they’ve done with the limited space they have is a madness. The site now occupies what used to be Soul Coffee, but you wouldn’t know it. 

Thev’ve added a bar, social seating and a huge mural celebrating black excellence – from Wizkid to  Whitney, Anthony Joshua to Aretha – and a less-melanated Aitch makes an appearance, in homage  to Manchester’s greats. Titi says, “it represents us – my age group, my race.” It’s a place that is vibrant, welcoming – and above all, proud. And that shit’s infectious, you guys. 

Now on the food. Demand for Titi’s cooking means she quit her full time job in customer service in  banking – so only a slight change. Billie has been in the tight-knit hospitality community since uni,  honing in on a love for all things brunch – which is why they hit both mealtimes so well.  

Among the waffles and full breakfasts served by day, the Frenchie is a brunch dish that stands out.  

Pillowy, thick slices of fried brioche with a sugared crust that is just 👌🏾 this slab of perfection is then  drizzled with caramel sauce, biscoff, strawberries and blueberries, golden syrup, and vanilla mascarpone. Beaut. 

If you’re okay with eating two meals in one venue with a five-figure combined calorie count, then stay on for the Soul platter, where you’ll be greeted with all the gifts: crispy chicken wings and king  prawns that are sweet and spicy; buttery, garlicky lobster tail; your choice of fried rice or jollof rice (which Titi makes with veggie stock so you’re good) and sides like mac ‘n’ cheese. Holy hell.

Billie describes soul food as, “food that makes you feel warm, full and happy. It’s not particularly  healthy-” -but literally, who cares? This is a place to indulge in every sense. Undo your belt, let loose and  join the party. Soul n Surf are the neighbours we all wish we had.

Go down and show them some love.


The expression “soul food” originated in the mid-1960s, when “soul” was a common word used to describe black American culture. It came about after the Great Migration of 1920s when black communities uprooted and left their homes in the south due to the rise of racial intolerance moving to North and West-America.

Adrian E. Miller, who wrote Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at  a Time, discusses the origins of soul food in this Epicurious article. It’s 2022 and surface tokenism won’t fly; if we’re going to enjoy the food – we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the culture and what came before, right?

Chicken Run: A proud poultry legacy

“Where I’m from, it’s all rain and music – but I’d go to this chicken shop after school and get a chicken split” 

This was a very real conversation I’d had with a friend at uni halls in 2009 (shut up) about what’s so great about where we came from. I’d heard about the long-standing institution that is Chicken Run even before my first trip to Manchester, so pretty fair to say this feature has been a loooong time coming. Kwame, who now runs the family gaff with his brother Leon, took a hot 5 to step out from the mad crowd of regulars and (believe me when I say-) KEEN new diners, and give us the Chicken Run story, of which he is a main cast member. 

“Funnily enough, no one actually realises this but you know the actual movie Chicken Run? The guys that made it lived around the corner, so we were there before that was even around… 

Theres a lot to it. I wasn’t born when it first started, but for the most part my mum and dad started it just as a way to support their children. My dad has 13 kids, he’s always been cooking.” 

Kwame’s father retired after running it for 31 years, to fulfil a lifelong dream. “My whole life he’s been setting up to go to Africa. Since the beginning, he’s been trying to build a house there and sort stuff out to live there and now finally he’s been able to. So he’s left it to me and my brother.” 

With such a cult following, it’s a lotttt of pressure. But if anyone knows how to carry on this legacy, it’s Kwame and Leon, who spent most of their childhoods in and around the joint: 

“In Primary, after school, we’d all be sat upstairs most of the evening til 9pm”. 

So it’s widely known that you go to Chicken Run for one main thing, their holy grail: The Chicken Split. While I wait for the interview, it’s all anyone in the packed place orders, so it’s important to relay to you just how deserved the hype is. 

Tasting notes: A long dumpling, pillowy on the inside and with that sweet, sweet crust on the outside – sliced through and stuffed to within an inch of its poor delicious life with CR’s signature fried chicken and tart salad cream. It’s messy, it’s glorious, and it’s a joy to eat. It was a good part-way through our chat that one of Kwame’s well-meaning friends stopped to tell me I had salad cream on my nose, which should give you an idea as to how this behemoth of beauty is to be eaten. No regrets tho huns, you’ve got to lean into this party in your hands and not GAF. It’s the only way. 

They also serve home-made cakes (Kwame’s favourite is the marble, but I think my heart belongs to the pineapple, with hot custard. Oh god.) Wash all the goodness down with some homemade juice – go for the sorrel, you won’t regret it. 

Standing proudly in Moss Side since 1989, the place has seen a lot of changes over the years, and the whiff of gentrification is permeating the area. The shop used to have a bullet hole in the wall, for those who remember, and Kwame reflects on how different things are: 

“Its way calmer than it was then, even in terms of things you’d see outside. The odd shooting here and there, you don’t really get anything like that anymore.” 

Manchester is rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK, with the property market a bloodbath. Make no mistake though, Chicken Run’s going nowhere. 

“We’ve been here long enough so not much is gonna affect us, but you can see it more when you go up princess road. Like, they’re building slowly away from town all the way down. It’s mad.” 

On his way back into the shop, which is now heaving, Kwame calls over his shoulder and asks if there were any requests. ‘How do you want it?’ My indecisiveness due to ordering-regret and thoughts of Tu Pac serve me well, as

I’m presented with a Kwame Special. And oh sweet baby J, this thing is weighty. Unwrap the paper and behold: a chicken split BUTONLYWITHMACANDBLADDYCHEESE. These things are filling as fuck as it is, but why not treat yourself? You’ll be full for a week. 

Ending on the Chicken Run ethos, Kwame shows that he’s staying true to his parents’ vision and nothing will shake this institution. 

“Feeding the community, that’s what it’s always been about. There’s a lot of people that rely on us” 

Now, more than ever, this resonates. Do yourself a favour and get to Chicken Run, where you’ll be eating history, community and soul. 

Jerk Junction: It’s in the seasoning

Jerk Junction has been around since 2013 but when Jake took over the restaurant 1.5 years ago, their progress and growth have been clear to see: from their epic rebrand, to their expanded outdoor cabin seating with neon feature wall – all in the name of feel-good food. It’s fair to say that they’ve claimed the corner of Manchester and Woodside Road with music, the most mouth- watering smells, and always a warm, community vibe. I chatted to Miss Lola, who’s been running the kitchen alongside Miss Ivy for years before the change in ownership; if anyone knows what’s up, it’s this doyenne. She tells me why Jerk Junction is always a party, and we talk nose-to-tail eating, growing up in Jamaica, and what makes JJ’s food the most unapologetically authentic Jamaican joint.

Jerk Junction revamped: their outer cabin with the neon wall.

“At the end of the day, the secret is in your seasoning. We love food, we love getting together and eating – that’s the thing about Caribbeans.

You’ve got to have the right seasoning and cook it for long enough. Take our rice, you can’t just cook it in half an hour and you can’t just cook it from a tin.”

Now, if I could only relay to you the absolute horror on Miss Lola’s face when I tell her about Tilda’s Caribbean packets of microwaveable rice…

Right: Heidi talking to Miss Lola

Then, to the kitchen, where Miss Lola runs the show, stirring as she goes – and hot damn, kittens, is it an immersive experience: the herby, homely smells from the huge bubbling pots of rice and peas, her jerk gravy (an ode to this later) and Scotch. Bonnets. Everywhere. Plant-based eaters will be thrilled to know Miss Lola is working on her famous stew peas recipe, but vegetarian-like, and they do offer vegan stew on the menu. We also stop to admire the homemade dough being worked, knowing it’ll be fried into the most delicious fluffy dumplings, or spinners, with a sweet, crisp outer shell. We know size doesn’t matter but these are MASSIVE, like biting into an apple but a much more rewarding experience.

We first try the curried goat, and I already know it’s going to be an emotional experience just looking at the bowl, with its deep colour and fragrant steam. It’s rich and savoury, slow cooked on the bone (picky eaters, get over it, that’s where the flavour’s at) for the most tender chunks of meat that melt in your mouth. It’s peppery and warming and the perfect winter companion, served with rice and peas and golden plantain.

While we eat, Miss Lola reflects on her experience with food growing up, having moved to the UK when she was 10, and accessibility to ingredients in a wildly different time:

“40, 50 years ago you couldn’t get all these things. Over the years everything improved, you don’t have to go back to the Caribbean and pack a suitcase with spices…we all can have the Caribbean taste here – but’, she warns, ‘if you don’t have the traditional way of cooking, it won’t taste the same.’

There’s truth to what she says when you look at the following Jerk Junction has, ‘we get every nationality, everyone comes here and they tell people ‘you’ve got to try JJ’ because it IS proper Jamaican food – there’s no half-measures about it y’know? And that’s how I want to keep it.’

When it comes to committing to authenticity, Jerk Junction puts their money where their mouth is. We enter the Jerk Shack which houses Jake’s pride and joy: the custom-made drum imported from Jamaica. The jerk chicken, by way of coals and magic I’m sure, is cooked to perfection, every time.

Left: Jerk Chicken, Right: Ackee and Saltfish

It’s their speciality so you can expect nothing less than juicy, smoky chicken that stops a conversation and demands all your attention. I chose to douse mine in their jerk gravy which is beautifully fruity, with a slow-building heat that’s not quite spicy, but rounded with sweetness and tang.

Miss Lola’s favourite dish is her ackee and saltfish ‘with roasted breadfruit because that’s the Jamaican in me.’

Her ackee and saltfish situation is actually kind of holy with its seasoning, and completely different to anything else on the menu. The thyme complements the salt-cured fish and the soft ackee is a taste I can only describe as ‘fun’. It’s herby, a teeny bit spicy, but so fresh and light you could eat it by the bucket, with very little chewing necessary. Plus, ackee is healthy af and full of nutrients so there’s that.

On maintaining Jamaican culture and tradition in the UK, Miss Lola notes the disparity between the two cultures: “There’s other things that people don’t eat that we eat, like stewed peas with pig tail. I still cook it; my friends come round to eat it, but I cook it for joy. It’s an occasion food. The children like it as well, you see. And our children are born in this country so you have to each them your tradition and way of eating otherwise it will just die out you know? You have to keep at it.”

We discuss the future of Jamaican food, and Caribbean food in general. With a lot of chain restaurants like Turtle Bay popping up all over the UK, Miss Lola is firm in her belief that “Jamaican food is strong enough to stand on its own because people want it to be proper Jamaican…my plans for the future is to enjoy what I’m doing, and I can’t see me not doing it, it’s for the love in me, to promote Jamaican food. The original, not the watered-down version.”

Far be it from me to question anything Miss Lola says. While they’ve enjoyed well-deserved success, Jerk Junction recently came under fire from a ghastly minority online after being featured in a Google ad for #spenditblack, and raising awareness about Black Pound Day (BPD is the first Saturday of every month where people can make more of a conscious effort to buy black-owned). Trolls are gonna troll, but really it begs the question: if you enjoy black food/music/art/aesthetics and love to benefit from black culture, but don’t want to see black-owned businesses elevated and celebrated, what are you doing eating their deliciously-seasoned food in the first place?

Some food for thought there. Catch Miss Lola, Jake, and the team, where they’re open 7 days a week in the new year. Lucky us!

Tue-Thu, Sun 12pm-10pm
Fri-Sat 12pm-12am
*will be open on Mon in the new year

Halal ✅
Vegan options ✅


Nestled in the Northern Quarter, Ali has been running Little Aladdin since 1997, when the NQ was
a different place entirely.

“I took over the cafe when this area was mainly serving the Asian community working here in the warehouses and factories around NQ, and that’s how these menus came about — Hello there!”

This is pretty much the pace of this whole interview: from his tiny counter in his tiny corner cafe, Ali sings out snatches of his story (ask him about his Bollywood renditions) between greeting and serving customers during the busy lunchtime on which we cleverly decided to schedule this chat. His offering honours the cafe’s past lives, continuing to feed and sustain workers in town with massive portions for small prices.

The majority of his customers are regulars and vegan, but that’s about all they have in common. From students to construction workers, everyone is-without exception-so down for this food.

At the counter, you’re taken through the range of seven (seven!) vegan curries for your Rice+Three, which change daily and is their most popular order. On this particular Tuesday, you could choose from dishes including daal, spinach, cabbage, mixed veg, and cauliflower. Throughout service, I watch as food appears from what seems to be a hole in the floor – and when I can’t take the mystery any more, we’re led downstairs to the kitchen where world’s friendliest chef Mustafa shows us his prep and cooking area – there are chickpeas marinating everywhere, and it smells so good.

“The way we prepare the food is as if we’re cooking it for family at home. There’s nothing artificial, and the flavour is very unique. Because it’s vegan it will always be affordable”. [We digress at this point to talk about the resentment we feel towards establishments that do vegan food for super-expensive]

The food we had was fresh, honest and flavourful. It’s very much a no-frills affair, which is why a falafel and fried tofu wrap (ngl looks basic, tastes amazing – especially with their homemade selection of vegan sauces: chilli, garlic, mayo and mango) won’t even set you back a full fiver. The Biryani though, was notable in that where a traditional Biryani would be layered and cooked with bone-in meat, its absence changes the dish entirely. Expect generous chunks of butternut squash and other nutritious veg in there – you won’t miss the meat, I promise.

Ali’s journey with veganism started with a health concern:
“I was always a big lad, still am. I started cutting down on red meat to lose weight, then stopped eating meat completely. I realised you don’t have to add any animal products to enjoy good food. Then I got really really ‘holy’ on that – started working on myself and also learning from the many different vegan communities in Manchester and their views
— Hi guys, how are you?”

Ali’s is a story of travel, hard work and determination. Like many in the 80s, he emigrated to the UK from Pakistan in 1986, “I came alone and didn’t know anyone. I would say I’m a self-made man; I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs but I worked hard, I feel like my cafe is a community spot serving the many friends I’ve made.”

With a story so familiar and reminiscent of the many people from all over the world, coming to the UK full of hope and carving out an honest existence, it is truly what makes Manchester such a beautifully diverse city. When asked for his parting words of advice for those trying to make it on their own, Ali is a champion of grit and self-motivation:

“Nothing is unachievable – and don’t give up early. Though Covid did affect us big time with offices not being fully open, but people are starting to come back in. Never give up. The most important thing I would like to say is that nothing is going to help or be enjoyable if you don’t have proper good health, and that’s starts with food, the environment, and animal welfare.”

Ali dreams of expanding his tiny cafe, able to then offer even more of his super-popular
vegan food. With his growing die-hard following he has shown that this, like his dreams
before, can be achieved.

Bonani – Generations feeding generations

People say, ‘do what you love’. For me, that equates to spending a Tuesday evening with Shab and the team at the iconic Bonani takeaway in Cheadle, open since 1984. Between the phone answering, coordination with the kitchen where his brother Mohamad Kofi is head chef, and bants with the many, many regulars – we chatted about Bonani’s story. 

Left: Shab // Right: Tandoori Chicken

“So this was opened by Dad and uncle in 1984. Dad’s been a chef since the 1960s in the UK and they opened up here. They had it for a few years, then Dad fell ill and uncle wasn’t too good either, so my brother and myself took over and we’ve been here since ’89.  

[Worth mentioning that Shab started when he was 16 so it’s safe to say his first job’s going pretty well.] With the food scene in Manchester exploding in recent years, why has Bonani been around and so popular for so long? 

“Consistency. Hard work, looking after people. A lot of customers are more like friends. So, people whose dads started eating there in the 1980s, they’ve grown up with this food, and now their kids are coming in. It’s just an all-round family business I suppose, isn’t it?” 

Being open for 37 years means Bonani has seen through the food fads of your parents’ youth. When their regulars started to request groundbreaking items such as Doner kebabs  – ‘give us one of those little babies you do’ – and pizzas, Shab was receptive to the community input and added Kebab and Pizza sections to the menu.

While they have a cult following in Cheadle, I’ll be honest: a takeaway menu of behemoth proportions as Bonani’s could be a bit of a red flag to a passer-by. Rest assured though, what you get when you order from Bonani’s original menu is what you got in its early years  – all in the name of consistency. 

“We maintain that tradition, we make the same curries over and over and over again, and people like that and they come back. Our madras is the same ingredients as when my dad started making them in the 1960s.” 

And oh, that madras. Watching the food as it’s freshly made, it’s easy to see why Bonani is such an institution. They don’t skimp on ingredients and everything smells insane – special shout-out to the 14/10 Jalfrezi, it’s just really really good. Shab relays orders from his regulars, adding the nuances like ‘extra coriander’ and ‘extra garlic’ and it’s clear he knows his crowd. 

But it doesn’t just stop at the menu requests. Due to super-popular demand (it sounds like the people of Cheadle really know how to get shit done) Bonani is open on Christmas Day and apparently it gets rammo. An order of fragrant Garlic Chicken Curry with generous cloves glistening like jewels – easily my favourite curry of the evening – does sound a bit more appetising than dry turkey tbf.

Left: Garlic Chicken // Right: Chicken wings

The curries are what you’d expect of a traditional curry house, but done to the highest standard. For me though, it has to be the succulent, spiced, and just very red skewered meats: lamb chops, lamb shashlik, mahoosive chicken wings and seekh kebab are served with bhajis in the Tandoori Mixed Grill. And the fresh naan bread that’s expertly rolled out and then slapped to the side of the clay oven, bubbling and browning – I can’t. All hail the tandoor. 

Hanging out in the takeaway was so much fun, and an insight into what makes this gem so popular. The food is great, and watching Shab interact on such a personal level with literally everyone who walked in is reminiscent of when you were a kid in the supermarket with your parents and they’d stop to chat with the whole neighbourhood doing their weekly  shop. 

Armed with a metric fucktonne of deliciousness, I employed the prescribed method of enjoying a meal from Bonani’s: at home with about 7 others, eating and sharing and talking over each other. 

It used to be that Bonani was only available to take out, but true to form, Shab is ready to  change things up again and says that Bonani will be available to order on Deliveroo. Don’t miss this.  

The Little Yeti: a love-letter to momos.

Siblings Niti and Nanny brought the Little Yeti Nepalese street food to Chorlton 3 years ago and it’s… not your typical Nepalese restaurant. Walking into the bright, airy interior with exposed brick and winding foliage, the piped in Incubus track from their 2000s Kerrang! Playlist is the cherry on top of this very unique spot. The Little Yeti’s is a story of navigating two identities and cultures, with the outcome being some of the best food I’ve eaten in the most breezy and unpretentious setting.

What can you expect to eat at TLY? Nostalgic tastes and textures dictate the menu here, with each dish’s development starting off with the preface ‘do you remember when we ate this?’ It was a combination of trial and error, and the secret language of siblings; Niti is quick to stress that this is a joint effort of both the family and support from the wider Nepalese community. ‘All of it is personal and reminiscent of things we grew up with.’

It’s important to note that while the items you’ll find on TLY’s menu are recognisable, some sort of wizardry happens in the kitchen that makes these familiar dishes so, so insanely good. Vegans can rejoice, as one whole page of the double-sided menu is veggie-vegan, which is refreshing to see. The Paneer Shashlik sizzles and sings with cumin, garlic and peppers. The vegan Chow Mein, while not a dish I would ever order based on past disappointments, is a total remix job: it’s fresh, flavoursome and has none of that gross oily film that you can get. The creamy lentil daal is hearty; the bhajis here are like no other lover – crispy and light and so effing moreish. There’s not one thing I’ve tried here that wasn’t a pleasant surprise

Left: Vegan momos // Right: Paneer Shashlik

But if I could sum up the TLY menu for you, it would be one word: Momos. Tbh the momos here – both meat and vegan – need their own appreciation post because I simply can’t do them justice. So generously-filled, with the most pleasingly-chewy pleated dough. Niti tells me that, in true community spirit, she employs a couple of local Nepalese students to pleat the momos on a part- time basis, which definitely beats a paper round.

Back to the momos. Their meat is tenderised old-school, using papaya instead of chemicals so when you bite into a steamed pork momo, the juice just squirts out of the gelatinous, addictively- spicy parcel and – It’s almost pornographic this, sorry.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a secret momo to try: while they have achar (spicy tomatoey sauce that is a staple in Nepal and India) and garlic sauce options for your momos, if you ask for your order to be fried in chilli oil, you’ll be gifted with what I’m going to commit to here as the best momos I’ve ever had. Ever. Look at that chilli glaze. The GLOSS. Order a couple of these because even though they’re generous with the portion-size, you’ll be really sad when it’s over.

Despite neither being a trained chef, Niti and her brother Nanny grew up around the hospitality industry with both parents working in restaurants as waiters and chefs before opening the Gurkha Grill in Didsbury, and the Kantipur in Stockport. They spent a lot of their childhood being looked after by their grandma, and Niti starts to reflect on the external influences and experiences that shaped her formative years as a ‘second-generation’ child of immigrants.

“When you don’t see your parents often and you’re obviously from a different culture that isn’t the one you’re growing up in, It gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?

It was really, really bad, the abuse we got, and just for being brown”

Nanny + Niti

In order to survive, Niti and Nanny had to assimilate and become the most ‘westernised’ version of themselves – but that’s not without its own repercussions, particularly from the Nepalese community

“We grew up somewhere in-between, not English enough and not Nepalese enough… we found it very difficult to have that positive association with our culture, because for the most part, we were taught that we should be embarrassed about where we come from.”page1image126752

So, what started to change Niti’s self-perception and helped her to begin to un-do the internalised racism she grew up with? Momos, of course.

‘Somewhere in between all that, I found out about momos. We had momo parties quite often, and I started to realise that I friggin love momos. I mean, I cant. It’s my absolute favourite food, I’ve loved it my entire life… and as I got older I started to realise that I love Nepalese food.

Niti’s journey has made her unapologetic in her dual-identity, with a clear focus on what she wants TLY to be.

“Yeah, you can just love your culture. You can just love whatever the hell you want to love and you can do it in whatever way you want to do it.

I’m not the ‘most Nepalese place in the entire world’. I am who I am and this is what my Nepalese restaurant looks like.”

Right on cue, we hear a lovely bit of JimmyEatWorld as Niti’s complex but all-too-familiar story of straddling two cultures comes together in the eclectic and magical Little Yeti.

The future sounds exciting as Niti’s thinking about expanding and experimenting with new momo fillings and glazes, and I am here. For. it. Can you think of anything better than eating dumplings all day and watching the world go by? No, me neither.

Nila’s Burmese Kitchen and challenging ‘authenticity’

‘What is authenticity? For me, it was what my mum cooked, back in the 70s.’ 

Nila opened her Burmese kitchen 6 years ago after years of what-ifs and dormant plans. She grew  up in London, relocating from then-Burma when she was 5; moved to Manchester to study Geography at university, and worked in the civil service before packing it in to commit to fulfilling a niggling dream: to bless us all with her bomb food.  

‘I did it. I just thought, you know what – I’ve got to do it now, or never.’ 

I shudder to think where we’d be if she hadn’t. Nila trained in various cooking classes and did a Cordon Bleu course in London, but the food you’d be lucky enough to put into your face at Nila’s Burmese Kitchen is what she used to eat at home growing up.  

We sit in the super-inviting, super-colourful cafe to try the menu, which is available from 12-3pm, Monday to Friday. A country bordered by India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand, you can expect Burmese food to be a glorious marriage of all of these cultures. And you’d be right, friends: the  pork tamarind curry which you can also find in northern Thailand is so, so tender, tangy and flavoursome. This is a favourite of her regulars, and it’s easy to see why.

Curry number 2 is pure comfort and familiarity; a chicken and potato curry with lemongrass and  cardamom, this is a variation of the Bangladeshi aloo murghi (which everyone including my own non-Bangladeshi mother claims they have the perfect recipe for).  

Lastly, a delicious and hearty curry containing yellow split-pea, cauliflower, and potato vegan option, one of the few items on the menu that doesn’t contain fish sauce.  

For me though, the biggest shoutout goes to Nila’s zingy, light and stupidly-moreish laphet thohk salad made with fermented tea leaves, fresh tomatoes and chilli, and nuts. This is hard to come by  in the UK so if you have a chance to try it, do!

Nila’s Laphet Thohk Salad

As we eat without pausing to inhale, Nila tells me about her childhood growing up in the 70s in London:  

‘There were six of us and my parents. I remember eating cornflakes for the first time thinking ‘what is this? Cold milk?!’ this was gross because we don’t really drink milk in Burma and it had gone all soggy.’  

She gestures at the ohno kaukswe [literally translated as coconut noodles] in front of us, which I’ve been trying and failing not to stare at as we talk. It’s a thing of beauty: chicken coconut noodle soup, thickened with toasted chickpea flour and garnished with boiled egg, fresh coriander, crispy onions and chilli. ‘There were a lot of ingredients you couldn’t get, you know, we kind of forget what it was like in the 70s. The food phenomenon here wasn’t as diverse…so my mum used to make noodle dishes with spaghetti’. 

Some of Nila’s standout dishes and the Ohno Kaukswe (chiicken coconut noodle soup – pictured right)

While substituting noodles for spaghetti might sound like sacrilege in today’s age of super-convenience, it certainly tastes like nostalgia to Nila as she goes on to say it’s a variation she replicates at home on the regular. The subject of authenticity comes up again, and Nila ex plains that in a country with over 135 different confirmed ethnicities, ‘you’ve got the same ingredients, the same dish, but each dish can be so different from family to family.’  

‘All Burmese people – it’s not just me – are hugely passionate about food. They love cooking their food, even if they’re not ‘in’ it, you know, they don’t work in that profession. So there are some amazing Burmese home cooks.’  

Nila’s is situated on Third Avenue in Trafford Park, on a random-ass New York-style grid of streets which used to be a Ford factory car park. With covid and WFH rendering the surrounding business parks near-barren (and being next to a Gregg’s), the footfall just isn’t there.

A really exciting solution to the absence of her loyal return customers – at least while we navigate  new working lives – may be in the form of intimate supperclubs and cooking classes (a thousand times yes). Her amazing curries are also condensed into pastes and her chilli-garlic dipping sauce is bottled and available for people to order, supporting this hidden gem during this bastard pandemic.

Watch this space – we’ll see you on 3rd Avenue. 

At The Table with Amma’s Canteen: A story of love, family bonds & tossed salads

This is part of a series by Heidi Elkholy (@saltfatacidheidi) called At The Table that highlights Manchester’s rich and diverse neighbourhoods, celebrating food, culture and community. Previous feature: HQ Nigerian

Being around owners Ganga and Saju is like coming home during your uni Christmas  break: there’s warmth, knowing comments that push all the required buttons for the  inevitable bursts of laughter, and mock-outrage. It’s something special, and it’s exactly what you can expect when you visit them at Amma’s Canteen.

‘When it comes to our dishes, we choose what we enjoyed growing up’. 

Amma means ‘mother’, and so it’s not a great leap that the super-popular Alleppey fish curry is based on Ganga’s mum’s recipe. Wild to think we’re not just eating a curry, we’re eating a dish passed down through generations, where the nuances of flavour and trial and-error seasoning means everything is exactly how it should be. Saju’s family’s side  also features on the menu, with recipes from his mother and aunts. It’s like being invited  to the table at a family reunion and stuffing your face with delicious, nurturing love. The  recipes from Kerala, Chennai and Madras come straight via the family WhatsApp group.

As well as the menu being an homage to the women in Saju and Ganga’s lives, the  restaurant floor is very much a family affair. Their daughter would work front-of-house  before going to university, and the small team of floor staff have to go through every item  on the menu for their staff lunches (the actual dream) so they are super-well-informed  when dealing with customers. 

Amma’s mission is to dig the UK out of the very out-dated expectation of the ‘Curry  House’, where every region in the world’s seventh largest country is picked apart and then  mashed together in a homogenised bastardisation of Chicken Tikka Masala.  

‘Our restaurant is not in the format of an Indian restaurant – we don’t sell popadoms, and  English people can walk in and find they don’t recognise any of the dishes’.  

But they’re not in a hurry to add Jalfrezis or Baltis to the menu, and don’t get Saju started  on naan bread: ‘My mother first tried naan bread when she was 45! In South India, we  don’t have wheat farming so you won’t get naan here.’ 

Saju’s is a long and fancy relationship with food, having worked as a chef for 30 years in  the swankiest hotels like the Taj group where the pressure was on to impress the  celebrities and royalty that would visit. Unlike a typical Indian curry house with grandiose  vibes, you won’t find any imagery of fancy India at Amma’s Canteen. The interior is warm  and inviting but is decorated purposefully without rank, without pretence. Of the awards  that this place has won, the only one Saju will display is the Vegan Offering of the Year  award from Manchester Food and Drink Festival in 2019, ‘Vegan food should not be an  afterthought’. Saju argues that the Indian caste system and the food associated with the  highest caste has perpetuated the idea that India is the land of elephants and maharajas.  ‘India’s got 600 million poor people and they eat delicious food everyday… That’s the food we want to give’ 

Cue the ‘From the Street Cart’ section of the menu, where dreams come true. You’ll also  find a Curry, Biriyani and Dosa section of the menu, in lieu of the conventional (but not at  all Indian) starter-main-dessert set up. I’ve only ever made it past the street cart section  once, and that was only because I was sated by the fact that there were enough of us at the table to ensure we could order everything. Super-standouts are the delightfully hot  Chicken 65; the Porucha Vendaka – okra fingers stuffed with a mixture of nuts, raisins and  then fried to perfection with an amazing chilli hummus. And if we could all just take a  moment to appreciate the beauty that is Saju’s Cauliflower Bezule: spiced cauliflower  served with a tangy okra yoghurt dip that delivers a surprising amount of heat. Because  they care about your experience so much, Ganga tells me this particular gem is not on  the takeaway menu, but if you nag them enough they may oblige you. You’re welcome. 

If you like dim sum, their Stuffed Kozhukattai, is a must-try. Home-made folded parcels of  glutinous joy filled with veggie-chilli goodness and served with a dollop of what’s called  ‘poor man’s dip’.  

The biriyani is like the most delicious savoury trifle (stay with me) in that it’s layers and  layers of delightful tender lamb chunks, rice that is seasoned for the gods, and fried  onions on top, hitting all those brown-mum nostalgia points.  

We end on the topic of India’s vast diversity. Some people describe countries that large as  a ‘melting pot’, but Saju says ‘a melting pot means assimilation but in India, every region  has its own perfectly-formed culture and they’re all mixed together, more like a tossed  salad.’ We then take a million photos of them and their waiter Harry, who is loved and  ribbed mercilessly in equal measure. It’s clear to see the team at Amma’s Canteen is treated like an extended family, and we love to see it. 

Ganga, Harry and Saju

Opening times:

  • Tues-Thu 5-10pm 
  • Fri-Sat 4-11pm 
  • Sun 4-9pm 

Halal friendly, gluten free options ✅

HQ Nigerian and embracing the Ugly Delicious

This is part of a series by Heidi Elkholy called ‘At The Table’ for EATMCR that highlights Manchester’s rich and diverse neighbourhoods, celebrating food, culture and community.

With roots in Benin, Henry has been manning family-owned HQ in Fallowfield for the last three years, and he has a lot to say about the under-representation about one of the most flavourful, most musical cuisines. I’m prone to hyperbole, sure, but that suya spice mix makes my tongue sing. If you haven’t tried Nigerian food, you’re probably in the majority, as there are only a handful of outlets in Manchester, but HQ – and Henry’s infectious enthusiasm – is the perfect place to begin your education. 

‘We’re at a point where Nigerian food – African food in general, is just getting discovered.’ 

As we sit to eat the most intensely-fragrant, delicious spread, including suya (grilled beef or lamb – or both, please!) super-silky pounded yam and Egusi soup (not a soup that you  might recognise, this has a hearty texture and gets its name from the dried and ground  melon and gourd seeds that are used in many West African dishes). An enemy of bland food, every bite packs a punch – even the more unassuming dishes like boli (easy-peasy  roasted plantain) come with a sauce that’s so fire you could drink it by the jugful. For those wary of spice, I should stress that while the food is definitely spicy, there are so many other elements that dance in this flavour profile than a flat, one-tone scorching heat. The chilli kicks you in the face, but you’re then rewarded with moreish savoury tastes and a building sweetness that rounds this unreal experience off. 

So if the food is so ridiculously good – this is fact, I’m afraid – why haven’t we seen more of it? 

‘I don’t know why it shouldn’t be in the mainstream – so who’s not looking there? Because other cuisines like asian food, they all have a market… maybe because you eat with your eyes, and that’s where we’re unlucky’ 

And there it is: the fear of the ‘unknown’. An unfamiliar-looking dish with interesting textures and a foreign name will put some people off before they try it. Sad but so true, though Henry has the solution for this: 

‘I think [people have] not been educated about the ‘other’ side of food. It’s like, before you get anyone to try something, you would bring them to a point where they’re comfortable. It’s a lot of work.’ 

He’s not wrong, but Henry is confident that Nigerian food will win you over when you try it  (Amen!) It’s at this point that he brings out an ‘easier’ () dish of chicken and beef spring  rolls. So far, so beige, but that symphony of seasoning in the meat hits like no spring roll I’ve ever tried before. You ain’t ready for the pure joy in that uber-flaky crispy filo pastry.  

The idea of ‘eating with your eyes’ plays so much into Eurocentric standards of what is considered ‘normal’, ‘palatable’ and familiar. Any child of immigrants in the UK will tell you that Primary school lunch times could be a minefield to navigate, with children expressing  disgust at ‘foreign’ looking and smelling food. This is a very simplified comparison to describe the alienation of certain cuisines, and in time with education and increased representation, this can change. That said, the rise of the ‘ugly-delicious’ and David Chang’s Netflix show is also a great thing for world foods.

‘We need to get [Nigerian food] out there because if you lined up a Nigerian Jollof Rice (Ghanaians, stand by) with a burger, it would beat a burger every. single. time.’ The only thing that Henry says gives the burger an edge is the visual, ‘If you use the right picture, you’d be getting both the visual and the taste. Because any burger that you have out there by comparison is TASTELESS.’ Cue irreverent cackling.  

We go down to the kitchen and sample some of the spice mixes. Most of the dishes on HQ’s menu, while usually containing meat, can be adapted to cater for vegetarians and  vegans when informed in advance. This is because most dishes are a long-ass labour of  love; slow-cooked tender meat adds both protein and a rich depth to the sauces, like the  simmering tomato stew with the softest beef that might bring a tear to your eye. Nigerian  food is first and foremost a source of sustenance, eaten to ensure you’re able to graft, but  none of that sad ‘food is fuel’ BS, our tastebuds deserve better:  

‘The sweetest thing about it is that Nigerians type of cooking has nothing to do with a specific food, it works with every single raw material, that has to do with food out there, just making it different – spicing it up giving it that Nigerian feel.’ 

With all this said, Henry’s already looking to what the future holds for Nigerian cuisine:  ‘Let’s take the burger again … once we’re done with all our traditional dishes, we’ll start to do fusion. We’ll take a burger or a Chinese dish, and make it Nigerian. So there’s a  serious market that’s trying to get started and it’s in its engine stages. Now I just got to put the mirrors on.’  

He completely loses me at this point because I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole imagining just how insanely delicious that crossover would be. 

Head down to HQ on weekdays for lunch or dinner and visit the website for a visual of what to expect when you order. It’ll blow your mind.