John Torode: Seoul food

John Torode: Seoul food

John Torode’s new book is inspired by his travels through Asia but the master chef still loves the markets and little-known grocers of his old stomping grounds of Balham and Clapham

In his new book, Sydney to Seoul, John Torode embarks on a food odyssey creating vibrant recipes inspired by his travels from Australia and through the Far East. From fresh Aussie breakfast dishes, delicious Asian curries, and bowls of tasty noodles to barbecues influenced by both Sydney beaches and Korean grills, the book is a captivating journey to some of John’s favourite places. 

“The book is about who I am and what I love. My favourite place to travel is Asia; I love the flavours, the diversity, the herbs, I love the chillies, the people and the markets. I love everything that goes with it,” John enthuses.

“The book is not just about cooking, it’s about inspiration. If it does anything I am hoping it will get people to travel. Or get people to walk through China Town, pick up a bunch of something they don’t recognise, buy it and go home, learn about it and cook with it.

“In south west London there are lots of great Asian grocers now. In Earlsfield there is the Thai Grocer along Garratt Lane and Tooting has fabulous stalls in the market. They’re all great places to buy fantastic ingredients from,” he continues.

Balham boy

Though he now calls north London home, John Torode lived in south west London for around 13 years from 2001.

“We lived in Balham and Streatham Hill and I still have friends and connections down here. Balham has changed a huge amount. When I left Balham, Hildreth Street Market had Milk [the café] on the corner and that was about it. When I first arrived in Balham there was the Jamaican fish shop, there was the halal butcher at the far end of Hildreth Street and it was still very much a West Indian market. That’s all gone, which is a bit of a shame but now what you have is young trendy people eating brunch in cafes on a Saturday.”

As his children were growing up in the area, John had several go-to family favourites when he lived south west. “Dip and Flip on Battersea Rise make great burgers – my kids always talk about it. I have great and fond memories of Buono Sera [on Northcote Road] as well. I love those guys, and the squid with the courgettes is always fantastic. Milk is really good, they’ve always done some really interesting things over there. It’s owned by a young Australian guy who knows his stuff.”

The book is about who I am and what I love. My favourite place to travel is Asia; I love the flavours, the diversity, the herbs, I love the chillies, the people and the markets. I love everything that goes with it

It’s little surprise Milk – the Balham cafe known for its brunches – is on John’s list. While John is credited as one of the main players in introducing Australasian food to the UK in the mid 90s he is also the man who turned breakfast on its head. In a time when restaurants opened for lunch and dinner only, John opened his restaurant – Smith’s of Smithfield – for breakfast as well.

“I opened Smith’s up for breakfast in 2000. I remember telling my major shareholders and them saying ‘breakfast?’”, John laughs mimicking his shareholders incredulous tones. Fortunately despite their reticence, John went ahead with his plan.

“We did about 40 people on the first weekend and the next Saturday I think we did about 180 and the following Saturday we did 650. And from then on, Smith’s became the place where everybody went for brunch and lunch. They travelled all across London for it – it was absolutely huge. And I’m really proud of that. We broke the mould with it. Then people started to come and have business breakfasts. Then suddenly you’ve got the Wolsley opening up for breakfast. I used to open Smith’s at 6.30am and by 7am every day I would have a waiting list of around 30 to 45 minutes.”

Recipe for success

The Masterchef presenter has won over millions of viewers thanks to his straight-talking style and onus on flavour – a theme that runs throughout the new cookery book.

“Let’s be fair, we’re all time pressured so there’s things in the Sydney to Seoul that will just take minutes and there are recipes that will take hours. It’s about the time we’ve got to hand. Seasonally, there’s a recipe for a whole grilled fish, and that’ll be great when the sun is shining and you’re outside. But if it were a cold rainy day I would probably make a randang and some rice or a big pot of noodles or a big Asian soup for lunch. I love soup, it’s one of those dishes we all seem to forget about. In the book there are some really easy ways to make broth that I think are wonderful; some with noodles, some with chicken and dumplings.”

“There’s a tofu salad with sesame and pumpkin seeds, which I made the other day again and I honestly forgot how good it was. The book is about trying things. It will get people eating tofu and not thinking it’s some kind of weird thing. Tofu is magical.”

Talking to John Torode about spices, ingredients, world cuisine and yes, even tofu, is inspiring. He enthuses about the green-grocers and stalls along Northcote Road, the grocers in Tooting and the Asian food store in Wimbledon, so much so that you want to shoot down to one straight away. It’s all a great food adventure and his next project is no different.

I’m about to head to Egypt which I’m fascinated by as I really don’t know much about it. And that’s what excites me as I don’t know what will be there and what we’ll find.”

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