The Bartons Arms


It’s quite a modern day phenomenon, Thai food served in very traditional pubs. There are quite a few dotted around down that there London. But the only one in Brum is at The Bartons Arms, a truly gorgeous restored Victorian boozer in a pretty rough corner of town. Sitting in the dining room it’s hard not to think that it may be the most beautiful in the city, not as grand or opulent as Mughal e Azam but definitely having more soul, possessing a timeless quality that’s been scrubbed clean and looks fresh again.

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from the food. I find most Thai food served in the city to be pretty generic, like the offerings in our Balti houses, choose your gravy then choose the protein to go into it. Which is a shame because great Thai cuisine is so vibrant, pushing the hot-sour-salty-sweet envelope with complex flavours. Like a massaman curry which served here comes close to greatness, better than the roast duck curry with pineapple that should be more sour. Most Thai food in this country is generally too sweet and the food here doesn’t escape that syndrome. The juicy well cooked tamarind duck should be both sweet and sour but childishly errs to candy. The hot and salty can be fixed with a little dish of prik nam pla (Thai chillies in fish sauce) at the table but sometimes the sour need to be cooked-in. A gripe, which I happily acknowledge is down to personal preference, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the dishes here. The starters are mixed, nice honey ribs but bland chicken wings and satay. Fishcakes could do with a little more kick but are of a pleasingly irregular handmade shape. Never trust a perfectly round fish cake, they’ve probably been dropped into the fryer from frozen straight out of the packet. There is the sense of fresh ingredients here, from the Thai basil in the curry to the shredded carrot and cabbage garnish, it’s all been cooked with care.

The Bartons Arms
144 High Street, Aston, Birmingham, B6 4UP
Tel: 0121 3335988

Lewis’s of Moseley

There patently aren’t enough delis in Birmingham, which I believe is an indicator of the level of homecooking going on. Though supermarkets provide the essentials, you really aren’t going to find five types of dried Mexican chillies in them. For that you need places like Lewis’s sitting in its prime location between the Fighting Cocks and Bulls Head in Moseley Village. Along with the venerable (and musty) Nima it’s one of two whole delis in this suburb.

I wasn’t joking about the dried chillies, Lewis stocks a nice selection of Cool Chile Co’s Mexican stuff from corn husks and masa harina to tomatillos. He’s also got a spiffing line in Mediterranean goods which are the lifeblood of delis like his. Where else would your yummy mummies (and me) go to find Spanish Tapas essentials like Santo Domingo Pimenton De La Vera, Valdespino sherry vinegar, Brindisa chorizo or Perello Gordal olives? Interesting pasta shapes like bucatini and panettone at xmas? Or even Vietnamese summer roll kits.

There’s a limited but good selection of charcuterie and cheeses, some fresh seasonal veg including gorgeous heritage tomatoes. Fresh artisanal bread daily from Lucky 13 Bakehouse and cakes from the Bake Birmingham gents. Service is superbly friendly and best of all there’s seating so you can try everything whilst sipping an excellent Monmouth Coffee Company coffee. Just what every suburb in Birmingham needs, not another flipping Tesco Express. Gets busy on Moseley famers market day (4th Saturday of the month).

Lewis’s of Moseley
11 St Mary’s Row, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8HW
Tel: 0121 4499933

Loaf Community Bakery, Stirchley

Tom and Dom from Loaf have been rightly annoyed with me for not having put the fabulous Loaf Community Bakery on the Birmingham Food Map yet. A source of great shame; when we conceived the map project my plan was to post one item per day until we were exhausted of all options. However, it was not to be, due to burn-out from non-blog projects.

Yet, I don’t feel that bad, as I figure if you already read this blog, and are therefore an afficionado of the Birmingham food scene, you must know of Loaf already, which serves as a kind of beacon for those interested in food in the City. But anyway, sorry to Tom and Dom and pleased I can correct this wrong now!

So what to say about Loaf Community Bakery – originally a ‘bread club’, a subscription-based bakery run from Tom’s house and domestic oven, he has since harnessed the support of his community to set up a fully-fledged bakery and cookery school in a shop front on Stirchley High Street. Tom has strong ideas about the power of projects such as his, not just to supply great food, but to help communities ‘save’ their local high streets from shuttering and the inexorable creep of the major supermarkets.

The way I look at it: these guys bake what is easily the best bread in Birmingham, bar absolutely no-one. Properly made, hand-shaped crusty sourdough, part-rye loaves like the ‘Maslin’ and dark, treacly all-rye tin varieties. Great big bloomin’ bloomers, multi-grain loaves and specialty breads like focaccias and brioche. You might also find a sticky bun or two if they haven’t sold out.

It’s not just bread, there is a (most) weekly Friday lunch club called Stirchley Brewhouse, with a rotating menu of sandwiches and hot food, usually one meat and one vegetarian option, with Sarah Frost’s amazing cakes to have afters.

There are occasional pop-ups, including the highly-rated CANeat event which a no-choice set menu of progressive and innovative food (5* review from Paul Fulford).

There is also the cookery school which hosts a variety of interesting events. I have been on the Simply sourdough course which I can highly recommend, there are other bread-making courses, foraging, clay oven building, fish and seafood (run by blog co-writer Lap), pickling and preserves, and many more!

The opening hours are informed by the baking schedule, so it is open 2pm-7pm Tuesday-Friday and then they do an overnight bake on Friday so open 8.15am-2pm on Saturday. But not Sunday or Monday.

Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, 1421 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham

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Banana Leaf Cafe, Selly Oak

You’d have to try pretty hard to find a worse location for a restaurant than the back of the Costcutter grocery store in Selly Oak. However, on the occasionally true equation that restaurant shabbiness sometimes equals superlative food, I was excited to try the Banana Leaf Cafe. This had previously been recommended to me by a colleague as a Malaysian street food style cafe, run by Birmingham University students. We went in August, only to find that they were closed for the summer holiday. We returned a few weeks ago only to find that rather than a Malaysian restaurant, it was now a Sri Lankan restaurant run by a hugely friendly family. Served buffet-style, they had a phenomenally hot mutton curry, rice, fish-filled patties, a selection of dals and vegetable curries and several sambals. So excited was I by my huge plate of deliciousness I failed to take any specific notes on what exactly I was eating. However all the food was of home-cooked quality, and staggeringly good. Keen that we were enjoying ourselves they brought over a pancake which was cooked like a dosa, but wasn’t lentil-based. And to finish off, some chocolate cake. Strange, very lovely, extremely cheap. I am posting this in haste because I suspect you need to get down here and keep these guys open, so completely unlikely is their location. Open 7 days a week, I think just for lunch. I will confirm after our next visit

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Banana Leaf Cafe, back of Costcutter supermarket (up from and on same side of Seoul Plaza, down from Aldi), Bristol Road, Birmingham

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Seoul Plaza, Selly Oak

What’s not to love about plucky little Seoul Plaza? For budding David Changs this Korean supermarket is the place to get your gochugaru (red pepper powder) and brine shrimp for making home-made kimchi, and your gochujang and ssamjang for bo ssam. There are also aisles for Chinese and Japanese ingredients, including a reasonable selection of fresh Chinese vegetables. You can pick up a decent Pi-Xian chilli bean paste here for fish-fragrant aubergines or mapo tofu. Those back from Japan with a hankering for Pocari Sweat will find it in the fridge, along with those weird drinks that look like they have frogspawn in (nope, never tried). If you can’t be bothered to make your own kimchi, you can also choose from their freshly-made options.

In the past few weeks, perhaps most excitingly for those desperate to find food in Selly Oak, they have started a hot food counter, serving takeaway rice, noodles, Korean fried chicken, fried dumplings, vegetable and pork dishes. The Korean fried chicken has a decent crust and decent sauce. A great deal for under a fiver. This is rapidly becoming our canteen for trips out from University campus.

They even have a small section for crockery and homewares, I got some nice Korean clay rice bowls here, perfect for serving kimchi jiggae. You can even pick up a rice cooker while you are there, or even an authentic Korean dedicated kimchi fridge, a snip at £700.

Seoul Plaza, 536 Bristol Road (down from and opposite Aldi), Birmingham.

Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!
Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!

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Chilli Bean Paste – Taste Test

Reorganising my jar and bottle cupboard in the kitchen, you know the one with all the different vinegars (3 types of balsamic, white/red/rice wine, cider, strawberry), I found that I’d accumulated 5 different brands of chilli bean pastes. I don’t really know how this has come about but it’s a handy opportunity to do a taste test on them!


Chilli bean paste is a Chinese store cupboard essential. A mixture of chilli and bean (broad bean or soy bean) that’s been fermented together to give a deep complex umami flavour. It’s used in stir-fries, braises, hot-pots or anytime you want that addictive chilli hit. Particularly in Sichuan cookery where the chilli bean paste produced in Pixian county, Chengdu is considered the best. I’m not a Sichuanese expert so can’t comment on authenticity but I’m comparing them to chilli bean pastes from other parts of China so each of them is assessed on taste alone.

1. Lee Kum Kee – Chilli Bean Sauce 李錦記辣豆瓣醬
Salted chilli pepper, water, fermented soy bean paste, fermented broad bean paste, white sugar, garlic, modified cornstarch, chilli pepper powder, soy bean oil, acid


This is the one most people who cook Chinese food at home will have. LKK are a Hong Kong brand so is the most established in Chinese supermarkets here in the UK and in Western shops. Unusually it’s the hottest of the lot with a sweet garlicky flavour that doesn’t linger long. It doesn’t really have that fermented lactic flavour so it’s not really suitable for Sichuan dishes. The pale colour gives the game away a bit. I can’t imagine big vats of this having been fermented in the open for years at a time. A bit one dimensional, however it is good in stir fried prawns.

2. Juan City Brand 鹃城牌红油豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour, vegetable oil, spices, food additives (potassium sorbate)


This plastic jar has a handy carry handle but unhandily if you don’t read any Chinese then it might be difficult to spot that it’s a Pixian style chilli bean paste. Ok there’s a clue in the company name in small print Sichuan Pixiandouban Co Ltd otherwise the jar I have has no other indication in English, not even ingredients. Which I’m sure is pretty illegal in this country. The importers need to sort this out. However I’m glad they’ve smuggled it in because the taste of this red oil 红油 version is fantastic. Rich red colour, well balanced flavour, mild to medium chilli, not too salty, perfect for twice cooked pork, the oily richness is lip-smacking.

3. Chuan Lao Hui – Hong Yau Dou Ban 川老滙郫县红油豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour, sugar, pickled ginger, pickled garlic, vegetable oil, flavour enhancer


Comes in the same plastic jar with carry handle as the Juan City Brand. I wonder who is copying who? At least this jar has some English stuck on it from the importers Day In. This is also a red oil version of Pixian style chilli bean paste with extras. It has the same deep lip-smacking flavour but, probably due to the pickled ginger and garlic, is really too salty to use in the same quantities as the Juan City Brand. But the less you use the less umami impact you get in your food. I struggled cooking with this until I started using it as a base for hot-pot flavouring lots of chicken stock.

4. Fu Chi – Chilli Bean Sauce 富記辣豆瓣醬
Chilli, soy bean, barley flake, salt, sugar, sesame oil, acidity regulator


Taiwanese brand, the only one not to have any broad beans in but not lacking in deep rich flavour. The mildest of the lot, least salty, sweet round flavour so great to use in larger quantities. My favourite for fish-fragrant aubergines.

5. Sichuan Dan Dan Seasoning Co Ltd – Pi-Xian Fermented Broadbean 丹丹郫县豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour


The purest Pixian chilli bean paste here and it comes in the most darling wicker basket! First saw this on Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog but could never find it anywhere so when I spotted it recently on I snapped it up. There are two plastic sachets of the chunky paste in the basket that you have to decant elsewhere. This is not a red oil version like the other two Pixian pastes, it’s quite dry, slightly saltier than Juan City Brand. Even used sparingly it gives a great hit of flavour. I definitely wouldn’t waste this in a hot-pot! Great in braises.