It’s no secret that I think Angus Denoon is one of the most superior souls currently inhabiting one of the bodies making their merry way in this world. And if anybody should beg to differ, I’d have to assume they were a few drops of imli pani short of a puchka. Or just hadn’t had the pleasure of breaking roti with this brilliant bloke.
Calling your enterprise ‘The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express’ could be construed as a little presumptious (not to mention tautological). But as it’s transpired, it’s a fitting moniker for Angus’ universally adored streetfood business – and the quirky linguistic expression completely characteristic of the talented Bengali signwriter he employs to bling up his carts.
The square-eyed might have spied Angus on their TV screens; introducing Rick Stein to the art of popping puchkas from a pushcart in Calcutta, and showing Andy Bates how to shop an Indian supermarket in his ‘Street Feasts’ series. But my bugbear is that he’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride. He’s the guy with the gyaan and the rappor with the Indian artisans he first set out to emulate, so why is he not the leading lad?
Perhaps because he’s a chap with character – rather too much for the mass-pleasing mainstream. But they’re missing out by not taking a gamble on taking a gambol round Britain’s little India, or even India itself, tucked firmly under his welcoming wing. Angus may have learnt his craft through mimicry, carefully copying the techniques and execution of the dishes he loved, but this man’s a maverick – and everything he creates is now definitively and expressly the Express version.
Because Angus understands that to be authentic requires one to ascribe to the very notion of not being enslaved by authenticity. This paradoxical little mantra sums up the style of the streets which bewitched him so; populated by a gang of creative innovators unafraid to bend rules, twist ingredients and tweak taste in order to create the plates that have proved so popular with Kolkata’s street-food freaks.
Which, in that cosmopolitan city, accounts for almost every man, woman and child with a rumble in their tummy and a few rupees in their pocket. India’s street food democratises; and that’s what Angus is all about. It’s also an ethos that’s slightly at odds with Britain’s burgeoning street food scene, where a few coins won’t get you far and a full feed can empty your wallet.
Just ‘cause Angus is a bit of an old-skool hippy doesn’t mean he doesn’t fully comprehend the need for the sort of hardworking British street food start-ups Richard Johnson champions to earn themselves a well-deserved crust. He’s not overly romantic about it, but merely believes that street food should steer well clear of severing its roots and becoming the prettied-up preserve of the elite.
It’s a good job he’s committed to his cause, because I believe the world would be poorer if the poorer-off couldn’t munch a bunch of Angus’ scrunchy jhal muri; a culinary cure-all sure to send spirits soaring and ward off woes – at least ‘til you reach the bottom of the cone. It’s not always just that single snack; sometimes he’ll be dishing out dal. Or another chaat that takes his fancy and might create conversation.
You won’t find Angus at many of the major markets and fairs. He goes where the wind blows and where his tricked-out trolley tells him. If you’re determined to track him down, the Jhal Muri Express Twitterfeed and Facebook page provide clues to his whereabouts; the sporadic updates often vague, verging on the cryptic. Angus is more interested in vehicles like his trolley, chaat wagons built from salvaged materials, and his tardis-like transit van than he is any of those vehicles for self-promotion.
But surely it’s high time for him to be a little more vocal – because too many people are living lives less rich because they know not that Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express, and they themselves would, too, if only they knew of its existence. Along, too, with the existence of his spartan-soundtracked film which fills your senses with the spirit of Kolkata’s streets as it renders you utterly dumbstruck.
Angus has undoubtedly got an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse regarding what will get greedy hearts of all creeds racing. But I reckon it’s time he gets his mouth to the loudspeaker, too, to alert the uninitiated to just what a wonderful thing he’s got going on. And if he’s too busy building, learning, honing and making customers’ days, perhaps I’ll parlay the good word for him.
The word on the street is that you stand the best chance of running into Angus on the pavements of Streatham and Tooting, where he’ll often be tootling along with the trolley. Much like the old ‘stop me and buy one’ ice cream trucks. Should you insist Angus cease, he’ll whip you up something far superior to a Mr Whippy in a jiffy. Or, rather, in the shiny steel tin which becomes a tornado of taste as he muddles the marvellous mixture of puffed rice, spice and all things nice.
The cone you receive might be fashioned from old copies of Vogue Angus has acquired, or rolled-up newspaper, or whatever else he has to hand. That’s just how he rolls. As you roll the palate-pleasing melange round your mouth, time will stand still and you’ll feel like fireworks are going off inside your head. No popping candy; just wholesome, awesome ingredients – that’s the mystical magic of muri.
I don’t need a mystic to predict that you’ll fall for it faster than Angus can rustle you the next serving you’ll be begging for before you hit the dregs of that first feast. And if he invites you back to his van, it’s not because he’s fallen for you the way you have for his food, he just wants to show you the nerve centre of his operation. It’s an invitation you must accept.
Because this travelling tardis is truly exceptional. Ingredient jars are stored in the doors which are flung open to reveal a technicolour, flower-garlanded pantry packed with the wherewithal for Angus to set up shop at a moment’s notice. You’ll have noticed by now that this man is handy, but you won’t grasp quite how much of a sensation he’d be on Blue Peter until you see him construct a full-scale chaat cart from reclaimed wood and beer can bottoms.
His stage wouldn’t seem so divine without a sign or three setting the scene. Angus is certainly as much artist as artisan, but when it comes to his array of colourful signs that capture Kolkata and evoke India so accurately, he drafts in a supremely skilled Bengali bloke. In fact, most of what Angus hasn’t built he’s brought back from Bengal; from wooden lime squeezers to nippy little knives.
Let’s cut to the chase; The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express is a rare and beautiful thing – as is its creator. If more people were a little more like Angus, the world would be a lovelier place. Not to mention a tastier one. He’s off to India soon to soak up more skills, find more to film, and generally bring a little light into the lives of all those he encounters. They don’t yet know how lucky they are, but they soon will.
- To read all sorts of musings from Angus, visit mongodenoon.wordpress.com
- To learn everything about The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express, visit www.streetfoodkolkata.com
- Buy a copy of ‘Street Food Kolkata‘ on DVD here
- Read more about my affection for Angus here
- Follow @jhalmuriexpress on Twitter and ‘Like’ The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express on Facebook