Khan’s Bargain Ltd. is my favourite shop in Peckham. It’s hard to know where to start with telling you about it but I think Khan puts it rather nicely with the hilarious tag line ‘walk in and see the variety’. This is not a joke. There’s a lot of stuff in that shop, much of it in random order and some of it, well…put it this way, I didn’t even have the nerve to set foot in the back aisles until my fourth or fifth visit.
The front of shop is stacked pretty much like any on Rye Lane; you’ll find the usual out of season pumpkin and tomatoes, plenty of sugar cane and of course yams, yams and more yams. What Khan’s does best though is monstrous bunches of herbs; mild Turkish peppers; melons; chillies; citrus fruits; curry leaves and those little cucumbers which are great for making Sichuan cucumber salads and the Ottolenghi recipe at the end of this post. You’ll also find packages of garlic, onions and ginger for 50p a pop. A bargain even if the onions do always contain, without fail, one rotten specimen.
Once you’ve selected your vegetables, I do think this is the best vantage point for appreciating what is undoubtedly the largest amount of strip lighting I’ve seen in one room outside of a Dan Flavin exhibition. Not quite the same skilled arrangement but much more on the comedy value side of things. The photo above shows the tip of the iceberg.
Once inside you’ll find that if Khan’s sells something, you can bet your bitter melon they sell a fair few different types of it and this is what makes me giggle. Pickles for example, take up an entire side of one aisle, including part of the floor. As a pickle enthusiast, I’m in heaven. Pickled garlic, cucumbers, limes, mushrooms and even tomatoes come in giant-friendly tubs. The garlic I see myself eating; the unidentifiable rainbow chippings described as ‘classic vegetable medley’ not so much.
The beany/grainy/flour section is nothing less than overwhelming. Lentils, pulses and grains in their whole and pounded form stacked before you like some kind of dusty desert coloured monster from The Mummy. Cow peas; moth beans; gungo peas; soya beans; red mullet beans; Nigerian brown beans; hominy grits; yam flour; bean flour and ground rice, which is even available in 10kg bags.
The spice selection (find them in the ‘luggage and pet food aisle’) has never let me down. Dried limes, Irish moss, dried round chillies and sugar coated fennel seeds. Need a 1.5kg bag of cassia bark? Khan’s have got one, I’ve seen it.
I think you’re starting to get the idea – Khan’s takes a comprehensive approach to stocking an item. One type of Bombay Mix is enough? Never – let’s have ten. One brand of palm oil? One blend of jerk seasoning? One type of er, plastic animal? No, no, no.
But I’m touching on the brilliant madness of the place before I’ve finished telling you about the stuff you might actually want to buy. There’s a rather useful cookery section where I recently bought a tava, which turned out some decent chapattis and will be turning out some parathas later this week. Four quid – bargain. There’s a dried fruit and nut section which I frequent (along with Persepolis) to buy those chewy little Iranian dried figs that are so addictive, plus dried coconut halves and date syrup. From the canned section I buy fairly normal stuff like tahini and coconut milk but always flirt with the idea of the hugely tempting ‘strained foul’ which I’ve been informed by many on Twitter is strained broad beans and a popular Middle Eastern breakfast dish. I’m not sure this canned version is a good place to start…although at 69p – bargain.
The further you go towards the back of the shop, the further things descend into chaos. The ‘party aisle’ for example, is filled with socks. Random strings of tinsel dangle bunches of fake flowers from the ceiling; a corner section is given over to rugs; stock is strewn all over the floor as they constantly rearrange and refill.
For a while, I did wonder if venturing ‘out back’ would lead me to a gateway into some sort of Peckham Narnia; a strange, magical land where Khan is King and drives his chariot of variety down a great river of yams. I was rather disappointed to find just a selection (a large one, naturally) of brushes, plastic laundry baskets and a tower of Super Malt, which appears to be holding up part of the ceiling.
I love Khan’s for many reasons; one is that I can usually track down hard to find ingredients – particularly pulses and spices – another is that everything is really cheap. The food police will be onto me soon I expect; most of the produce has air miles – I know this – but at least I’m supporting a local business.
What I really love about the place though is the way it brings a smile to my face so often. It has a ramshackle charm and a strange serenity about it, which I suspect comes from a kind of strip-light induced stupor. From the bustling front claiming its territory on Rye Lane to the shambles out back it is always, to me at least (and perhaps only to me), fascinating and utterly charming.
Ottolenghi’s Cucumber and Poppy Seed Salad (from ‘Ottolenghi, The Cookbook’)
6 small, Middle Eastern cucumbers (about 500g)
2 mild red chillies, thinly sliced
60ml white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons roughly chopped coriander
125ml sunflower oil
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 tablespoons caster sugar
salt and pepper
Trim the ends off the cucumbers and slice them at an angle into 1cm thick pieces that are 3-4 cms long. Then you just mix everything together, massaging the flavours into the cukes. Adjust the amounts of sugar and salt to your taste. Ottolenghi says this should be sharp and sweet, “almost like a pickle.”