I wanted to take the time to introduce myself by way of introducing the food of my current hideawaythe East of England. Im American by ethnicity, and so have the odd pangs of food nostalgia (real corn on the cob would be nice!), but this particular corner of the country is shockingly good for chowhounding. Britain in general gets a really bad rap food-wise, but there is a growing rediscovery that food is not in fact made by polystyrene umpa-loompas. As this is rather long, Ive made sections for easier scanning: a) restaurants, b) non-european foods, c) continental foods, d) local specialties.
a) I live in Ipswich, an hours journey from London. Restaurants are few in number, but cheap and good. I have three recommendations: Just out of town in the village of Woodbridge is the Red Lion pub, which serves high quality modern British without the slightest hint of pretentiousness (actually this is not cheap, but nor as expensive as it could be. Bonus of non-fakey pub with real fireplace). THere Mark should get his sunday roast, if he were willing to travel. In Ipswich itself is Mizu, on the town square, which is a wagamama-style noodle bar. Despite its rip-off marketing, its food is so good neither I nor my boyfriend have been willing to stray from our usual dishes for fear of being deprived of their deliciousness. The other rec is d-tapas, on Falcon Street. The verdict seems to be that it is authentic as well as tasty, although it is set in a decidedly un-Spanish listed black-and-white timber building, and their sangrias include your choice of rum, tequila or vodka. Nevertheless, I was shocked to find that our fried chicken dish (not my choice) was actually gently crispy on the outside and succulent within. DOn't mis the Vodka Bar on the waterfront, either, but not for food :).
B) The real prize, however, is not in the restaurants but in the sheer variety of food shops with which to greedily stock ones shelves. We have three Asian shops (as they tend to get labeled on Euro-centric cooking shows geared towards white middle classes. Brown is the BBCs idea of diversity). There is China World (in the Buttermarket shopping centre) which sells all sorts of Chinese dumplings frozen (excellent stuff), alongside gobs of hello kitty kitsch. There is Halal Foods, which until the war was named Jalalabad Grocery, on Norwich Road. They have a good selection of South West Asian foods, including fresh veg and curry pastes in bulk. They do a rip-roaring trade in onions: every time I walk by they are invariably having onions delivered. Further down Norwich Road is East Meets Westa purple shop owned by Thais containing the widest selection of canned fruit known to man. They are also purveyors of fine kitsch, although of the slightly pornographic variety. Best and cheapest Thai fragrant rice anywhere; got 5 kilos for #8. Also available is black glutinous rice, beautiful jasmine tea, and tiger balm, a Thai cure-all roughly similar in smell and efficacy to Ben Gay. Good for anti-itching, muscle soreness, and headache, but I was strongly warned to not let it get anywhere near my genitals. To get this unsolicited warning from an elderly Thai woman is reason enough to make the journey. Dried shitakis also come at a good price. The best sight-seeing is my house, which is just across the street.
Now, as if this wasnt enough (and remember Ipswich is a town, not a city), Global Fruits (on the Buttermarket towards Upper Brook Street) is magnificent in its ecclecticism. Its small, but highlights include fresh lotus root and water chestnuts, fresh curry leaves, a wide selection of tubers which I can never seem to cook properly, pickled mustard greens, nori, and spices and sauces of all persuasions. Their stash of Jamaican products, including round molasses-laced breads whose name I do not remember, is pretty good. The breads in question have the consistency of American Hawaiian bread which I remember eating growing up in New Jersey. Peanut butter and jelly is out of this world on it, low rent though it is.
C) Continental foods are also represented, although one must make a jaunt reasonably far down Norwich Road to get to the Continental Deli (past the Thai shop), which really should be called Italian Deli. One thing I miss about New Jersey is proper southern Italian food, which is not as easy to come by here. Proper may well be Americanized Italian food: do real Italians put bechamel sauce on their lasagne like the English insist on? I dont know, but its a disgusting habit regardless of where it comes from. So you can imagine my excitement to discover real Italian sausage in this delialthough when I cooked it, its resemblance to my memories was rather thin. It tasted fantastic, so I didnt care. Good pastas and antipasti but crap cannoli. Luckily next door is an extremely good bakery. Also on Norwich Road is O Portuguese Delicatessen (near Halal Foods), which I have not yet been in due to the fact that it is always full of people. They have a few tables, and everyone seems to be hitting the espresso.
D) Ipswich does have excellent local foods as well. Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday are market days, which is good for fruit in season. We have just gotten through the greengages season. I love those things! Theyre like little green plums, but sweeter and perhaps with more pectin (or something, the consistency is slightly different). Near the square is a tiny alleyway called The Walk, where you will find the cheese shop and Proctors sausage shop (yes, I giggled too). You know the cheese shop is for serious cheese eaters when you overhear a customer ask do you have any English bries? and the response is no, we do have an Irish one though. Outstanding selection of British and continental cheese. American visitors should not leave without stocking up on good-quality stilton, which they sell in ceramic jars. At Proctors, they have 30ish varieties of pork, duck and lamb sausages all using local produce. If fresh meat does not suit your plans, I would not leave without trying one of their pork pies. I normally hate pork pies: there is always a horrible layer of aspic between the meat and dough. However, for Proctors one must make an exception, as the shortcrust is the tenderest shortcrust to be found on the planet, and the meat is of a very high quality. So now I fish out the offending aspic and happily enjoy my meat and dough. They also have a fair selection of meat jerkeys,South African if I remember correctly, but I have not tried these.
I have saved the best for last (although the Red Lion does rival for top dog here). If you fancy a drive through the Suffolk countryside, and if you happen to be taking this drive on the fourth Saturday of the month, you must, must, must, go to the Easton Farmers Market. Besides the outstanding scenery and the ye-olde village, Easton is well attended by organic farmers, traditional meat sellers (including game), chutney and jam makers (my beetroot and horseradish chutney was consumed within days, spread onto bread with a local crumbly cheese; I only wish I bought the green pepper and ginger as well). There is even a local vinyard and a woman selling juices in wine bottles. They were out of comice and quince juice, so I settled for apple and elderflower and am merrily drinking it as I write. The ice cream man has clotted cream ice cream, which you should eat after you have some Yemeni falafel wrapped in a tender pastry disguised as a flatbread, prepared by an enthusiastic expat. I really had a very good time there: it is held in a farm park, a sort of museum of farm tools, complete with livestock and petting zoo. So if you have kids its extra good, but generally people are somehow far friendlier than normal. Get there early, well before noon.
If you are from the US planning a London trip, I would come by train only if youre keen seeing a small, ordinary English town. (Not that conservative, though: we have huge transvestite and lesbian populations.) If you can bear driving on the left, it is worth renting a car because you can stop in Ipswich for shopping, and then see some of the Suffolk villages and the coast. THen I'd say your trip would be more than worthwhile. Ive done this; it takes all of ten minutes to get used to. But I imagine most non-local things (especially of the Asian variety) you can get in London if you know where to go. There is little in the way of touristy stuff, except if you like medieval architecture and are willing to travel to see a very nice park. Lakeland Limited, a kitchen gadget shop in the center of town, is in just such an historical building and they have kept bits of the original paintwork in view behind glass. Its part kitchen shop, part museum.
So thats my hometown by way of its food. Stop by!