In late April, London had shaken off its winter coat. I touched down after a 24 hour journey from Australia, having sedated myself for the majority of the flight with a heavy hand of pharmaceuticals. I needed to arrive fully charged. I had only 3 days to speed around on the Tube, cramming food into my face at dangerous velocities.
My goals were simple. I focussed on cuisines and cultures that are rare in Australia. I ate at affordable places, aiming to not spend more than 10 pounds at any one sitting. However, I imposed on myself no daily limit on the number of sittings. Thus I single-mindedly ate from dawn till dusk until I had trouble breathing without bracing myself against a wall. London rewarded me accordingly. I present my findings in non-chronological order.
PART 1: SPICE
Central London Mosque
While we have mosques in Australia, I know no mosques with fully operational, thriving Pakistani canteens open to the public, working out of their basement. I was feeling unnecessarily virtuous and had a vegetable curry with naan for only 4 pounds. Though the naan was massive, crispy and piping hot, the curry was just serviceable. I should have chosen from a range of meaty fare including a pyramid of kebabs, an unctuous looking minced lamb curry and or slabs of grilled chicken. The basement was a little humid, but the vibe was thrilling. I took a walk through Regent's Park right next door, enjoying the sunshine and waiting for my digestion to kick in.
There are a few branches of this Jamaican outlet scattered throughout South London. I found myself on Peckham Rye Lane, and snuck in for a chicken pattie. However, upon arrival, I was blown away by the range on offer at what was merely advertised as a 'bakery'. Freshly fried whole fish with escabeche sat in a display cabinet, surrounded by platters of salad and myriad fried carbohydates. I also tackled a dumpling the size of my fist, split in half and topped with ackee (a savoury Jamaican fruit with the texture of scrambled egg) and a riot of colourful peppers. It was sinfully crunchy on the outside, thick and doughy within. The pattie wasn't bad, golden and flaky, but played second fiddle.
Wandering the Soho district late at night, I found this joint specialising in the Egyptian classic mix of rice, lentils, dukkah, spicy tomato sauce and deep-fried onions. It was just before closing time and perhaps the servers were in a generous mood. My bowl was stacked high with caramelised onions and topped with olive oil. It was really tasty and unique, and no one can deny the power of caramelised onions. It became, however, a bit monothematic after a few bites. I'd stop by again, but only if I were in the area.
Surely, I thought, pepper soup can't beat the incendiary highs of South East Asian cuisine. How hot could it be? I should have been warned. Fish pepper soup was of the most visually terrifying things I've even put in my mouth. An mysterious, opaque brown broth was splashed over what appeared to be the head of some prehistoric beast, with sweet white flesh hidden among rows of spiky cartilage. I don't know what chillis were infused into it, but it burned with the fire of a thousand suns; and unlike the majority of West African dishes, was served with no carbohydrates to dilute the pain. I gasped and began to shake halfway through. It was delicious though, and my mother didn't raise a quitter. I spent an hour stripping the fish head clean, starting to hallucinate. By the end of it, I was convinced that I could see through time. "How was it?" asked the man behind the counter. "Delicious," I replied "But a bit too hot for me". "Oh. Sorry," he deadpanned. I don't think he was sorry.
Still sweating profusely, I walked up Rye Lane and picked up a moin moin (Nigerian bean cake). It was massive for only 2 pounds, slick with oil and wrapped in banana leaves. I think it's meant to be eaten warm, but I was given a cold one to take away. Not having an oven at my disposal, I unwrapped it and ate it on the street. Its flavour was the mildest, most soothing iteration of the Nigerian flavour triumvirate of tomato, onion and dried fish that I've ever encountered. It would have been infinitely better warm, but at least it cooled my tongue down after the pepper soup ordeal.
Far from the relative wilds of Peckham Rye, Chop Pot serves a selection of Ghanaian dishes to hunger passersby outside Liverpool Station. As I sat and enjoyed a spinach and peanut soup, flecked with ginger and lapping at the edges of a smooth, moulded rice ball, a parade of local office workers entered and took away their favourites. This joint looks to be here for the long run. Had I more space in my stomach, I would have also been tempted by goat stew, stewed beans with pepper chicken, okra curry with banku.
Obalende Suya Express
Suya, from my understanding, is traditionally a beef skewer from northern Nigerian served with a dry mix of crushed peanuts and spices. Obalenduya, on the other hand, seemed to give priority to their chicken suya. This included chunks of succulent bone-in chicken, lightly marinated, grilled and served on a bed of plantains with some raw onion and chunks of tomato for contrast. The peanut topping was a little unexciting, but everything else was just right: especially when dipping a sweet fried wedge of plantain into the bright-red chicken oil.
Uxbridge Road was a parade of ethnic food. Syrian bakeries jostled with Asian noodle shops and Indian curry houses. I'd come for one thing along though: the famous takeaway Caribbean joint so beloved by visiting RnB and reggae superstars. The walls were adorned with autographed posters, and the prices were ludicrously cheap. A boy looking no older than 10 took my order of callaloo, saltfish, rice and peas and plantain. It was phenomenal. My only complaint with Caribbean food is that it can be on the dry side. Mixing the juicy callalloo leaves into the rice remedied that, as did judicious use of their fruity hot sauce on the tables. The menu, to my unfamiliar eyes, read like a foreign language. Fish Tea and Cow Foot Soup. Festival, Stew Peas. Conch on Fridays. Irish Moss. Locals walked in to do nothing but gossip. As I sat silently, the proprietor eased herself next to me and started doing her taxes. For a brief moment, I felt part of the neighbourhood.
PART 2: MEAT
The warring 24-hour bagel shops at the north end of Brick Lane have been covered by documentaries for years. I had to see what the fuss was all about. The general consensus is that Beigel Bake reigns supreme. I had insufficient room in my gastric lumen to try its competitor, The Beigel Shop, and it seemed like the majority of customers felt the same way. I joined the queue snaking out the door and was rewarded with an immense triangle of salt beef, with bagel halves ludicrously hanging on for dear life to its sides. The beef was moist, mild and soft. A dip in hot English mustard improved it exponentially. I forgot to order a pickle, which would have taken it to even greater heights.
This place barely exists on the Internet, and was an incidental find while wandering Peckham Rye. I had overestimated the journey length to South London: I arrived far too early in the morning. At 9AM, all the shops and bars were still closed. Ozzie's promised a full English Breakfast. I had some coins to get rid of in my pocket and hours to kill- it was meant to be. The friendly staff appeared to be Eastern European but the atmosphere was pure London. The prices were rock bottom, the decor was spare, and a gaggle of elderly locals hollered over endless cups of strong, milky tea in the corner. My breakfast of black pudding, bubble and squeak, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs and toast was absurdly good. Adding in the ketchup, HP sauce, malt vinegar and pepper at the table, the combinations and permutations that I could shovel into my mouth seemed nearly endless. Yes, the full English is celebrated at more famous joints such as E Pellicci and Regency Cafe, north of the river. However I'm not sure how much this simple formula could be improved.
The range of mashes (cheese! horseradish! Champ! Colcannon!) at this popular Soho joint was fantastic, as were its range of accompanying gravies with your pie or sausage. I enjoyed a champ with a complex brown vegetable gravy and two sausages. The sausages, I felt, could have been better. They were a little wrinkled and dry, with a generic pork flavour- perhaps this is an English style, in comparison to the bouncy, fatty, smoky gems of Central European sausage culture? I should had had a pie instead, but I had other pie goals.
My first pie and eel shop experience was a mixed bag. They were out of eels, and though the antique decor was beautiful, the atmosphere was a little cold. However, the meat pie and liquor were top-notch. I'd been warned about London style liquor, a thick, goopy, parsley-flecked sauce made with eel stock and ladled onto the plate in massive quantities, which in its volume and mildness is an acquired taste. I loved it, however, grabbing spoonfuls of it and topping it with a chunk of pie like a working-class hors d'oeuvre.
In need of eels, I ventured out to Hoxton and struck gold. The welcome was more amicable, and a bowl of skin-on hot eel cutlets were suspended in more gelatinous liquor, with a more distinct green hue than previously. I can see how it would look horrifying to some, like our fishy ancestors rising from the primordial sea. Navigating the central bone in each piece seemed like it was going to be a chore, but the flesh fell off easily, and there were no small bones to be found. Also, my cultural heritage (South-East Asian) demands the ability to strip meat off bones as a prerequisite to manhood, so I'd had plenty of practice. The flesh was sweet and soothing, with a richness from the omega-3 oils in the skin.
I ducked into this place on a whim, having about 20 minutes to spare before catching a bus. They have a 1 pound oyster special going every afternoon- I smashed a half dozen and a glass of pastis. The oysters came is a slash of sherry vinegar and shallots. It was fun and affordable, but the flat oysters pale in comparison to the fulsome beauty of Australian oysters, which are one of our country's greatest culinary secrets.
The Fryer's Delight
I loved the old-school decor at this fishcaf: tomato-red laminate tables, wood on the walls, a huge basket of pre-buttered white bread, and photos from the mid-20th century. Three Italian blokes ran the place in an efficient, cheery fashion. The clientele were a mixed bag- a young family, a few tourists, and some dignitaries from the Malaysian embassy. I loved the cultural idiosyncrasies in English fish and chips: mushy peas and white bread just don't exist in the Australian version, and the use of malt vinegar (instead of lemon juice or white vinegar) is rare. I had a slab of fried haddock: the batter was incredibly thin and crispy, with barely a trace of oiliness despite being fried in beef tallow. A side of peas were a great foil. Unlike in Australia, the whole meal was essentially unsalted, which I loved, allowing me to add just a small amount of salt at the table. I've never had an iteration of this dish that was this subtle.
4: THE FUTURE
I may be lucky enough to return to London next year for a longer period of time: I'm already planning ahead. Syrian breakfast buffets at Ayam Zaman. Nigerian Egusi soup. Pierogis in London's small but growing Polish scene. Jollof rice. Jerk chicken in burger form. Jerk chicken in normal form. Jerk anything. Bengali food. The meaty bliss of a Melton Mowbray pork pie. Gujurati thalis. Bring it on, London. I will be ready.