Multicultural London’s culinary melting pot

Eel pie and mash and chips can still be found, but kimchi, goat curry, soft-shell crab burgers and lobster rolls more accurately reflect what Londoners are eating now

The Thames mud holds more than its fair share of secrets. It is, curiously, almost devoid of oxygen. Objects that should have been eaten away are lying still beneath the water, waiting to be discovered. In the Square Mile (now The City), a parcel-sized portion of land that encompassed early Roman settlements, archaeologists regularly find ancient rubbish in the anaerobic muck – coins, bits of old shoes and food the occupants of Londinium didn’t have the inclination to swallow.

Oysters were once the preserve of the poor. Roman people would buy a few from carts on the street, eat them quickly and huck the shells away. A few burrowed their way into the airless dank on the banks of the Thames, where they were found two millennia later.

These excavations prove that the Romans set a precedent. London was and is now a food city in a rush, shaped from the inside by the outsiders. In contrast to the French across the Channel, Londoners work longer hours with relatively short breaks. A two-hour lunch is a bacchanalian concept to a Londoner. Lunch, and often dinner, is grabbed quickly and without much ceremony.

It is dominated not by feats of florid gastronomy – although that can be found in the Michelin-starred joints – but by food bought from trucks and eaten with sticky fingers and crumpled paper napkins. It is heady, gamey goat curry bought from the Sunday Up Market in Brick Lane, it is pillowy soft shell crab burgers from Kerb at King’s Cross. It is the bewildering combination of pie, mash and prosecco at Broadway Market on a Saturday morning.


Also unlike their Gallic friends (dyed-in- the-wool Londoners have an inbuilt impulse to compare themselves favourably to the French ever since the Hundred Years’ War), London food is deeply rooted in the constant influx of immigrants, a multicultural glut that is constant fuel for the city’s ever-evolving palate. More than a third of the population (around three million people) were born outside the UK, a quarter outside Europe. Many more are second or third-generation immigrants.

It has resulted in a new type of hybrid foodism. Kimchi, tangy, spicy Korean pickled cabbage, is added to Mexican burritos. Sticky Atlanta barbecue ribs are briskly rubbed with Jamaican jerk spices. It is the stuff that culinary dreams (and Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s nightmares) are made of.

A hybrid

This writer is Irish by blood and birth, but in reality I am the hybrid car of nationalities; a mix of organic and plastic Paddy. As a child, my grandmother would tease me with vague and alluring promises of eel pie that would never turn up on my plate. She was one of the many who emigrated in the 1950s to find work, and was a connoisseur of tall tales for small people, often fooling my young self into believing that she met the Krays and watched the Beatles perform from a Savile Row rooftop in 1969, my infant uncle snoozing away in the pram.

Two decades later, I asked my London-born mother about the joys of such a slippery fish. She was never allowed to eat them, she said. Too many bones. In my mother’s neighbourhood of Lewisham, then an Irish enclave, eels were reserved for the adults on meatless Fridays. Pie and mash served with a parsley sauce is still a British institution. Eels, less so. Still, you can find them, jellied or stewed, in the three south London branches of Manze’s.

Even more British is the greasy spoon. The home of builders’ breakfasts, liver and mash, steak pie with chips and £1 cups of gravy-thick tea, a true greasy spoon can be honestly measured by the volume at which your order is shouted back to the kitchen. If the cry of “Egg, sausage and chips!” doesn’t rattle the skull, business should be taken elsewhere.

Chicken shops

There is, however, one British food institution that is blank of tourist sheen and sparkle – the chicken shop. The best of these magical places are to be found outside of central London in slightly unloved areas as yet untouched by wax museums and glorified ferris wheels. Grubby on the outside, squeaky on the inside, each chicken shop has its own sacred process, its own method for brining chicken and a sacred alchemy of spice combinations.

While London’s food, especially its street food, is diverse, it all has a unified aim – to clog the eater’s arteries. It’s no wonder that many young Londoners are obsessed with health and fitness; all those Bodypump classes and Nutribullet smoothies at home are an effort to counteract weekly double servings of lobster mac’n’cheese from B.O.B’s Lobster truck.

It is a city of contrasts in more ways than one, but street food is the great democratiser – look at what happened to the humble Roman oyster. What was once a cheap, hearty meal sold at the side of the road is now an emblem of every-once-in-a-while indulgence. Just off the Leicester Square tube station, in the heart of theatreland, pre-showgoers glug those molluscs with expensive Champagne in J Sheekey, one of the city’s most upmarket oyster bars.

It’s only a short walk from there to the banks of the Thames, but it might as well be a world away.

Taste the town: Five unmissable London food experiences

A taste of Americana
London is experiencing a collective obsession with American burgers, so much so that US cult burger outlets Five Guys and Shake Shack have opened locations in Covent Garden. Nearby, the Meat Market does an equivalent burger. Try the Dead Hippie burger (two mustard fried beef patties with all the trimmings)

Early start at Borough
Of all the markets in London, the Borough Market is the best for foodies. Come early though, all the good stuff goes fast.

24-hour fine dining
If a sit-down dinner is on the cards, a view is preferable. The Duck and Waffle is a 24-hour fine dining restaurant situated on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower in Bishopsgate. Reservations are essential, but a no-notice slot can usually be found at 4am. For a less vertigo-inducing experience, the Radio Rooftop Bar at the ME Hotel on the Strand has views of the river and is a mere 10 storeys up.

British institutions
Try Manze's for eel, pie and mash and the tile-lined, Formica-topped Regency Cafe in Westminster for the ultimate greasy spoon experience. Servings are plentiful, delicious and very stodgy.

Fantasy food hall
A wander through the food hall at Harrods in Kensington is a must, even if it is just to remind yourself that there are people out there who would pay £6 for a small packet of biscuits.