Round the world through London street food: memories of 2015
‘When we eat, we travel,’ wrote fellow food writer and friend Mina Holland in her book The Edible Atlas. I’ve thought about that a lot since then, and especially in relation to this blog, because in London we are so lucky to be able to eat food from countries as close by as France or Spain, or as far away as India, Taiwan and Japan. And this year, I feel like I’ve travelled a lot without even leaving the city, because of the dishes I’ve had.
For example, through eating beautifully slow cooked beef pares made by London street food outfit Kusina Nova, I imagined I’d made a brief stop-off in a cafe in The Philippines; through slurping laksa at Phat Phuc I was reminded of travels in Singapore where a local friend Caroline introduced me to what has become one of the dishes I crave most often and wish I could make properly; a VietBox beef salad echoed something I ate from a street stall in Hoi An, Vietnam, on a backpacking visit in 2014; while chomping through jerk chicken from Mamas Jerk Station helped me feel the heat of the Caribbean – perhaps I’ll make it there next year for the real thing.
So instead of this becoming one of those well-trodden ‘best of the year lists,’ I’m considering the names below more as a look-back at adventures had, because yes good food is one of life’s best pleasures, but so too are the people you share it with and the places you go to find it.
May even more and even better London street food be available in 2016…
In no particular order:
The thing: Chicken wings by BBQ LAB
The place: Dinerama, Shoreditch, celebrating Foodism Magazine’s Christmas party
The memory: A banging party, with a gigantic area filled with street food traders, steam coming out of every one, long queues, different bars selling beer or wine or cocktails, and a general feeling of excitement, both because it was Christmas and because we were there to celebrate a year of a great new food magazine, Foodism. I had two friends with me who had never met before so together we took it in turns to order food, and I went straight for these wings, which turned out to be a highlight: hot, sticky, tender, lip stingingly sour (in a good way), and fun to share.
The thing: Vietnamese Beef Salad by VietBox
The place: Pop Brixton, Brixton
The memory: My introduction to VietBox was after a desperate attempt to snack on something towards the end of an afternoon of celebration with two girlfriends. What we were celebrating, I’ve no idea, but shortly before we all went home I dove into this little shack down one of the corridors at Pop Brixton and surfaced grinning from ear to ear. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (see pic above, thank you Tofo.me) but underneath that pile of crispy fried shallots, crunchy beansprouts and peanuts hides a hefty block of sticky barbecued rice. It’s incredibly hard to eat on its own if you’ve only got chopsticks, but once you’ve mixed in the coriander, ginger, lemongrass and sour chilli juices and as much shredded beef as you can manage, it all separates and becomes a kind of riotous intensely delicious sticky goo.
The thing: Bhel puri samosa chaat by Kricket
The place: Pop Brixton, Brixton (Yep, another one at Pop Brixton; it’s been a recurring theme this year, since I live five minutes away from it.)
The memory: Which one to pick? There was the time I swung by for a spiced cocktail with two friends one Saturday evening; the time I popped in with my cousin and her two New Zealander comedian mates who craved ‘good food and good times’ (and made us laugh until we nearly cried) so we ate the whole menu; or the time when I went in with a friend from the food industry when we pretty much ate everything all over again… this bhel puri samosa chaat is a scrumptious mixture of spice, zing, popping crunch and creaminess. Mmm.
The thing: Herring laksa from Sea Dogs
The place: The finals of the British Street Food Awards 2015, near the O2 Arena, Greenwich.
The memory: This was a Just What I Needed moment. I’d arrived with about 20 minutes to go before I was due to take part in a Have I Got Foods For You quiz, and I wanted something hot and nourishing to fill up on. After scurrying past the vans near the entrance, I spotted a sign at the back offering herring laksa (I’m obsessed with laksa by the way – see Phat Phuc below) from a van that miraculously didn’t have a queue. I ordered a small pot, and on tasting its contents instantly regretted not having ordered a large one – read my original post for details. Sea Dogs later went on to win the Best of The Best prize from the judges – I’m sure their queues are bigger now…
The thing: Jerk chicken by Mamas Jerk Station
The place: Pop Brixton, Brixton (yep… I know…)
The memory: I ended up here with my flatmate Anthony who was pretending to work from home during a tube strike and fancied a local lunchtime gander while he had the chance. Plus, it was sunny and who wants to be inside when it’s like that? So we shared a pile of these chicken wings and nearly seared our lips off, but it was one of those good hot and sour burns that makes you want more and more. So we kept going…
The thing: Chicken tikka box by Joho Soho
The place: Green Man Festival, Wales
The memory: Festival food can be hard to navigate, because you often find yourself with a group of people who all want to eat different food at different times. Breakfast becomes lunch, lunch becomes an all-day affair, and so on… And that’s if you’re lucky enough to find some nice things to eat. Green Man Festival has one of the absolute best food line-ups of any music festival I’ve been to – Secret Garden Party’s being the other – so we weren’t short of options, and the sign outside this stall said ‘from the people behind Cinnamon Kitchen’. Well, I love the Cinnamon Kitchen so I was in there like a shot. I ate this surrounded by some of my best friends as the sun was going down over the main stage, and finished it just in time for the music to start.
The thing: Prawn laksa by Phat Phuc
The place: Kings Road, Chelsea, SW3
The memory: In 2013/14 I took a four-month sabbatical and went travelling around Australia and South East Asia (much of my street food adventures can be found on this part of the blog), and my first port of call was to stay in Singapore with a friend from university who was brought up out there. Within an hour of my arrival she took me to her local shopping centre equipped with a fine set of food hawkers; one of these sold laksa, a fish and coconut noodle broth that she insisted I tried. I’ve ordered it so many times since but somehow it never comes up trumps. This one, however, recommended to me by epic London food spy Zeren Wilson of Bitten & Written blog, was a real, soothing treat. It’s in a little space off the Kings Road, Chelsea, where there is outdoor undercover heated seating and a mixture of all sorts of people eating, from suits to Made in Chelsea stars. The hut is so unassuming that you’d never know that a bowl of food as good as this could come of it, but it did…
The thing: A plate of meat by Hangfire Smokehouse
The place: Outside the Tate Britain, reporting on the Young British Foodies street food judging day
The memory: Laughing as Hangfire founders Shauna Guinn and Sam Evans realed off story after eye-popping story of their travels around America on an epic quest to find out ‘what exactly is American BBQ’. The result is this business, based in Cardiff, which they quit their jobs to set up, and which was one of the nominees for the Young British Foodies 2015. I was there with the YBF judges seeing what goes into a day of deciding which street food trader will win the prize. That, it turns out, involves a lot of eating. The rolling and hilarious conversation from these guys was a personal highlight, and I particularly liked their Texas Hot Links (sausages), brisket and pulled pork, which proved there was still space in the UK food market for really, really good barbecue.
The thing: Chicharrones by Yakumama
The place: Outside the Tate Britain, reporting on the Young British Foodies street food judging day.
The memory: Again this was YBFs-related but it was a different vibe altogether from Hangfire Smokehouse. On a hot, hot day in August, where I could feel my neck burning, we stood outside in the car park of the Tate Britain and met this couple who had worked tirelessly to create and serve versions of Chilean and other Latin American dishes that Marcello – ‘Marcy’ – had grown up eating. Almost everything they cooked impressed the judges, and each thing delivered such an array of unique and hypnotic flavours and passion, that they went on to win the prize of Best Street Food. It was this thing, though, that did it for me – fried pork skin that snapped and crackled as we ate it, with dehydrated parsnip, and guacamole infused with paprika, salt and Scotch Bonnet chillies. Do them a favour and go and buy some from their stall in Manchester…
The thing: Slow cooked beef pares by Kusina Nova
The place: Venn Street Market area at Field Day festival, Victoria Park, Hackney.
The memory: When I think of this box of food, I picture sitting on the grass drinking beer out of plastic cups with friends – I’d had a hand in setting two of them up the year before and they were happy as larry. It was a Saturday in June, we had all stepped through the gates at the festival and were taking a moment to soak up the sun and decide on which bands to watch. An hour or so later everything kicked off, but chomping on slow cooked beef stew, rice and cucumber whilst lolling about on the grass was a peaceful breather.
With extra shout-outs to:
Yum Jungle who made fabulous fried chicken from their stall at Ally Pally before a Major Lazer gig; Made of Dough pizza boys who made me a chorizo one at Green Man Festival; the rest of POP Brixton which has incredibly high quality food (for example at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen for spiced mackerel, Hook for fish and chips, KOI for ramen and Miss P’s for barbecue); Druid Street Market which is Miranda York’s ACE edition to London’s markets and street food scene (see my post on it here, which included Fatties’ salted caramels, Decatur’s grilled oysters and Weligama’s hoppers); and the reliably good pork bun from Yum Bun at Street Feast’s Dinerama before Christmas.