Devi’s pav bhaji naan ‘pizza’ – and an ode to competitive London street food eating
In five years of writing this London street food blog, I’ve seen a lot of competitive eating.
But there is another kind of combative feeding, which is more of an urgent, pig-like troughing that can only take place in an environment where people need to have the best possible eating experience. The type of affair that necessitates a big fat brag afterwards, mostly via Instagram, about how good the food was (I think we’ve all been guilty of this). This happens regularly at London street food parties like Street Feast, Night Tales and also occasionally at Broadway and Netil Markets in East London, where both visitor numbers and expectations are high.
Ok now think of Maltby Street Market, that one in Bermondsey where everyone’s friendly and really into food and says nice things to each other about what a lovely atmosphere there is, and how incredible the range of street food is. (Indeed, I’ve included a profile of one particularly good new trader at the end).
So that’s one way of looking at it.
More recently I noticed that what goes on here is something better – a combination of these two things. Something very British, the kind of situation where’s there’s lots of conflict but it’s all packaged up behind smiles and politeness.
Noone going to Maltby Street Market on a weekend has ever turned up, run straight up to a stall and bought the first thing they saw. Because diving in early before having made a fully informed lunch decision increases the chances of you seeing something better afterwards, thus ending up where no street foodist ever wants to be: with raging food envy.
No. The set-up at Maltby – one straight aisle of stalls and restaurants running parallel to and under the arches – is such that it provides the perfect conditions for the competitive street food eater, as it enables someone to first walk up and down as many times as they like in order to first sniff out the options, which might be pork buns/curries/burgers/hot dogs/toasted cheese sarnies/tartiflette/reubens on rye, and so on. Second, and this is crucial but it can be panic-inducing, they have the chance to scrutinise the people one step ahead of them eating these various portions.
Is that person really enjoying the thing they bought? If I do the same, is it going to be all that?
(Because obviously these things really matter in this kind of environment)
On a visit towards the end of last year with 7 or so others, I witnessed an intense feeling of panic among the troops.
“What are you thinking of getting?” said everyone to everyone else before departure.
“Have you had it before, though? Do you think it’ll be good?” was the other line.
In the end over half of the folks I was with decided to order an early Scotch egg from Finest Fayre “to line the stomach” before colliding again in order to make other, bigger decisions. Some then scattered off to make up their own minds; others, meanwhile, decided to pair up, in the hope that shopping together might double their chances of success. And at no point during this entire operation did anyone actually make eye contact with anyone else. It’s all about keeping your gaze on the food, or you risk missing out.
Finally, after all that back-and-forth, there was so much choice that everyone got something good.
And of those, these were the top outfits:
Pav bhaji naan ‘pizzas’ from an operator that’s new to me called Devi’s, who make food that is full of Fs: fragrant, flavoursome, and filling, and basically anything from the LSF favourite, Bad Brownie.
Now excuse me while I go off to elbow someone out of the way to get to the tartiflette.
*Featured trader: DEVI’S*
What: An 18-month-old fusion street food business that has also hosted pop-up restaurant and supper clubs events around London. It’s also a social enterprise that invests profits in female empowerment projects.
Who: Tanya Gohil runs it with her business partner and best friend, Ross Lunniss. Her brother Raj, a lawyer, helps out at weekends.
The food: Freshly grilled naan breads made in Shadi Bakery, an artisan Afghan bakery in Croydon, South East London, topped with spiced vegetable stews and curries inspired by those from India, Persia and other parts of The Middle East. Gohil, who says the food encapsulates her spirit “as a cook, as well as all my inspirations” adores how “the ancient spice trade route has led Mediterranean cuisine to marry with North African, Arabic, Persian and Indian food, and this is what I love to draw upon with my cooking.”
Dishes: Pav bhaji (spiced stewed vegetables and organic chilli butter); Persian aubergine (spiced aubergines with organic smoked paprika yoghurt); Merguez squash (roasted spiced squash).
The story: Not a chef by trade, Gohil has however done stints at Borough and Maltby Street Markets, and has always been passionate about cooking. Being brought up by “incredible Indian women who are all naturally talented in the kitchen, I was lucky enough to form the foundations of my learning at home”. Having graduated with with Economics at the University of Manchester, she worked in media, fashion and youth work which all left her underwhelmed. “Feeding people made me genuinely happy! My dad always says that the kindest thing you can do for someone is fill their belly (it’s an old Indian adage), and so Ross and I decided to take the plunge and begin DEVI’s.”
By the way: As well as being “big on promoting plant focused food,” Gohil, as a lifelong vegetarian, also says her food is ethically sourced, vegan and refined sugar-free. Any dairy used comes from small British farms.