London doesn’t inspire visions of delicious street food. If anything, London street food conjures up images of greasy hot dog sellers, cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and battered ice cream vans selling their chemicalised wares outside tourist attractions. But look again: a street and market food revolution is underway and the city now has some of the finest street food Europe has to offer. In the last decade, a new generation of cooks, bakers and farmers have set up stalls in London’s streets, markets, car parks, schoolyards and shopping centres. The UK now has an army of 10,000 mobile cooks and, this year, the first ever British Street Food Awards were launched. On offer to the hungry is an astonishing range of global foods and cuisines cooked to high standards and sold at economical prices.
What’s going on? The street food revolution is another strand in the UK’s general recovery from a generation of defective taste buds. A raft of TV celebrity chefs, like Jamie Oliver, have raised awareness of good food and helped make cooking a cool thing to do. There’s been a growing fashionability for fresh, sustainable and seasonal foods, and a deepening anxiety about the safety and ethics of industrialised farming and food production. It’s about bringing back the foodiness of food, of rediscovering real food, real cooking and real farming. And it’s all there in London’s street markets.
The city’s most famous gastronomical market destination is Borough Market (Southwark Street, boroughmarket.org.uk), one of the world’s oldest and biggest produce markets, and a pioneer in reinventing London’s food scene. Situated in a warren of Dickensian streets under Victorian railway arches in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, it has around 130 food stalls, restaurants, bars and cafés—a giant temple to the God of culinary pleasures, awash with the world’s finest foods, including British. It feels like a culinary maze, a cooking pot itself, especially as the stalls are not arranged by food type. You find fishmongers rubbing shoulders with fruiterers, cheesemakers with German sausage cooks, chocolatiers with olive growers.
There are numerous stalls selling freshly cooked take-away food, mostly under £5. Some serve all day, but many just cater to the busy lunchtime trade of nearby office workers. There are few places to sit and eat in the market but there’s a lovely garden abutting the cathedral that people use. Or there is a wine bar that encourages takeaways to be eaten inside with a drink.
It’s a friendly place. Chatty stallholders are keen to share their expertise and knowledge. Ned Palmer, cheese seller for Gorwydd Caerphilly (trethowansdairy.co.uk), for instance, enthuses about small-scale local cheese production: “What I love about this stall is that my friends produce the cheese and I’m just one step from the producer. And they buy their milk from the farm next door.” Ned’s cheese, by the way, is a gorgeously textured, slightly creamy cheese with lemony undertones.
It’s hard to remember that a decade ago Borough Market was a run-down wholesale market with an uncertain future. It was the introduction of quality food aimed at food conscious retail customers that reversed its fortunes, putting it in the vanguard of the street food revolution.
The new-found passion for quality food has revived other markets too. Broadway Market (Hackney,broadwaymarket.co.uk) was an old-fashioned small neighbourhood market near to extinction, but in 2004 the local community sought to revive it by introducing street cooking and fine food stalls. It rapidly succeeded beyond the organisers’ wildest dreams and is now a super-fashionable Saturday market attracting 6,000 people a day. The market is mixed, selling arts, craft and clothes, but food predominates. Hot foods straight from simmering saucepans, hot-plates and woks compete for attention with artisan-made breads, cakes, cheeses plus all the fruit and vegetables. So much temptation crammed into a tiny street. This Saturday I chose a plate—well actually a small box—of Spinach & Agushi (jollofpot.co.uk), a Ghanaian stew served up with jollof rice, cooked up by a company named after the dish itself. Delicious, even if I had gone overboard with the Scotch Bonnet chilli sauce.
Broadway Market is about hanging out with friends and satisfying food cravings. Eat something, browse the art and craft, listen to a busker and then eat some more. For Joseph Robinson, one of the Spinach & Agushi team, Broadway Market is his favourite gig: “Other markets are good but Broadway Market is much more of a community. I look forward to coming here.”
In recent years, Exmouth Market (Clerkenwell, exmouth-market.com) and Whitecross Street Market (Islington, whitecrossstreet.co.uk) sought to rejuvenate themselves by opening up their streets to the new food vendors. Both markets have established reputations for the food-conscious, albeit only at weekday lunchtimes as they are in largely commercial districts.
Kuntal Vyas and his wife Mohini, who run Karuna, a Gujarati food stall in Whitecross Street, were there at the start ten years ago with two other pioneer vendors. Kuntal recalls how “it took a while to get going but gradually, by word of mouth, people got to hear of the street’s food, then suddenly it went ballistic”. He is proud of the street’s reputation and cheerfully tells of celebrity chefs, such as Marco Pierre White, dropping by to eat. Karuna itself won the area’s Market Trader of the Year Award in 2010.
Some restaurants in the streets have joined the street food revolution by setting up outdoor stalls. Much acclaimed Moro restaurant (moro.co.uk) in Exmouth Market has done so, making it possible to try their extraordinary Spanish-Muslim Mediterranean dishes at under £5. Gulshan Tandoori (gulshantandoori.co.uk) is another. The restaurant has been in business for thirty years and manager Bashir Ahmed says he had welcomed the opportunity to set up a street stall. The food on offer, says Ahmed, “is Mumbai-style street food”, adding that “anyone from Mumbai would like it”. He’s added another twist to the street food experience: he rather wonderfully invites his customers to eat their street food in the comfort of his restaurant.
Other London markets too have made space for the new food carts in recent years. For instance, about halfway down Portobello Road Market (Notting Hill Gate, portobelloroad.co.uk)—London’s best-known antiques, junk and craft market—an oasis of food stalls can be discerned through the sea of faces, such as the lovely bakery Popina (popina.co.uk).
Another angle to the good food revolution is the growth of London Farmers’ Markets (lfm.org.uk). It’s a sort of green wellie and tweeds revolution, as healthy complexioned farmers descend on the city. The very first London Farmers’ Market was established in Islington in 1999 and they have been sprouting up all over London ever since, mostly in the posher parts. Today there are nearly twenty, varying in size and character. Marylebone is one of the biggest, with around thirty stalls and is located in a car park. Farmers’ markets tend to be held at weekends, but a few pop up during weekdays.
Farmers’ markets stand apart from other food markets due to their ethos of only selling locally made or grown produce that is sold directly to customers. There is no middleman. For many small growers, the markets are vital for their survival, as the low profit margins afforded by the supermarkets would squeeze them out of business.
All produce sold at London Farmers’ Markets has to conform to strict ethical rules. These include the rule that farm produce has to be grown within a 100-mile radius of the M25 (London’s orbital motorway), fish must be caught or raised by the seller, produce should be free of chemicals, grazing animals must have access to pasture and so on. These criteria mean that farmers’ markets are not the place to find global foods, although the rules are stretched for cooked foods to allow the use of essential ingredients that cannot be grown locally, like spices and lemons. This escape clause ensures that many cakes, breads and savouries are eligible to be sold at the markets. Unfortunately, tea and coffee still seems out of bounds, so the thirsty have to head to offsite cafés.
A joy of farmers’ markets is that the produce is freshly picked. “See this lettuce,” observes the man from Wild Country Organics (wildco.co.uk), “It was in the ground yesterday.” Taste is also a priority: farmers are not just growers but gourmands too. Old Hall Farm is justly proud of its distinctively salty flavoured lamb and beef, a characteristic of animals pastured on the salty Romney Marsh in Kent. At their Marylebone stall on a Sunday morning, you can breakfast on their freshly cooked sizzling lamb, served up with bread and homemade pickle.
Unusual and unknown varieties of fruit and vegetables abound at farmers’ markets. You soon realise that a potato is not just a potato but that there are many varieties and, like wine, certain types go better with particular foods. Ask the stallholder for advice; they are always delighted to help. The farmer minding The Potato Shop (thepotatoshop.com) stall at Marylebone market unhesitatingly recommended Wilja potatoes to go with my goat meat. Having now cooked them, it’s a combo I also recommend.
The surest sign that serious street food has gone mainstream is that they are cropping up in shopping centres. In central London, the revamped Brunswick Shopping Centre (brunswick.co.uk) now boasts a crop on Saturdays. In a square bordered by high street chain shops, you can find street vendors selling Korean, Brazilian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish and Argentinean dishes. On the Saturday I went, they were doing well. Hideyuki Uno, who makes the only authentic Japanese takoyaki in London, said, “I’ve tried other markets but I like this one. My food is very popular, it sells well.”
At first glance a handcart called the Polish Kitchen looks alarmingly like a—it’s stuck in my throat—hot dog stand. Surely it can’t be. “Hello, what exactly are you selling?” “I sell real 100 per cent meat sausages specially imported from Poland,” was the concerned reply from Mariusz, the owner of Polish Kitchen. “In Poland, we have sausages with bread on the side but here they put the sausage in the bread and call it a hot dog. So that’s what I call it!” A continuous stream of people were ordering Mariusz’s new-style hot dog. Customer Tim Moakes, who lives nearby, was fulsome in his praise: “The meat has such a nice flavour and there’s no gristle. I buy one every week, it’s my weekly treat. It’s so big it’s a job getting through it even if I’ve not had any breakfast.” As he was speaking, his wife took a bite. “I share a bit with her,” he remarked.
This is London’s street food revolution. From the world’s cuisine to gourmet potatoes and salt-marsh tasting lamb, fantastic grub is now widely available at a reasonable cost in London’s markets and streets, grown, cooked and sold with dedicated passion. Thanks to a feisty band of independent-minded street cooks, farmers and food-makers, a new and vibrant street food culture has been created. No longer is it necessary to pay restaurant prices for a decent dish. It’s all a far and distant cry from those thoughts of greasy plasticised hot dogs that were once the stock-in-trade of London’s street food vendors. Even they have been reinvented.