What is it about the food in East London? Everything seems a bit fresher, bolder, more experimental.
There’s a palpable energy, a can-do attitude born of the dynamism and diversity of an area that has encouraged chefs to take creative risks while respecting tradition; to find new flavors while honoring local produce and seasonal ingredients.
People in the East End have been doing the best they possibly can with what they have for centuries. Thanks to its proximity to the Thames and River Lea, this part of town was historically always more industrious, and poorer, than the West: built on manual trades like tanning, rope and lead making, tallow works and brewing. Its situation downwind, outside of the original Roman boundaries of the City of London meant that the potent, noxious smog from these grimy trades didn’t bother the city’s rich. It was a community for the proletariat, and for incoming immigrants who could find work and afford the cheaper housing.
Waves of immigration, from the fleeing French Huguenots and first Jews of the 17th century, to more recent settlement of the Bengali, Vietnamese and Turkish diasporas in the 20th Century, have contributed a heady richness of cuisine here, from curries and bánh mì to beigels and böreks—the modern legacy of which is explored extensively in the East London Food book published by Hoxton Mini Press. But perhaps more than any other part of London, the East End has always had its own very distinctive culinary identity. Food has long been a part of the vernacular here.
The East London eateries coloring the area’s food scene
Rawduck, Gujarati Rasoi and Palm²
An emphasis on quality ingredients and simple yet delectable dishes
“Being on the floor you get to really understand your customer. You see that you’re giving pleasure to people and it’s instant gratification. They’re coming through your door and you’re making their night. That’s a lovely feeling.”
Rawduck is a light-flooded, plant-filled space alive with chat, the sound of vinyl playing and the smells of very good cooking. A well-priced list of natural and low-intervention wines is chalked up on the blackboard and there’s a large, ramshackle shelving unit filled with a rainbow of housemade pickle jars, wine bottles and hand-crafted ceramics.
Nourishing, seasonal and excitingly global plates of food, from charred Welsh lamb chops to buttermilk chicken or miso and brown rice porridge with kombu, poached egg and bonito flakes reflect the wanderlust of co-owners Clare Lattin, Rory McCoy and Tom Hill. You can pop in for a snack and a carafe of wine, a decent coffee or even just a stomach-settling drinking vinegar. The fiercely popular restaurant is brimming with influences from eating cultures as diverse as Japan, North America and Italy.
Smoked haddock and monk’s beard fritters with mint yogurt (Serves 4 as a starter )
- 1 250g monk’s beard, red stalks removed
- 2 500g smoked undyed haddock, skinned, boned and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 1 lemon
- 4 1 egg
- 5 250g ‘00’ flour
- 6 300ml sparkling water
- 7 Vegetable oil, for frying
- 8 Lemon wedges, to serve
For the cucumber and mint yogurt
- 1 ½ cucumber, halved lengthways and seeds removed
- 2 250g Greek yogurt
- 3 1 garlic clove
- 4 Handful of fresh mint leaves
- 5 50ml extra virgin olive oil
- 6 Salt and black pepper
To make the cucumber and mint yogurt, grate the cucumber on the coarse side of a box grater into a bowl, add a pinch of salt and massage the salt into the cucumber for 1 minute. Set a sieve over another mixing bowl and place the grated cucumber in the sieve. Leave to drain for 45 minutes. Heat vegetable oil in a deep-fat fryer to 180°C or fill a large pan half full with vegetable oil and heat it until a piece of bread dropped into the oil turns golden in 10 seconds.
While the cucumber is draining, bring a pan of salted water to the boil, and prepare a bowl of ice-cold water. Blanch the monk’s beard in the boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and plunge it straight into the ice-cold water to stop it cooking. Squeeze out any excess water and put the monk’s beard in a bowl with the smoked haddock. Grate the zest of the lemon into the bowl and season with pepper and a little salt.
Whisk the egg, flour and sparkling water together to make a smooth batter, then add the batter to the monk’s beard and haddock.
Check that the oil is the correct temperature and drop tablespoons of the fritter mixture into the oil. Fry the fritters for 5 minutes, in batches, turning them over once so that they cook evenly on all sides, then transfer to kitchen paper to drain and season with a little salt.
While the fritters are frying finish off the yogurt by squeezing any excess water out of the cucumber and mixing it in a bowl with the yogurt. Finely grate in the garlic clove, tear in the mint, season with a little salt and pepper and whisk in the olive oil.
Serve the fritters in a big pile with lemon wedges and a big bowl of the cucumber and mint yogurt.
Authentic Indian using age-old techniques passed down through generations
“The food we make today is still reflective of the food that was made in rural India a great many moons ago.”
Disappointed by the generic fare offered by most Indian restaurants in London, Urvesh Parvais longed to share the food of his heritage and his childhood—the fresh, textural and under-represented Gujarati food he grew up enjoying—with his local community in Hackney.
The lineage of Urvesh’s family food goes back to the region of Surat in Gujarat, India, a pious state where vegetarianism is part of the religion, and the resulting cuisine is some of the most tantalizing vegetarian food in the world. When his mother moved to the UK in the 1960s, she continued to cook her homeland’s recipes to the letter at home, passing on that passion to her son in order to keep their culinary tradition alive. “The food has maintained its integrity because of that movement across many continents and the nostalgia inherent in that food.”
“It’s time-capsule food because of that fact. It’s pre-industrial revolution, pre-processes. Everything is made by hand, locally and with seasonally sourced ingredients. These ideas are ancient. Methods are very important and make the food what it is, and it’s important not to cut any corners in that regard.”
An unparalleled corner shop offering an eclectic mix of London’s best
They don’t make local shops like Palm² on every street corner. In fact, they don’t make shops like Palm² anywhere except for this particular street corner overlooking Clapton Pond. Local shops that sell pints of milk and tins of beans don’t usually double up as delis with counters of still-warm roasted vegetable salads, oozing lasagnes and golden, garlic and rosemary flecked chicken thighs. This bustling food emporium has everything food lovers could possibly crave, from freshly-baked pastries and locally roasted coffee, to rainbows of good looking ingredients, fresh seasonal vegetables, artisan sourdough and Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses. There are fridges full of craft beer and organic wines aplenty, but it also sells stamps, batteries and boxes of tissues.
“We will keep it small and good quality rather than growing any more. There’s a real sense of community and family atmosphere here and that’s not something you find in other parts of London.”
The latter nods to the fact that Palm² started life as a simple corner shop, a quarter of the size it is now. Set up in 1994 by the Turkish Solak family, it was flanked by a cafe and a bookies. “It just used to be a normal corner shop selling average things that all the local shops do,” says Suleyman, whose father and uncle set it up and who now cooks in the open kitchen at the back of the shop with three other chefs. “When Tesco opened just next door they decided to change the business to more of a deli with Spanish and Italian food and things like cheeses, olives and nice produce. If we’d just carried on doing the same things as Tesco we never would have survived.”
Imam bayildi-stuffed eggplant (Serves 4)
- 1 2 medium eggplants, halved lengthways
- 2 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
- 3 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 4 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 5 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 6 200g good quality tinned chopped tomatoes
- 7 Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 8 Salt and pepper
For the tzatziki
- 1 100g Greek yogurt
- 2 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
Preheat the oven to 190°C. Score the cut side of each eggplant half deeply, brush generously with olive oil and place on a baking sheet, cut sides up. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the flesh is soft enough to scoop out, then remove from the oven and leave to cool—leave the oven on.
Heat a little of the oil in a frying pan, then add the onions and fry until soft. Add the garlic and cinnamon and fry for 1 minute. Scoop out and roughly chop the eggplant flesh, leaving the skin intact, and add it to the onions. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes until the mixture is nice and soft. Add a little more oil if you need to. Stir in most of the parsley, leaving a little for garnishing at the end.
Lay the eggplant shells in a baking dish and divide the tomato mixture between them. Drizzle with more olive oil and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
Combine the ingredients for the tzatziki in a bowl, season with salt, and divide equally between the eggplants. Scatter with parsley and serve immediately.
Thank you, Ann and Martin, for sharing some of the stories from your exciting new book. ‘East London Food’ is published by Hoxton Mini Press. Available from www.hoxtonminipress.com.
This is the first feature of a two-part article dedicated to East London’s culinary scene in partnership with Hoxton Mini Press.
Revisit our interview with Ann Waldvogel and Martin Usborne on FvF and read about their creative process and views on the indie publishing world.
Photography: Helen Cathcart
Text: Rosie Birkett