Saturday was the beginning of yet another long weekend, the May Day bank holiday. Traditionally, you will find morris dancers on village greens right across the breadth of the UK marking this ancient day of celebration. In London, you will find half of London on the south bank and the other half in the gardens of local neighbourhood pubs – weather permitting, of course.
It was perhaps a little foolish to think that checking out the food markets on the river would make for a nice stroll. In my near ten years in London, going to the south bank on a sunny day has never been peaceful, but my stomach was leading the way: there was a Malaysian food festival on the section outside of Gabriel’s Wharf and Campo Viejo’s Streets of Spain further upstream by the Royal Festival Hall. The thought of a few pintxos and a glass of sangria followed by a nice, fragrant curry made me take temporary leave of my senses.
Of course, it was heaving. People, pushchairs and those little children’s scooters that are a total menace on residential streets, let alone in a crowd full of people. We queued for twenty minutes for two £5.50 cups of sangria and promptly gave up, vowing never to leave south east London at the weekend again. On the way back towards the tube, we remembered that there was a weekly food market, the Real Food Festival, tucked in just behind the Royal Festival Hall, that may be worth a look. It was still busy, but less with meandering tourists and more with hungry people, who are far more direct in their approach.
The sounds of reggae and the aroma of spices and grilled meat led us to the corner of the market where two men were stirring up enormous vats of curry before a queue of salivating customers. They are called Curry Shack and are completely new to my street food radar (they have no website or Twitter), however I am reliably informed that they are regulars at this particular market. There were three curries on offer that particular day, two Mauritian (one mild-ish, one medium) and a hot Cajun curry. Being out for lunch with the Chilli Fiend meant that the first two were out of the question, so I watched with a little trepidation as the ferocious orange curry was spooned over some rice. At the end of their bench is an array of additional toppings including chopped coriander, red onion and tomatoes, along with some things to make your curry even hotter. Wrestling the chilli flakes and chilli sauce out of Ollie’s hands was a task for a braver woman than I.
The first couple of bites set my mouth on fire, but once accustomed to the heat, I was delighted to realise that I was eating a very delicious curry indeed. As well as the usual flavours you would expect to find in a curry, it had a huge punch of the Caribbean in the form of allspice, scotch bonnets, lime and thyme. The heat was pungent but flavoursome and stayed right in the front of your mouth and on the tip of your tongue whilst your back tastebuds got the hit of the other flavours. The chicken was, thankfully, thigh meat which has a deeper flavour and retains far more of its moisture when cooked, especially in spices (I never understand why anybody uses breast meat).
I started to wonder why there are few curries of this calibre on offer at other food markets, presumably as many open primarily in the morning and focus on the breakfast-to-lunch crowd. I will certainly be back to the curry shack to try more of their offerings – the intriguing-looking medium spiced curry had whole limes in it and looked terrific. For £6, it is also a total bargain.
The Curry Shack, Real Food Festival, South Bank, London SE1 (Fridays – Sundays only)