Bite Street Food at Chrisp Street Market, Poplar

Street food has been around in London for longer than you think.  Long before the Thames ceased to be a working river, oysters were sold on the banks for hungry dockers.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, baked potatoes were sold from shop fronts and house windows in some of the more notorious London slums as a form of cheap sustenance.  And we all remember the ubiquitous kebab vans outside of late night bars and gig venues in the more recent past.

In recent years, however, street food has taken on a new form offering affordable gourmet food to Londoners.  Whether on their lunch hour or lazily meandering around markets at the weekend, the street food van is never far away.  Once, Borough Market was the only real option for street food, but more recently markets have begun to pop up across the capital, some in rather unexpected places.

Poplar, in East London, is not the first place you think of as a gastronomic destination; but the new Bite Street Food collective are seeking to rejuvenate the culinary reputation of the area right at its centre:  Chrisp Street Market.  With traders hailing from the local area, and across London, and entertainment from local performers, a charmingly frayed town square is transformed into a market to rival any lunchtime markets across London.  I was invited to come down and check it out.  And told to come hungry.

We Walk the Line Coffee.

We Walk the Line Coffee.

My first stop, as always, was for coffee.  On the far side of the market, I found a man making coffee seemingly whilst cycling.  We Walk the Line is a social initiative to encourage disadvantaged young people and ex-offenders become entrepreneurs through selling coffee.  The bike powers the grinder, which grinds up the Nude Espresso beans for the coffee.  A very good cup indeed.

An humitas empanada: corn and chilli.

An humitas empanada: corn and chilli.

After this, I popped to Boca Empanadas, which sell those little Argentine pastries I love so much.  My favourite is the humitas, which contains corn and chilli.  These were perfect – crispy pastry and both sweet and spicy in the middle.  Limiting myself to one was very difficult.

Jerk chicken. Bargain.

Jerk chicken. Bargain.

My plan was to try a number of small items, so that I could sample as much as possible.  On the hunt for my next snack, I came across the bargain of the century:  three jerk wings for ONE POUND.  My weakness for good jerk is well documented and I couldn’t resist.  These were really good.  Spicy with the unmistakable hit of scotch bonnets, with an underlying kick of lime and allspice.

Vegan burger from Ruperts Street.

Vegan burger from Ruperts Street.

Vegan street food has been growing in popularity in recent years, so I was not surprised to see a vegan vendor on the site, Ruperts Street.  I managed to snag the very last item of the day: a vegan burger.  A sweet potato and lentil patty with a smear of relish on a wholemeal seeded bun.  It came with a delicious kale salad, for extra health points.

The lovely Cat and her cake creations.

The lovely Cat and her cake creations.

Never one to end a meal without having dessert, I popped over to Cat Food Cakes, to see the lovely Cat and her crazy creations.  The market took place on Hallowe’en, so there were some beautiful cupcakes and brownies with spiderwebs, pumpkins and ghosts.  Spying a chocolate cupcake decorated with candy corns, I quickly nabbed it.  A candy corn in the UK is a difficult thing to find.  Sadly Cat did not have a supplier: her boyfriend brought them back from a trip to the states.

Bite will be taking place on the last Friday of every month at Chrisp Street Market in Poplar.  If you should find yourself free on a Friday lunchtime, it is definitely worth a trip over to check it out.  The vendors are not those that you will find at the bigger street food markets, such as KERB, Brockley or Broadway; but they are an excellent representation of cooking in the diverse east end.  I also spied a Ghanian lady selling jollof rice, and a young man making Louisiana gumbo, but could not manage all of these in the same afternoon.  It seems another visit is in order.

Also: Canary Wharf office workers, take note.

For transparency, I was invited to visit Bite Street Food.

Perfecting the Meatball Sub

October 9th is Submarine-Hoagie-Hero-Grinder day in the US.  For those that are unfamiliar, these are all types of sandwiches, mainly using a submarine roll.

A good sub is a thing of beauty, my favourite subs in London are from the street food van Sub Cult.  Their ‘Submarine’ sandwich, an unusual yet delicious combination of pulled pork, scallops and squid with lemon mayo is one of my new favourite obsessions.  They can be found at both Broadwick Street Market in Soho and at a pop up at the Duke of Wellington in Dalston.

If making your own sandwiches is more your thing, below is a post from my other blog, 607 Square Miles, on how to make the perfect meatball sandwich.

Six Hundred and Seven Square Miles

The meatball sub of my dreams The meatball sub of my dreams

As the summer turns to autumn and the days get shorter and cooler, I find myself with an urge to fill up the freezer for winter.  One of the first things I make is a stash of meatballs and tomato sauce which can quickly be defrosted and turned into a quick and hearty meal when it’s just too cold to leave the house.  As well as this, they can be used to make one of the greatest sandwiches ever invented: the meatball sub. 

I first encountered this Italian-American creation at the Southampton branch of Subway in the 1990s during the dark days of sandwiches when few were available outside of chain restaurants, supermarkets and what you could buy in the buffet carriage of the train to Waterloo.  20 years, a move to London and two trips to New York later, not only have I tried…

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London Street Food: Curry Shack

Curry Shack

Curry Shack

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 hot Cajun curry.  Effing hot.

The hot Cajun curry. Effing hot.

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)

Street Food Saturdays: Spit & Roast

This morning I woke up with a slight hangover and a hankering for chicken.  It overwhelmed me to the point where I dragged myself from my bed and persuaded Ollie to join me in a walk of four miles across south east London to Brockley Market so that I could buy the best chicken sandwich in the world.

Buttermilk fried chicken bap with slaw and Korean hot sauce

Buttermilk fried chicken bap with slaw and Korean hot sauce

Spit & Roast have been trading at Brockley Market for a year or so and quickly became my favourite street food vendor.  They specialise in chicken: luscious birds spinning on the rotisserie until they have beautifully crispy skin, and some very special buttermilk fried chicken that gets put into a bap with coleslaw and some spiky Korean hot sauce to create a particular kind of sandwich heaven.

The buttermilk fried chicken bap costs £6 and comes piled high with perfectly moist chicken – they will even give you a slick more hot sauce if you ask.  Spit & Roast also offer a quarter, half or whole chicken with chips and will, occasionally, add a pork belly bap to their menu.  This week they had a festive offering with pork, stuffing and cranberry jelly that I saw many market-goers tucking into.  On my next visit, I am going to try the intriguing-sounding turkey poutine.  Roll on next Saturday.

Half a rotisserie chicken and chips

Half a rotisserie chicken and chips

Spit and Roast can be found some Saturdays at Brockley Market and at other street food markets around London.  Check their twitter for details.

London Lunches: Savage Salads

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You may have noticed that I have stopped complaining about the lack of lunch options close to my office.  There has not been a sudden influx of eateries around White City, instead I have started a new job and have moved to an office in Portland Place.  As you can imagine, I was ecstatic about the myriad of lunch options within walking distance of my new desk and barely let the door shut behind me before I was planning which ones to get to first.  With my ever depleting bank balance in mind so close to Christmas, I have limited myself to one lunch out per week – very sensible for such a glutton – and have resolved to bring in packed lunches the rest of the time.  So far I have feasted on brie and lingonberry on rye and the best cinnamon buns ever at Marylebone’s Nordic Bakery and trekked over to Grillshack for a sneaky lunchtime burger.

Berwick Street Market is not really that close to my office – it is about a 15 minute walk – but it is the closest street food market and I have not seen one of those at lunchtime for a long time.  I love walking down Berwick Street as the old record shops, fabric stores and little cafes remind me of times of old. Ollie and I used to go looking for records before heading off to one of the pubs for a drink when we were first together.  The market has been there for many, many years, but the street food is a fairly recent addition.  It has been the springboard for some great outlets – Pizza Pilgrims, who now have their own restaurant nearby, and the fabulous Banh Mi 11.

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I stumbled across Savage Salads by accident when looking for a slightly healthier street food option.  The night before was all about gin and burritos and I was craving some nutrients.  The giant bowls of beetroot with quinoa and lentils with pumpkin called out to me from among the grill smoke and hot sauce, a shining beacon of health ready to revive my poor hungover body.  Savage Salads offer two options for lunch: a large salad, or a soup and salad, both priced at £5.  You can have any combination of the salads on offer which, I am told, change regularly.  In addition to this, you get a choice from the grill – on this occasion halloumi or chicken – and some pitta bread.  The chicken was beautifully spiced and the roasted pumpkin with puy lentils was a particular delight.  It was a very difficult walk back to my office knowing I had such a delicious lunch in my hand. I only just resisted the temptation to open the box and scoff it very ungracefully whilst dodging pedestrians on Oxford Street.  It was well worth the wait.

Street Food Saturdays: The Dogfather

Going out on the search for good street food has become a Saturday morning tradition in the past year or so.  It is the perfect tonic for the malaise resulting from the overindulgence of the night before.  We are lucky to have several good markets in south east London that have an abundance of food trucks ready to feed and invigorate the weary – I always feel that if I can make it from my bed to one of these markets, all will eventually be right with the world.  One of these markets, North Cross Road, is less than a five minute walk from my front door – perfect for when driving or dealing with public transport is simply not an option.

I have been visiting this market for some time, and even wrote an article on it for Londonist back in 2011.  Even since then, it has changed enormously – some of the old sellers are still there, but it has grown in size and a few new stalls have started popping up, including a truck selling burgers and burritos, which I am very excited to try.

The signature dog from The Dogfather

The signature dog from The Dogfather

One of the oldest stalls on the market is a hot dog stand called The Dogfather, which sells 100% beef hotdogs with a variety of different, and sometimes enormous, toppings.  They also make a rather good vegetarian hotdog, which was great news to me as for a long time I did not believe there were any good vegetarian hotdogs in London.  It was previously run by Cooper, who I made friends with when writing the Londonist piece, however he has since moved back to his native Australia and the stall has been taken over.  There have been a few changes, it seems that my favourite dog – the Mexican Elvis (best hangover cure ever) – has been removed from the menu, but on the whole the basis is more or less the same as before.  I must confess that I prefer the dogs of the old days, but am still glad to have this so close to my flat.  I had the signature dog, The Dogfather, topped with chorizo, jalapenos, onions and cheese, and it certainly did the trick.

The Dogfather, North Cross Road Market (Saturdays Only), East Dulwich.

Street Food Saturdays: Viet Van, East Dulwich

Pulled pork Banh Mi a mere ten minute walk from my front door on a Saturday morning? Hungover snacking has never been the same since Viet Van rolled into town.

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Viet Van Menu

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Viet Van

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Viet Van

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BBQ Chicken Banh Mi

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Pulled Pork Banh Mi

Viet Van, North Cross Road Market (Saturdays Only), East Dulwich