London’s gritty East End might seem an unlikely culinary hotspot.
It was historically thought of as the part of the city where respectable people didn’t want to be — associated with poverty, Jack the Ripper and the cheap properties on a Monopoly board. Well, all that has certainly changed. Today the fast gentrifying East End is a microcosm of modern multicultural London. It’s also where you can find some defining examples of traditional British cuisine.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. British cuisine? Really? The truth is there’s been a seismic shift in Britain’s culinary culture in recent decades, thanks largely to the country’s swag of celebrity chefs. But today I’m going back to yummy basics. I’ll be seeking out the types of dishes that every visitor to the UK craves. For a start, we have to thank Britain for gifting the world the flavoursome wonder that is the bacon sandwich — or ‘bacon butty’ as it’s generally known to the Brits.
Toasted bacon sandwiches bring back fond memories of childhood. My father made them for me on Sunday mornings. But he didn’t make them like they do at St. John Restaurant in Spitalfields. The St John bacon sandwich is regularly lauded as the best in Britain, and it’s not hard to see why. Take thick cut, crunchy sourdough toast, lash it with butter, fill it with slightly sweet Gloucestershire old spot bacon and ‘secret’ ketchup (shh, apple is used to reduce the acidity of tomato), and you have a thing of mouth-watering beauty.
St. John is one of a number of food stops on the engrossing East End Food Tour by Eating Europe. On this delicious journey of discovery, you can try British cheese from Bedales Wines, sink your teeth into a famous Beigel Bake salt beef bagel (that lays claim to being the best this side of the Atlantic), eat a decadent salted caramel tart topped with double whipped cream at popular Pizza East, and sample curry that is, literally, fit for a prince.
The four-hour walking tour includes some fascinating anecdotes from the East End’s social and architectural history. Despite losing more than 50,000 of its buildings during the World War II Blitz, the area still has a remarkable collection of historic pubs and eateries. Among them is The English Restaurant. The heritage-listed 1670s building, another tour stop, has long been associated with London’s food industry. Once a Jewish bakery, then a food warehouse, it is now a thriving restaurant.
One of its most-loved dishes is an upmarket take on the classic English bread and butter pudding. This local dessert staple is sometimes called ‘poor man’s pudding’ because it was popular with impoverished Londoners who typically made it from stale bread. Topped with warm custard, this version uses fancy brioche to create a simple but lovely dessert.
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of British fare is fish and chips, so you can’t run a food tour here without a fish-and-chip-shop-stop. With something like 10,000 establishments across the UK serving fish and chips, it’s hard for one to stand out, but the legendary Poppies Fish and Chips manages to do just that. Poppies Spitalfields is one of three London locations dishing up a famed combination of haddock with chips and a side of mushy peas. The lightly battered, sweet fish is delicious and accompanied by pretty good chips, but I’m yet to develop an appreciation for mushy peas (and I’ll never understand the British obsession with brown sauce!).
Given its popularity, you may be surprised to find that Britain’s favourite food is not fish and chips. It’s not bread and butter pudding either, and it’s not a bacon butty. It is in fact, curry. Surveys consistently show that Britain’s favourite take-away or restaurant dish is a curry, with chicken tikka masala often coming out top of the pops.
Curry was brought to the East End by a wave of Bangladeshi migrants who made London their home in the 1970s. Many settled in the area around Brick Lane — considered the traditional heart of the East End. Curry houses first sprang up to serve the migrant community their favourite food. Eventually, the rest of the country caught on.
Brick Lane’s award-winning Aladin Curry House is frequented by celebrities and claims Prince Charles among its most famous customers. The house specialty of garlic chicken tikka masala is wonderful. It features tender pieces of marinated chicken in a sauce that would please Goldilocks — not too garlicky; not too spicy; just right.
Eating Europe’s East End Food Tour visits seven eateries in total, so it’s great value. The total distance walked is about three kilometres, centred around historic Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane (and trust me, you’ll need to keep walking for the rest of the day to work off the huge number of calories consumed at each stop).
Sure, curry, bacon butties, fish and chips and pudding aren’t haute cuisine. But they are unpretentious, eat-with-your fingers, best-of-British comfort foods — the kind that make you happy.
Louise travelled as a guest of Eating Europe.
Do you have any tips for where to eat in London’s East End? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Louise Reynolds made up her mind at the age of about four that she would one day travel the world — and has so far visited around 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, she has a particular love for France, its language and pretty much all things French. Louise’s favourite way to see the world is on foot and her boots have taken her walking on famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. She also has a passion for her home state of Victoria and loves exploring its diverse regions.