The modern London foodie is a curious, well-travelled creature. On their (one) trip to Thailand they picked up the difference between northeastern and southern Thai food and now nod sagely at the latest east London menu, telling their glazed-over companions “ah, this salad is actually Isaan you know.” They know how Ethiopian injera serves as both bread and plate, but what do they know about stotties? They know all about regional Indian cuisine and Dishoom’s recreation of Mumbai Irani cafes, but would they go to a balti house? They are experts on the Middle East because they can describe the differences between Lebanese and Palestinian hummus, but have they even heard of Geordie hummus — pease pudding?
For many London-based food-lovers, the rest of Britain may as well be another planet. It seems unusual that for a city so inquisitive about its food, the traditional meals and methods of the rest of the U.K. barely seem to permeate the M25. Other than, perhaps cheese and past(r)ies. And yet, they do exist. London is crying out for someone unscrupulous to sell half portions of northern food at double the price to credulous southerners; the city still lacks butter pies, scouse, panackelty, rag pudding, haslet, saveloy dip, Hull patties, and chip spice. For now, the following eleven entries will serve as an introductory guide for the modern London gastronomer and domestic expat.
Teesside — Chicken Parmo
Late night food — the type needed to supply a quick injection of fat and salt, to prolong a night of drinking, and prevent next-day punishment — is as much a part of a city’s fabric as the more gilded restaurants celebrated in tourist guides and online lists. In London, the doner kebab, doused in chilli and garlic, and fried chicken reign supreme. In Middlesbrough, and, to a lesser extent, Newcastle, another type of chicken rules the roost. It’s mildly ironic that nothing in a chicken parmo — a pizza-sized flattened chicken breast, breaded and fried, covered in béchamel sauce and molten, bubbling cheese — has been anywhere near a block of Parmesan. It’s difficult to decide if the Italians or Jamie Oliver would be more incensed by its existence.
No matter: the parmo is a beautiful, bountiful thing and it’s a sad reflection on London that it can only be found in three locations. The first, and most prominent, is the Parm Star van, which recently won the best main dish at the British Street Food awards. It’s possible to find its parmos, and parmo ‘burgers’ intermittently at markets, but particularly on the Southbank at the weekend. For a posher parmo, pop down to The Rose Pub, home of the delicious, chorizo-filled Bermondsey Parmo (smaller and more expensive than a Teesside parmo.) For the ultimate parmo experience, the one which recognises that a parmo should not be consumed in sunlight, go to Papillon Pizza in Stratford. Here, parmos are served in 10x10 lasagne tins with chips and a few desultory leaves of salad.
Lancashire — Eccles Cakes
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Eccles cakes were not a widespread staple of bakeries in London. Now they’re so ubiquitous that when Dominique Ansel opened his bakery in Victoria, one of his nods to traditional English baking — alongside takes on Victoria sponge, mince pies, and Welsh rarebit — was to include an Eccles cake filled with raspberry and lemon-gelled currants. The reason? St John, whose former head baker Justin Gellatly (now of Bread Ahead) perfected the Eccles cake, so much so that it is now one of St John’s most recognisable creations. Although not necessarily an “authentic” Lancashire expression of the cake — St. John, atypically, eschew lard for buttery puff — here it’s served in the correct way, not as just a baked currant pastry but with a slice of crumbly, tangy Lancashire cheese. By themselves, both are excellent; together, there may not be anything better on the entire St John menu.
Yorkshire — Fish and Chips
Finding good fish and chips in London is a losing battle for anyone born north of Coventry or less than 10 miles from the sea. For one, there is always something lost in translation when fish and chips is removed from its coastal home. While London chippies might boast that their fish are practically brought in flapping, and filleted straight into the fryer, they can’t compete with salty chips seasoned further by sea air. It’s an experience that is very much tethered to geography. The London upstarts which try to gussy it up, that try to make the mushy peas taste like actual peas, that charge £1.75 for curry sauce, don’t understand that fish and chips is a cheap, sustaining food. Then there are others who just don’t treat the ingredients with respect.
So where to go? The tourists’ choice has long been Fryer’s Delight, one of the few places to fry in dripping, but the fish itself leaves a lot to be desired. Fish Central, located slap bang in the middle of an estate near the Barbican, is a better choice, particularly for the freshness of its fish and high-temperature frying which seals and steams the fish in its batter. However, the truth is that the best fish and chip shop is the one round the corner, the one close enough to take the package home, unwrap it on the sofa like a Christmas present, and enjoy in huge, mouth-burning gulps. In this spirit, east Londoners should try Micky’s Chippy in Dalston, a neighbourhood chippie which has been serving the community for 23 years. The fish is fried to order, the oil clean, the mushy peas their proper, unnatural hue, the saveloys taut and snappy, the curry sauce correct, the banter on point (and also in Turkish.) Is it the best fish and chips in the world? No, but it gets the spirit right and does so for £8.90.
Cornwall — Stargazy Pie
The link between Cornwall and London has become the most vital food highway in the country, with produce from the land, farm, and sea flooding the larders of some of the best restaurants in the city. But what of the regional food of Cornwall? Perhaps the most singular is stargazy pie, a hyper-regional delicacy of the small seaside village of Mousehole, which was popularised by its inclusion in Jane Grigson’s English Food and later by Eater London contributor Josh Barrie. Its startling appearance, with pilchards raising their heads above a cloud of pastry, has led to notoriety in Japan and China, where it is called 仰望星空 (literally, “looking up to the starry sky”) and viewed with a degree of interest and amusement. When done well, it is is both striking and soothing: a balmy, creamy fish pie with the additional benefit of the joy of stripping flesh from fish heads. There is no restaurant in London with the pie permanently on its menu, but keep those eyes peeled on special days — for instance ... National Pie Day. Some Fuller’s pubs such as The Admiralty or the Jack Horner serve “posh” stargazy pies with prawn heads.
Leicestershire — Pork Pie
This is a universal truth: there is no such thing as bad pork pie. Even the very worst, the mini packs of six from the supermarket, the questionable petrol station ones, are an acceptable last resort — the potential saviours of a mediocre picnic. It’s a frugal and ingenious way of using leftover pork and fat; hot water crusts are reminders that almost everything brilliant about traditional British cooking is bound up with the liberal use of animal fats: dripping and lard.
The most traditional great pork pies in London, those most made in the Melton Mowbray tradition, are found at The Butchery in Forest Hill (and, on Saturdays, at Spa Terminus. They come from Hartland, a piemaker based in Nottinghamshire, which labels all pies with protected geographical indication labels. Thick-crusted ,with greyish pink meat generously seasoned with white pepper, leaving fingers slicked in fat, these are platonic pork pies. For alternative versions, the hand-raised ones at Holborn Dining Room come two ways — either cold or straight out of the oven like burnished crowns. Those from the deli at Quality Chop Shop come with thick cubes of fat and an intriguingly dark brown jelly, rich and savoury as Marmite. Finally at the Marksman, the pies eschew the hard water crust and opt for softer suet-y vibes, almost like a pudding, with sausage meat filling and a thick upper layer of jelly that leaks like caramel from a chocolate bar.
Birmingham — Balti House
Talk to any Brummie about a balti, an actual, real, proper balti, and they will say it’s impossible to find one in London. They may be right. A balti is not only a Pakistani assimilation food, a version of a karahi made fresh and quick over an extremely high heat — almost like a Chinese stir fry — and served in its individual pan, but also a hyper-regional one. It does not really exist outside Birmingham. Despite London’s many restaurants with ‘balti’ in their name, nearly all these places fail at either the high heat/quick cooking or the stipulation that it is served in its pan. Lahori Nihaari in Upton Park serves dry karahis in their pans, an ur-balti pungent with ginger and chilli and a reassuring layer of red oil.
For a truly unique balti experience, and actually one of the most astonishing restaurant experiences in London, head to Royal Nawaab in Perivale — a restaurant few people outside the Pakistani community know of yet has almost three times more Google reviews than Padella. This Manchester import is a whitewashed palatial space whose vast, wedding hall interior doesn’t prevent 45 minute queues on Friday and Saturday evenings. People flock here for the all-in buffet at £20.95, which gives access to unlimited Pakistani food: seekh kebabs, chapli kebabs, samosas, lamb chops, biriyani, karahi, nihari, haleem, paya (trotters), taka tak (assorted offal), and that elusive balti — not served individually in a pan, it’s true, but at least they’re present and correct.
It’s somewhat sacrilegious to reduce the complexity of Scotland’s food into one regional entry: a country with some of the most astonishing produce in the world from loch and glen, the country from which two of the best smoked products in existence originate. The culture which created a dish as beautiful as haggis, but then defiled it with the “Justin Bieber Special,” the deep-fried haggis supper served at Glasgow’s The Blue Lagoon that Bieber ordered 1 (one) time. Glasgow in particular has some of the most consistently outrageous fried creations available in the U.K.: Mars Bars; the pakoras beloved by Isaac McHale; the Scooby Snacks at The Maggie: lorne sausage, egg, tattie scones, and cheese spilling out of a bun. The closest thing available in London has turned up (although not right now) at Lanark Coffee on Hackney Road. Those who wish to recreate the Scooby Snack at home, though, can buy lorne sausage at The Scottish Kitchen at the Real Food market outside King’s Cross Station, and can treat themselves to tablet, the hard, granular fudge that can make an addict of even the most hardened sweet skeptic.
More frugal fare can be found at Paul Rothe and Sons, the most old-school of all the old-school sandwich shops in London, whose best of many rotating soups is the Scotch broth — so thick with mince that is is basically a stew. Since it’s almost the season, a special mention should go to that ambassador for Scottish food, libation, and generosity of spirit: Jeremy Lee, whose restaurant Quo Vadis will be celebrating with haggis, neeps, and tatties on Burns Night year in, year out.
Northern Ireland — Ulster Fry
For those who think food choices aren’t intensely political, see almost any American election cycle and also the Twitter feed of Gerry Adams, whose one of many iconic tweets reads “No beans in a fry. Especially an Ulster fry. Unless it’s a British occupied 6 counties fry. Oiche mhaith xoxozzzzzzzz”. This excited debate in Northen Ireland and almost none this side of the water — perhaps because of ignorance regarding the very composition of an Ulster Fry itself. For those who don’t know, an Ulster fry has similar components to an English fry up, with a few crucial differences: no baked beans is one, the use of fluffy potato bread and crisp soda farls as carb accompaniments another. One of the only Ulster fries in London can be found at Philomena’s, an Irish bar on Great Queen Street which has all the requisite components, and is, to the delight of both the Sinn Fein leader and writer Bethany Rutter, beanless.
Wales — Bara Brith
For a whole country, Wales is curiously underrepresented on London menus. Sure, about half of the U.K.’s best lamb is from there, much of it from Farmer Tom Jones — who must always be prefaced with the word “farmer,” just in case confused diners think the other Tom Jones has had a radical career change — but very few of its actual dishes can be found. Faggot and peas, a dark brown bolus of mince and lungs, served with fresh peas, mint, and gravy, appears intermittently on the St John blackboard, but for something permanent head over to Jorge Fernandez and Dee Rettali’s Fortitude Bakehouse. Bara Brith, the heavy, mottled fruit bread, has an overnight fermentation with honey, fruit and Darjeeling tea before being formed into loaves. Ideally these should be caught in the morning straight from the oven, toasted immediately and slathered in butter, then consumed hot with sticky fingers on the streets of Bloomsbury.
Essex — The Old Food of London
London has just two indigenous foods that, up until recently, could not really be found outside it: pie, mash and liquor, and jellied eels. It might seem odd to put these foods under the bracket for Essex but the last few decades has seen a slow shift of these foods eastwards, and the next few decades will see a full handover. Just as easily as the wind from the west brought the smog, the factories and the workers over to the east side of London, the working class who ate those foods have slowly migrated towards to the sea for a variety of complex reasons, most prominently rising rents and white flight.
For all the lazy think-pieces about veganism killing pie and mash, the truth is that pie and mash isn’t dead, it’s just moved with the customers. Southend for instance, has the largest number of pie and mash shops per capita in the country, while Clacton-on-Sea, Basildon, Rayleigh, Maldon and even Lakeside Shopping centre have thriving pie and mash shops, some of which moved from London years ago. And just like that, pie and mash is now a regional Essex food. Recommending a place to eat it is much of a muchness — to those who grew up on the stuff, they all taste like childhood, gummy pies and soft mash in parsley, a nostalgic baby food for grown-ups. Those who didn’t invariably hate it. Castle’s Pie and Mash in Camden and Arment’s in Walworth are good places to try it for the first or the hundredth time and to be initiated into its odd rituals, its cutlery and condiments. Like xiao long bao, they absolutely need chilli vinegar.
As for jellied eels, not even people who like them actually enjoy this uniquely vile preparation of fish, but if intrigued, seek them out at seafood stalls, like Barney’s off Cable Street, between Tower Hill and Shadwell stations. Here, they can be discarded in favour of whelks, cockles, rollmops, and crab meat. With the closure of Tubby Isaacs — Goulston Street’s beloved seafood stall — five years ago, Barney’s is one of the very last vestiges of Jewish east London, and in turn of its profound influence on London’s cuisine. The slow death of London pie, mash and eels therefore leaves a huge hole at the centre of London’s identity as a city of food — it is up to the next generation of immigrants, and their interaction and friction with London’s present food culture, to fill it.