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Welsh rarebit at St. John, one of central London’s best snacks
A plate of Welsh rarebit, as served at St. John.
Eater

Explore London’s Wonderful Fake, Fugitive, and ‘Poor Man’s’ Foods

The innovative tradition of Chinese mock meats, escaped Italian pasta sauces, and deceptive seaweed

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A plate of Welsh rarebit, as served at St. John.
| Eater

What’s in a name? Names are signifiers, tools of specificity. They illuminate. We call a rose a rose. But names are also moving targets, that can disclose and disguise in the same breath.

A brief list of names: Poor man’s lobster, Welsh caviar, falso conejo (false rabbit), mock cooter stew, sugo scappato (escaped sauce). A corresponding list of names: monkfish, laverbread, ground beef, ground beef stew, tomato sauce. Here is a category of foods, found across the world’s cuisines, that have become defined in relation to another food, often as a “poor man’s” substitute for an expensive ingredient.

These dishes are distinct from the trompe l’œil of meat fruit and liquid olives favoured by elites through time, from 16th century courtiers to 21st century molecular gastronomers. Rather than spectacular deceptions, these are forgeries in broad brushstrokes, born out of the creativity provoked by both necessity and desire. Italian pasta sauces exemplify this imaginative flex, as food writer Emiko Davies has shown: sugo scappato and sugo finto (fake sauce) are tomato-based sauces defined by the absence of meat; for sugo al pesce fuggito (fugitive fish sauce), seashells or seaweed-covered rocks are boiled with water to impart a maritime murmur into a dish. Sugo bugiardo, (liar’s sauce) meanwhile, bulks a little meat with hearty vegetables and legumes to produce an approximate ragu.

Cultures of eating shift across time and geographies, creating slippages in taste that are carried in the languages of substitution: “poor man’s asparagus” denotes salsify in Scandinavia, but samphire in Britain. The German falsche hase — false rabbit — is a wartime meatloaf alternative, while in Australia, where rabbits are a populous invasive species thanks to European introduction for sport in the 19th century, rabbit is “underground mutton.”

These imitation foods are not limited to the role of lesser substitute. They are suggestive, coaxing the eater to notice new connections and draw the absent food into fresh relief. There are likenesses that require sensory decoding, like the careful noticing of an uncannily cerebral wobble in a bowl of silken tofu pudding, which gives it the name 豆腐脑, doufunao. Tofu brains. Or the sense memory required for sense-making when it comes to fish-fragrant dishes, learning the unmistakable blend of pickled Sichuan chilli, ginger, garlic, and spring onions.

Eventually such foods find their way onto restaurant menus, either to feed their communities in homes away from home, or in a novel iteration, reinvented once again as delicacies. Here is a guide to some of the best fugitive foods that London has to offer.

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Uova in trippa alla romana @ Polentina

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The staff canteen and breakroom at Apparel Tasker, a clothing factory in Bow, also happens to be one of London’s most interesting Italian restaurants. Over weekday lunches, Friday suppers, and regular pop-ups, chef Sophia Massarella serves deeply regional menus, traversing the boot and its islands from Umbria to Bari to Sardinia through wisely selected dishes with a strong sense of linguistic fun. Zuppa di finocchietti selvatici is not a soup, but a soak, of Sardinian flatbread, fennel, and cheese, muddled together and baked. Umbricelli’s thick earthworms of pasta are named after the Perugian word for the creatures, and the uova in trippa alla romana is eggs cooked like tripe, in a rich and rough tomato sauce. It’s the most mediocre omelette that makes the highest quality fake tripe, cooked until almost rubbery, with bubbles dispersed throughout, before being sliced into lengths.

Spaghetti co’ lo sugo finto @ Rossodisera

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It’s only a matter of time before the pasta boyfriends of the internet discover sugo finto, or fake sauce. The easiest way to add a semblance of mystery and romance to a familiar dish? Call it by another name. In this case, it’s the most ubiquitous of pasta accompaniments: sugo finto is essentially a tomato sauce, served in place of a meat ragu. Few could be so brazen. Only Rossodisera, which specialises in the cuisine of Italy’s Le Marche region, has dared. Spaghetti co’ lo sugo finto comes al dente, with a single basil leaf perched on top, but on a menu that includes a £2.50 supplement to get olive oil alongside the bread basket, it’s hardly the most audacious thing. There’s another branch in Covent Garden.

Fish-fragrant aubergine @ Tofu Vegan Islington

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Anyone looking for imitation expertise should look to London’s Chinese restaurants, where the transformation of tofu and bean curd into various meat and fish alternatives builds on centuries of tradition and innovation. At Tofu Vegan, the range of faux chicken, duck, lamb, and fish preparations is impressive. On a menu that encourages suggestive comparison, though, it’s cartilage-like, wrinkled cloud ear mushrooms and wafer-thin tofu skin that capture the imagination. The most unusual of likenesses is that of the “fish-fragrant” sauces for aubergines, tofu, and deep-fried mushroom balls. This mysterious term is used widely in Sichuan cookery to denote any dishes dressed in a preparation of pickled Sichuan chillies, ginger, garlic, and spring onions; a combination most associated with the flavour profile of Sichuanese fish seasonings. At Tofu Vegan, diners should have the aubergines, caramelised and sweet, sour, and numbing, ripe to dissolve in their vivid orange sauce.

Shredded beef @ Etles Uyghur Restaurant

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Fish-fragrance isn’t just applicable to vegetarian dishes. It’s also a common way to cook meat. Yu xiang rou si — strips of meat dressed in a fish-fragrant sauce — is frequently made with pork. At Mukaddes Yadikar’s Walthamstow favourite, Etles Uyghur, where everything is halal, however, the dish has been revised. Its iteration of shredded beef is a tangle of beef slivers, wood ear mushrooms, and green peppers, all doused in the anaesthetizing spice and fresh hit of fish-fragrance. It’s the perfect companion to a heap of the restaurant’s outstanding, hand-pulled leghmen noodles.

Alheira assada @ Snackbar Grelha Douro

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The necessity that brought Alheira sausage — a soft web of bread, garlic, paprika, and poultry designed to mimic pork sausage — into the world is of a different category to the other dishes on this list. Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition for Portugal, and found themselves persecuted once more in their new home, were the inventors of this unusual delicacy. A community in hiding, they created a poultry sausage that could hang from their ceilings, just as Christians dried and displayed their pork sausages. These days, the once clandestine recipe has been absorbed into, and transformed, by wider Portuguese cuisine. Many versions of the popular sausage now contain pork, and at Snack Bar Grelha Douro, this smoky horseshoe is best eaten with bread for cutlery, eyes glued to the football.

Croquetes de alheira @ Bar Douro London Bridge

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The diners at Bar Douro make for happy sardines, tucked in at the blue-tiled bar in tight rows, chinking green-tinted glasses in the golden light. As a celebration of Portuguese cuisine, the restaurant hedges its bets between classical approaches to dishes like bacalhau a bras — flaky salt cod tumbled together with shreds of fried potato and eggs — and culinary school reworkings of homely plates like feijoada, producing a menu that blows hot and cold. Bar Douro’s homage to Portugal’s unique garlic sausage is a solid star, though: Velvety croquetes de alheira sit in perfect formation at the four corners of an azulejo, plastered on with generous cushions of salty aioli.

Sweet beancurd @ Cafe TPT

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While tofu isn’t technically alive, it’s close to it: The soybeans it’s made from could easily have had a second life in collaboration with fungi or bacteria as fermented soybean paste, natto, miso, or soy sauce. Perhaps that’s why tofu, even in its plainest forms, feels so imaginatively ripe for comparison to living things. The fine bubbles on tofu skin served in cold salad seem to come from a wobbling creature, while tofu pudding — soft tofu served either sweet or savoury — has won the name doufunao (豆腐脑), tofu brains, in northern China. At Café TPT, jostled up next to other customers as they pull at tender seabass and crack at crispy duck skin, it’s impossible not to see the potential for intelligent life in a wooden keg of jiggling beancurd. Café TPT is proud of its desserts — their image emblazons the restaurant’s window — and rightly so. Sweet-toothed diners should follow chef’s recommendations, and get the mango and grapefruit flavour.

Falso conejo @ Jenecheru

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The pull of Jenecheru on a Sunday in winter is strong: thick coats slung over the backs of chairs, hot crisp pies, glass bottles of Coca Cola with stripy straws, blonde and silky sopa de mani, and clove-heavy rice pudding. Most of all, though, the crowds are in it for the Sunday specials. The two heavy hitters are lechon al horno, roasted pork served in grid-formation with sweet potato, plantain, rice, huge-kerneled choclo corn, and fresh cheese; and falso conejo, false rabbit, a dish of deep-fried beef cutlets served in a sauce of tomatoes, peas, and onions. At Jenecheru, it’s accompanied by two types of potato — white, and white chuño, a kind of freeze-dried potato, as well as rice, tomatoes, and onions. The dish likely gets its name from its resemblance to lambreado de conejo, a fried rabbit dish, which might be served whole and regal, or in pieces, and dressed with the same sauce.

Duck fat pangrattato @ Manteca

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Pangrattato, once known as “poor man’s Parmesan,” is one of those imitation foods whose symbolism has mutated considerably over time, to the point, even, of becoming the clearer sign of luxury. In London, one of the simplest and most economical of uses for old bread has come to occupy an incongruously reified position. Fried breadcrumbs crop up in surprising places — as a chilli-oregano constellation topping for the Second City sub at Bodega Rita’s, say — as well as expected ones, inevitably found at pasta titans like Trullo and Padella. But nowhere celebrates them more than Manteca, where duck fat pangrattato is the cascading crown to fazzoletti, rendering the duck ragu it’s served with almost incidental.

Welsh laverbread @ Brat

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Welsh laverbread, laver seaweed from Pembrokeshire, or “Welshman’s caviar,” is rarely mentioned on the menu at Michelin-starred seafood restaurant, Brat. That doesn’t mean that chef Tomos Parry isn’t using it, though. He just takes a guerrilla approach to injecting Welsh influence into the restaurant’s broadly Basque repertoire, and the ingredient is quietly pervasive. Brat uses both braised laver and fresh laver from West Wales, which the chefs process on site. It’s used in pil-pil sauce, served with kokotxas, plaice, clams, or cockles, or else it’s pickled and mixed with cucumber, to garnish Welsh Menai oysters.

Welsh rarebit @ St. John

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Seekinge oute the historickal mocke metes of these isles? The best hope is to follow the antiquarian tastes of Fergus Henderson and clan. While Spitalfields’s Bread and Wine remains closed for breakfast, diners must lament the loss of Scotch Woodcock, the dish of scrambled eggs with anchovies on toast that was a House of Commons favourite of the previous century. Luckily, the false woodcock’s older sibling, Welsh rarebit (also known as Welsh rabbit) appears to have found the secret to eternal life, in the hollowed-out bowels of an old smokehouse in Farringdon. There is no supper more reliable than Smithfield cheese on toast and a pint of Guinness.

Uova in trippa alla romana @ Polentina

The staff canteen and breakroom at Apparel Tasker, a clothing factory in Bow, also happens to be one of London’s most interesting Italian restaurants. Over weekday lunches, Friday suppers, and regular pop-ups, chef Sophia Massarella serves deeply regional menus, traversing the boot and its islands from Umbria to Bari to Sardinia through wisely selected dishes with a strong sense of linguistic fun. Zuppa di finocchietti selvatici is not a soup, but a soak, of Sardinian flatbread, fennel, and cheese, muddled together and baked. Umbricelli’s thick earthworms of pasta are named after the Perugian word for the creatures, and the uova in trippa alla romana is eggs cooked like tripe, in a rich and rough tomato sauce. It’s the most mediocre omelette that makes the highest quality fake tripe, cooked until almost rubbery, with bubbles dispersed throughout, before being sliced into lengths.

Spaghetti co’ lo sugo finto @ Rossodisera

It’s only a matter of time before the pasta boyfriends of the internet discover sugo finto, or fake sauce. The easiest way to add a semblance of mystery and romance to a familiar dish? Call it by another name. In this case, it’s the most ubiquitous of pasta accompaniments: sugo finto is essentially a tomato sauce, served in place of a meat ragu. Few could be so brazen. Only Rossodisera, which specialises in the cuisine of Italy’s Le Marche region, has dared. Spaghetti co’ lo sugo finto comes al dente, with a single basil leaf perched on top, but on a menu that includes a £2.50 supplement to get olive oil alongside the bread basket, it’s hardly the most audacious thing. There’s another branch in Covent Garden.

Fish-fragrant aubergine @ Tofu Vegan Islington

Anyone looking for imitation expertise should look to London’s Chinese restaurants, where the transformation of tofu and bean curd into various meat and fish alternatives builds on centuries of tradition and innovation. At Tofu Vegan, the range of faux chicken, duck, lamb, and fish preparations is impressive. On a menu that encourages suggestive comparison, though, it’s cartilage-like, wrinkled cloud ear mushrooms and wafer-thin tofu skin that capture the imagination. The most unusual of likenesses is that of the “fish-fragrant” sauces for aubergines, tofu, and deep-fried mushroom balls. This mysterious term is used widely in Sichuan cookery to denote any dishes dressed in a preparation of pickled Sichuan chillies, ginger, garlic, and spring onions; a combination most associated with the flavour profile of Sichuanese fish seasonings. At Tofu Vegan, diners should have the aubergines, caramelised and sweet, sour, and numbing, ripe to dissolve in their vivid orange sauce.

Shredded beef @ Etles Uyghur Restaurant

Fish-fragrance isn’t just applicable to vegetarian dishes. It’s also a common way to cook meat. Yu xiang rou si — strips of meat dressed in a fish-fragrant sauce — is frequently made with pork. At Mukaddes Yadikar’s Walthamstow favourite, Etles Uyghur, where everything is halal, however, the dish has been revised. Its iteration of shredded beef is a tangle of beef slivers, wood ear mushrooms, and green peppers, all doused in the anaesthetizing spice and fresh hit of fish-fragrance. It’s the perfect companion to a heap of the restaurant’s outstanding, hand-pulled leghmen noodles.

Alheira assada @ Snackbar Grelha Douro

The necessity that brought Alheira sausage — a soft web of bread, garlic, paprika, and poultry designed to mimic pork sausage — into the world is of a different category to the other dishes on this list. Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition for Portugal, and found themselves persecuted once more in their new home, were the inventors of this unusual delicacy. A community in hiding, they created a poultry sausage that could hang from their ceilings, just as Christians dried and displayed their pork sausages. These days, the once clandestine recipe has been absorbed into, and transformed, by wider Portuguese cuisine. Many versions of the popular sausage now contain pork, and at Snack Bar Grelha Douro, this smoky horseshoe is best eaten with bread for cutlery, eyes glued to the football.

Croquetes de alheira @ Bar Douro London Bridge

The diners at Bar Douro make for happy sardines, tucked in at the blue-tiled bar in tight rows, chinking green-tinted glasses in the golden light. As a celebration of Portuguese cuisine, the restaurant hedges its bets between classical approaches to dishes like bacalhau a bras — flaky salt cod tumbled together with shreds of fried potato and eggs — and culinary school reworkings of homely plates like feijoada, producing a menu that blows hot and cold. Bar Douro’s homage to Portugal’s unique garlic sausage is a solid star, though: Velvety croquetes de alheira sit in perfect formation at the four corners of an azulejo, plastered on with generous cushions of salty aioli.

Sweet beancurd @ Cafe TPT

While tofu isn’t technically alive, it’s close to it: The soybeans it’s made from could easily have had a second life in collaboration with fungi or bacteria as fermented soybean paste, natto, miso, or soy sauce. Perhaps that’s why tofu, even in its plainest forms, feels so imaginatively ripe for comparison to living things. The fine bubbles on tofu skin served in cold salad seem to come from a wobbling creature, while tofu pudding — soft tofu served either sweet or savoury — has won the name doufunao (豆腐脑), tofu brains, in northern China. At Café TPT, jostled up next to other customers as they pull at tender seabass and crack at crispy duck skin, it’s impossible not to see the potential for intelligent life in a wooden keg of jiggling beancurd. Café TPT is proud of its desserts — their image emblazons the restaurant’s window — and rightly so. Sweet-toothed diners should follow chef’s recommendations, and get the mango and grapefruit flavour.

Falso conejo @ Jenecheru

The pull of Jenecheru on a Sunday in winter is strong: thick coats slung over the backs of chairs, hot crisp pies, glass bottles of Coca Cola with stripy straws, blonde and silky sopa de mani, and clove-heavy rice pudding. Most of all, though, the crowds are in it for the Sunday specials. The two heavy hitters are lechon al horno, roasted pork served in grid-formation with sweet potato, plantain, rice, huge-kerneled choclo corn, and fresh cheese; and falso conejo, false rabbit, a dish of deep-fried beef cutlets served in a sauce of tomatoes, peas, and onions. At Jenecheru, it’s accompanied by two types of potato — white, and white chuño, a kind of freeze-dried potato, as well as rice, tomatoes, and onions. The dish likely gets its name from its resemblance to lambreado de conejo, a fried rabbit dish, which might be served whole and regal, or in pieces, and dressed with the same sauce.

Duck fat pangrattato @ Manteca

Pangrattato, once known as “poor man’s Parmesan,” is one of those imitation foods whose symbolism has mutated considerably over time, to the point, even, of becoming the clearer sign of luxury. In London, one of the simplest and most economical of uses for old bread has come to occupy an incongruously reified position. Fried breadcrumbs crop up in surprising places — as a chilli-oregano constellation topping for the Second City sub at Bodega Rita’s, say — as well as expected ones, inevitably found at pasta titans like Trullo and Padella. But nowhere celebrates them more than Manteca, where duck fat pangrattato is the cascading crown to fazzoletti, rendering the duck ragu it’s served with almost incidental.

Welsh laverbread @ Brat

Welsh laverbread, laver seaweed from Pembrokeshire, or “Welshman’s caviar,” is rarely mentioned on the menu at Michelin-starred seafood restaurant, Brat. That doesn’t mean that chef Tomos Parry isn’t using it, though. He just takes a guerrilla approach to injecting Welsh influence into the restaurant’s broadly Basque repertoire, and the ingredient is quietly pervasive. Brat uses both braised laver and fresh laver from West Wales, which the chefs process on site. It’s used in pil-pil sauce, served with kokotxas, plaice, clams, or cockles, or else it’s pickled and mixed with cucumber, to garnish Welsh Menai oysters.

Welsh rarebit @ St. John

Seekinge oute the historickal mocke metes of these isles? The best hope is to follow the antiquarian tastes of Fergus Henderson and clan. While Spitalfields’s Bread and Wine remains closed for breakfast, diners must lament the loss of Scotch Woodcock, the dish of scrambled eggs with anchovies on toast that was a House of Commons favourite of the previous century. Luckily, the false woodcock’s older sibling, Welsh rarebit (also known as Welsh rabbit) appears to have found the secret to eternal life, in the hollowed-out bowels of an old smokehouse in Farringdon. There is no supper more reliable than Smithfield cheese on toast and a pint of Guinness.

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