Part 1: The West End & An English Pub
Part 2: Borough Market, The South Bank, The City, & A Super Steak
Part 3: Hyde Park, South Kensington & Knightsbridge, Hummingbird Bakery, and Portobello Road
Part 4: Best Salt Beef Beigel, A Szechuan Restaurant, and Buckingham Palace
Part 5: British Food I Love (and then some)
My London-based friend, Marc, takes a break from his studies at Oxford to take me around Shoreditch and Spitalfields Market. Along with Clerkenwell, these areas are part of what’s described as post-industrial areas northeast of London. It’s supposed to be all very hip and one cool quarter but we’re here on a Friday instead of the suggested Sunday when two of the biggest markets, Brick Lane Market and Sunday Upmarket, are held, so there’s not too much going on. Still, what we do see gladdens me very much.
Spitalfields Market has endured much gentrification, much to the chagrin of Londoners who are against big businesses and their redevelopment plans. But the market clings on featuring fashion finds and things from emerging designers. The general vibe reminds me of the Greenhills bazaars, something altogether pleasant and where a little perseverance will reward me with a cool new accessory.
We move on towards Brick Lane, passing the Old Truman Brewery along the way. Formerly London’s biggest brewery, it now houses plenty of autonomous music shops and bars. It’s the lunch hour and there are crowds milling about the various food stalls selling everything from paella to Korean noodles. It all smells distinctly, familiarly pungent to me and I feel a twinge. Suddenly, I miss Asian food.
South of the Brewery is Brick Lane, also called Banglatown and home to almost 50 Indian/Bengali restaurants. This area has been dubbed the UK’s Curry Capital, with curry following just behind fish and chips as Britain’s most popular food. Here, curry and balti houses interweave with fabric stores and Asian supermarkets. Throw in a few independent fashion stores and music businesses, and it’s quite the mix.
On Brick Lane, every other person is clutching a soiled brown sandwich bag, remnants of a salt beef sandwich. Salt beef is similar to New York-style corned beef, a Jewish deli original made from curing beef briskets in brine. Famous all over for their Salt Beef Beigels (the local spelling for ‘bagel’), Brick Lane Beigel Bake is open 24/7 and serves everybody from marketgoers during the day to Shoreditch clubbers at night. There’s a line that snakes out the door but Marc and I gamely take our place and study the menu. The three counter attendants move with exceeding efficiency and seem to have eight hands each – making sandwiches, pulling out beigels to go, calculating and counting change, etc. There’s no room for dilly-dallying here – you go up to the counter and bark out your order and may the planet fall on you if you flounder.
Marc and I plan our strategy: he gets the Salt Beef Beigel (£2.60) and I get the Salmon with Cream Cheese Beigel. We step out the door and hurriedly unwrap our respective sammies (sandwiches). One bite, Marc rolls his eyes. One bite of mine, and I grimace. I had a mental misfire, a blip. Salmon sandwiches are not what Beigel Bake is known for. This isn’t New York, you oaf! I berate myself. “Marc, this isn’t doing it for me. I want your sandwich!” I say accusingly, complete with pointed finger. “Tell you what, let’s go into the other shop and buy their salt beef and let’s compare,” he replies. Right beside Brick Lane Beigel Bake is another store that’s so unforgettable I can’t even recall its name. They have the same items as their neighbor but their Salt Beef Beigels are different.
Here’s Marc holding up our two salt beef specimens. The sandwich on the left is from the Store-With-No-Name while the one on the right is from Beigel Bake. The former is a smaller serving with thinner slices of beef. The brine is also sharper, somewhat saltier. Beigel Bake’s salt beef serving is heartier (especially with lots of English mustard and pickles!), the meat has some bite, as opposed to it being “overcured” hence, it’d be mushy, and we can taste the beefy flavor as opposed to just tasting salt. And when paired with the resistantly-chewy beigel, it’s the overall better salt beef beigel.
Brick Lane Beigel Bake
159 Brick Lane, London, E1 6SB
For dinner, Marc is taking me to his favorite Chinese restaurant in London. Marc’s friend, John, also a student at Oxford, is joining us for dinner. “They specialize in Sichuan cuisine, Lor, and this place is better than all the others I encountered in my seven years in China!” he burbles excitedly. Located on Charing Cross Road, Red Hot – quite the apt name, yes? – is exactly like every other Chinese restaurant: brightly lit and nondescript. There’s one exception though. The place is tiny, tiny by this Asian girl’s standards, but as I quickly discover, what it lacks in size, the flavor of the food makes up for in largeness.
Marc is speaking in rapid fire Mandarin to the server while I glance at the menu. There are some rather startlingly-named dishes, startling by any nationality’s standards, with the common theme of “Fast and Fried.” To wit: Fire Exploded (!) Kidney Flowers, Crisp & Fast Fried; Pockmarked Lady’s Tou Fu with Minced Meat, and something that’s not on the menu but which Marc knows to order, the rather lyrical Sichuan Chicken with Lip-Tingling Spicy Sauce (£7.80). Pleased to meet you, yes I am.
It turns out to be my favorite dish among the six that land on our table. Arriving and looking ominously like a bowl of blood and oil, it’s strips of poached chicken bathing in an oil bled red from rendering it with roasted Sichuan peppercorns. Peanuts prance atop and I include them in my first spoonful. The chicken is tender and cool, and quickly, the oil slithers down my throat leaving a flurry of flavors on my tongue. “Marc, I feel like I can taste flowers in my mouth!” I say, my hands aflutter. I smack my lips loudly, the inhalation of air brings the flavors to the fore once more. “Oh god, it’s like lavender!” Marc nods his assent animatedly. His tastebuds too have been inflamed. “It’s the Sichuan peppercorns. The restaurant gets them super fresh.” Tremendous.
The following dish has a kilometric (and descriptive) name: Fragrant Pork Slivers with Pickled Chilli Ginger With A Hint of Sweet & Sour Sauce; “Famous Sichuan Dish” is tacked at the end. This one too has so many flavors so cunningly, skillfully blended that my mind and palate become frantic: what is this? what is this? I detect chili, star anise, fennel, maybe even some coriander, bean paste, and of course those mighty Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan cuisine is no symphony of spice, it’s a raucous rock concert. And I love it.
A plate of vibrant Stir Fried Pea Sprouts (tom yao; £8.5) readies our palates for yet another chili charge.
This is one of Red Hot’s signature dishes, the Red N Hot Special Fish (£16.80) – “Very Popular and Unique to This Restaurant” I read on the menu. It makes for a good show, a mountain of chili peppers enshrouding glistening fillets of fish. I appreciate the artistry and skill but flavorwise, it doesn’t move me. The oil is rather tasteless and really, what’s to do with all those chilies after they’ve been removed from the surface?
- Red Hot Special Fish chili cover off
By now, Marc and John have been employing what I call the energetic consumption of food. Their foreheads are profuse with sweat in spite of the single digit weather outside. For these guys, they’ll keep eating and enduring the spice until the paint starts to peel off the walls. There are other dishes on the table (Chengdu Pan-Pan Noodles, Hot & Spicy Tou Fu Pudding) but I’m happy with the dishes I’ve mentioned and even happier that I’m eating rice again.
Red Hot Szechuan Cuisine
The next day, a visit to St. James’s Park seems rather sedate after the ramming rod that was Sichuan cuisine, something I truly enjoyed however. My Bin is back from his conference so we’re taking pleasure by visiting and reveling in the beauty of one of London’s smallest parks, and one with killer views.
From here, we have views of the London Eye and the Big Ben, and some other landmarks I’m not familiar with. The central lake is quite famous, full it is with various ducks and geese and other fowl.
From St. James’s Park, it’s but a short stroll to Buckingham Palace. I’m unable to snap any satisfying photos but suffice it to say that the royal lodgings truly inspire feelings of awe and magnificence.
- The road leading up to Buckingham Palace.
- Police on patrol around the Palace.