In the space of just 5 minutes, I’d been transported from Kashgar in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province to Bucharest, Romania in the heart of eastern Europe. Over the course of the subsequent few hours, I’d also managed a whistle-stop tour of the Punjab followed by a layover in Eritrea on the horn of Africa. How was this possible, you ask? Well, I managed it without ever venturing beyond the London Orbital.
Few places on Earth can boast of London’s culinary diversity. Think of any cuisine, no matter how obscure, and you’ll find at least one place in our capital that offers it. A few miles from my hometown on the outer northeastern fringes is Etles, the first Uyghur restaurant to open in the UK situated on Walthamstow’s Hoe Street. This rare and undiscovered cuisine is a bridge between central Asia and China. At various times the Uyghur autonomous region often known as East Turkestan has been conquered by the Mongols, the Han, the Turks, the Kazakhs and even the Arabs. Indeed you can see this unique admixture in both the people and the food.
When I’m in London, I go to Etles fairly frequently and converse with the chef-owner Mukaddes, often by code-switching between English and Mandarin, a language I picked up whilst living and working in China. She tells me that the majority of her clientele are Han Chinese, often students and homesick expats, who travel far and wide to have a taste of a cuisine that’s hugely popular throughout the Middle Kingdom. As usual, I order a couple of juicy lamb kebab skewers generously seasoned with cumin and a plate of fresh pulled noodles known as ‘laghman’. Momentarily I feel as if I’ve been transported to the little family place near to my old apartment in Xi’an, a city reknowned for its Chinese Muslim cuisine. Every time I go here the rich cumin smells elicit an intense feeling of nostalgia. Afterwards I invariably head for dessert at La Manole, a Romanian restaurant, for ‘papanasi’, a delectable doughnut dessert filled with cream and sour cherry jam.
During my last trip to the capital however, I had a hankering for something different. After watching Mark Wiens, the affable YouTube food blogger, practically eat himself to ruin at the famous Gwangjang food market in Seoul, I decided one Saturday that a Korean feast was in order. A quick Google search yielded a few places in the centre of town but, for the true authentic experience, I knew I had to go slightly further afield whilst still remaining well within the bounds of the M25. It took me about an hour for me to travel to New Malden, a fairly unremarkable suburb in the southwest of the city known unofficially as London’s Koreatown. New Malden (or “Nyumoldeun” as its Romanised in Korean) has such an array of specialist restaurants, grocery shops, bakeries and acupuncturists that you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Busan or Incheon. Why so many Koreans (20,000 in total) have congregated here is a mystery but for inveterate foodies like me it doesn’t really matter.
On the train there I overhear a group of teenage girls of various backgrounds excitedly discussing their favourite K-Pop artists. From what I gather, they’re going to New Malden to dip their toe into Korean culture, inspired by their love of popular boy bands like BTS, 2PM and Exo. Upon arrival it was tricky deciding where exactly to eat but after much deliberation I opted for an unassuming little place serving up dishes that were as unfamiliar as they were exciting. I was served a fiery hell-broth of tofu, vegetables, kimchi and ramen that seared my mouth and invigorated my taste buds with its robust flavours. The dish was ‘kimchi jigae’ and it was one of the most complex and delicious dishes I’d ever eaten. The waitress was thrilled that I had devoured every morsel and, seeing that my lips and mouth were on fire, even offered me an ice-cold glass of soy milk on the house. I left full and with a feeling that all was right with the world.
On the way back home, I couldn’t resist stopping off for a masala chai and a ‘cham cham’ (a milk-based Bengali dessert) at a Shaad, an authentic cafe-style eatery on Brick Lane serving homemade a dazzling assortment of flavourful homemade dishes . This is the sort of place you should opt for when I head to Banglatown, as opposed to one of the many gaudy and generic curry houses. At Shaad I chatted with a couple of local Muslim elders about life back home in Bangladesh. They reminisced fondly about the bucolic serenity of rural life in their native Sylhet, telling me stories of catching fish and spending long hours helping their mothers prepare communal feasts for the village. Few non-Bangladeshis came in here they said and, sensing that I was more intrepid than your average non-Bengali customer, the owners shook my hand and gave me my tea and sweet on the house. Such hospitality and kindness are rare in Britain nowadays but are, in my experience at least, much more common in many of its immigrant communities.
Still animated by a zest for adventure, I ventured westbound the following morning to Southall, a mini-Amritsar en route to Heathrow to continue on my London weekend food odyssey. This place has excited me since I was a kid when I would watch Michael Palin traverse the Punjab on packed steam trains. Southall was as close as I could get to India’s northwest. My go-to place here is Rita’s, a place that specialises in ‘chaat’ (crispy Indian snack plates), samosas, pakoras and Punjabi classics like my absolute favourite ‘saag paneer’ (a spicy, creamy spinach dish studded with cubes of fried Indian farmer’s cheese). This time round I opted for roti with dal before delving into the Himalaya indoor market with its saree shops and Bollywood DVD vendors.
After a swift espresso pick-me-up at Bar Italia, an old-school Soho cafe with a retro feel, I headed south for something I’d never tried before. This was to be the most pleasant surprise of my food-centric weekend. A stone’s throw from Oval tube is Adulis, a warm and friendly East African restaurant specialising in the food of Eritrea. Popular with locals, this place really hits the spot with its zingy, citrusy vegetables and rich meaty stews served on ‘injeera’, a spongy pancake with which you eat and served in a woven reed basket. The flavours were new, complex and exciting and like nothing I’d eaten before and, given my enthusiasm, I perhaps overindulged. Noticing this, the waiter offered me some strong Eritrean coffee served in a traditional earthenware pot. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend of unbridled self-indulgence in what is the truly global city of London.