The food you find in a place tells a rich and colorful story of its past inhabitants and histories. You can learn about immigration, war, social issues, and power struggles just by delving into an area’s cuisine. East London is one of those places where you have to step back and really put the pieces together. On one corner you are met with a traditional Jewish bakery, serving the moistest salt beef bagels on this side of the Atlantic. Walk a little further down the street and you can transport yourself to Bangladesh or India in a rush of spicy curries and fresh naan bread straight from the tandoori oven. Turn the corner and have a traditional fish and chips, complete with mushy peas. Food is always at the heart of a people, and can tell us a million stories with every bite. I was honored to be invited on Eating London’s East End food tour, where I was able to not only taste the food that has shaped this neighbourhood- but learn the stories of the people behind the fare.
The tour began at St. John Bread and Wine, renown for having ‘the best bacon sandwich in London’. The restaurant has an ever-changing menu which reflects both it’s local suppliers and daily experimentation. While you may not be able to try some menu options twice, the bacon sandwich is a staple, served everyday from 9-11 am. Their bread is prepared fresh in-house and the bacon is cooked over an open flame. I wasn’t expecting much- I mean it is a bacon sandwich afterall- but they have managed to make the simplest dish into something extraordinary. I especially loved the homemade ketchup that comes on the side which really brought out a load of added flavor. St. John Bread and Wine is only steps away from Spitalfields Market, making it a great choice in combination with some heavy shopping.
I really enjoyed getting to taste more ‘typical’ English dishes, especially those I have always avoided. Case in point: Bread Pudding. I have seen this stuff at my local grocery store- in a can. I had heard it was made from stale bread. It has never seemed appealing to me in the least, but when in London on a food tour… Our next stop was The English Restaurant, a fitting place to dive into the classic English dessert. Luckily, this was not served from a can- in fact, their version ‘Banana bread and butter pudding with rum custard’ was incredibly moist and if I had been alone I probably would have drank that rum custard straight from the jug. Needless to say, I am a bread pudding convert.
To finish off the English dishes we stopped in at Poppies Fish and Chips for, you guessed it, fish and chips! I am a bit spoiled living here on the seaside, we get amazing fish and chips -caught fresh daily- anytime we please. Before I moved to England I didn’t eat fish at all, maybe growing up an eight hour drive from the ocean will do that to you. Poppies fish and chips are often hailed as the best in London- to which I will agree to disagree. The fish has the most amazing batter I have ever tasted, I will give it that, but as I have yet to taste all the battered fish in London I can’t exactly back-up this accolade. The chips (french fries) were nothing special, but I always find this with the soggy English fries so it isn’t Poppies fault. The mushy peas were mushy, which I can never get truly past- but I did finish my portion so I will call that a win. Poppies opened his shop right after WWII, and his restaurant has been an institution in the area ever since. I loved the American diner-esque interior, especially the outfits of the waitresses.
The next part of the tour was my favorite- and there was no food included! We spent a good amount of time walking through the small streets of East London, learning about the different people who have settled here and how they shaped the food you find there today.
Our next stop was the Androet London Cheese Shop, in Spitalfields Market itself. Supposedly Androet has the best selection of cheese outside of Paris, and this one I am inclined to believe. We were able to try a varied selection of cheddars, blues, and brie from England and France. They mature some of their cheese on-site, and a handsome French cheesemonger is on-hand to direct you in your cheese purchases. I wish I had a sound clip of him saying ‘cheddar’. Swoon.
East London’s Brick Lane is known for many things: beer, Jewish immigration, street art, and most importantly- curry. The Brick Lane area is the epicentre of the Bangladeshi community, with over 60,000 Bangladeshis calling the area home. It was no surprise that the food tour took us to taste the most famous East London fare of all- this time at Aladin Brick Lane (I didn’t think about it until now- but I wonder if that is a play on ‘A lad in Brick Lane… rather than a Middle-Eastern folktale.) I am a vindaloo kind of gal, but enjoyed tasting curries I wouldn’t normally order. I really enjoyed the sweet and sour lamb? curry, and of course the tandoori oven baked naan. Aladin has been visited by dignitaries, celebrities, tourists, and locals- and is constantly ranked as one of London’s best curry houses. I will definitely return to this one- and highly recommend the food, atmosphere, and affordable prices.
Last but not least, the absolute best part of the day. This dish may not have changed my life, but I will be a life long devotee for the remainder of it. Remember all those references to Jewish immigration into East London? This is why that all matters. Behold Beigel Bake, a Brick Lane Jewish bakery that turns out over 7,000 bagels every, single, day. These aren’t just any bagels though. These Kosher bad boys are stuffed with the most mouth-watering salt beef , slathered in a spicy hot mustard, and topped with perfectly sour pickles. Beware: the Beigel Bake is cheap and incredibly yummy- there are long lines. It is worth the wait. I repeat- patience will reward you.
Eating London’s East End Food Tour is well-worth the seemingly pricey £59. You definitely get your money’s worth in both food and local history, and I can’t recommend this company enough. Our tour guide Nicole had to be the most enthusiastic guide I have ever had, and I have been on my fair share of tours. She obviously knew her stuff, and was genuinely happy to be sharing the food and background of her East End neighborhood- and not once did I feel like she had done the tour a hundred times before. I will definitely be back in the East End soon to further explore the places I saw on the tour, and to have another bagel.
I was a guest of Eating London on this tour, but all opinions are always my own- especially when it comes to food. You can follow Eating London on Twitter if you like to look at pictures of yummy food, and check out their website to book the awesome tour for yourself.