London food is famous for offering all the cuisines of the world — a global melting pot where every culinary wish can be fulfilled. This is wonderful if you know what you’re looking for or have a good guide, but if we’re not careful, we might just end up sticking to what is familiar. There’s only so many meals we can eat in our lives, and both pressed white linen or endless generic snacks can both get a bit boring. So let the variety of food in London surprise you — in a good way. Here are some ideas for tempting morsels in London that break out of the usual norms.
No exploration into London food would be complete without this delicacy, which dates back to the 18th century in the East End. The Thames river used to be a plentiful source of native freshwater eels, which were an important food source for common people. Even as recently as the mid-twentieth century, there were still around 100 eel, pie and mash shops around London. Eels are naturally gelatinous, so when boiled in stock they produce a thick jelly, which then sets as it cools. This dish is meant to be eaten cold, preferably from one of London’s surviving ancient eel, pie and mash purveyors.
The nose-to-tail movement, a key trend in the London food scene, involves chefs making use of all parts of the animal, rather than just select cuts. The movement aims to reduce waste, recover old recipes lost to convenience and modern tastes, respect the animal’s life by using every part, and introduce consumers to new tastes. These might include previously scorned or rejected body parts such as offal. Some surprising results include bone marrow on toast, deep fried lamb testicles, calf’s brain, and pig lungs. Feeling squeamish? Search out a good chef who you can trust to convince you, and take an adventurous friend on your culinary adventure.
As if it wasn’t enough to eat all the parts of the piggies themselves, a surprising food item available at some restaurants is the acorns they love to dig around for. Top chefs are turning to the nutty, unusual flavours of the humble acorn (they’re from the classically English oak trees, by the way) to create new taste sensations.
Alice in Wonderland
Led by the popular and eccentric chef-slash-scientist Heston Blumenthal, “molecular gastronomy” (aka super science-technical cooking) is a key part of the London food scene. Think crazy dishes that look like one thing and taste like another (like Heston’s famous “meat fruit” dish, which looks like a mandarin orange but is actually chicken liver parfait, cooked to a 17th century recipe). Is this just a result of people with too much time and money getting bored and playing with their food? Perhaps, but if it happens to be your thing, prepare your tastebuds to be surprised by dishes that play with chemistry, fire, and creativity to take you to Wonderland.
Tandoori Pizza? Bulgogi Beef Burrito? Chips with Curry Sauce? Vietnamese rolls with paté? Despite having issues with discrimination elsewhere, when it comes to food, London is one big welcoming hotpot. You can find surprising combinations mixing the cuisines from countries at opposite ends of the globe. Some are radically marvellous, others are… not so successful. There’s only one way to find out which crazy combinations work!
If you’ve never tried a Scotch egg, make sure you start with a good one, not a two-day-old shrivelled service station offering. The classic Scotch egg involves a peeled hard-boiled egg encased in sausage meat and breadcrumbs, and then fried. How very… British. If lardy meaty fried things are your cup of tea, give this a go. If not, you might want to avoid this one.
Marmite on Toast
This one is so normal to British folks that they don’t realise it’s weird, but for travellers from other countries, putting a thick black spread on a piece of stiff bread is surprising indeed. But the British like putting everything on toast, so this is just one of many options. Marmite is an extremely salty yeast spread that’s made as a byproduct of beer brewing. If you give it a go, make sure you have LOTS of butter and just the merest smear of Marmite. This stuff packs a salty punch.
Ready for some carbo loading? It’s not exactly what you want to be eating every day for a balanced diet, and food like this may be why many Britons are obese and ill, but if you want to sample a classic (and let’s face it, delicious) London snack, get yourself a chip butty. It’s pretty simple: hot deep fried chips in a white bread sandwich. Or a soft white bread roll. Butter and tomato sauce optional. Don’t say we didn’t warn you about the health risks! See also: fish finger sandwiches.
Did the Londoners just overcook their peas and then accidentally mush them all up? We don’t know. All we know is that the English version of peas seems to be a world away from the crisp little sphere you may be more familiar with. Mushy peas are a world of their own, best eaten with fish and chips or sausages and mash, or as part of a hearty Sunday roast at a local pub. Surprise yourself with this unappealingly coloured but oddly delicious London food staple.