London is one of the most diverse cities on the planet. With over a third of its population born overseas, 300 documented spoken languages, and at least 50 non-indigenous communities, it seems like London is the meeting point of the entire world. And where the world meets, the world must also eat!
The vast number of cafés, eateries, food trucks, gastropubs, hole-in-the-wall joints and restaurants in London cater to every taste imaginable. With veritable melting pots on your doorstep or a mere tube ride away, it can be hard to know what London cuisines to savour next.
Venturing into the culinary world of a culture different to your own can be an exciting, thrilling, yet sometimes intimidating journey. What are bonito flakes? Is that really goat in that curry, and where did it come from? If I try Mongolian food, am I going to end up with a bowlful of yak fat? (Answer: yes, quite possibly.) Not many people want to risk their hard-earned cash taking a complete stab in the gastronomic dark.
Add to this the fact that quality varies as much within a cultural cuisine as it does between cultures, and you have a scenario that confuses many people.
Here are some of our top picks for cultural cuisines to check out in London, and some tips for seeking out quality establishments. Go on, give your taste buds an adventure and dine your way around the world, without ever having to leave town.
Indian is a classic cuisine of London, as much a part of the city as the Thames or terrace row houses, you can’t go past a decent pint and a curry. However, branch out beyond the tried and tested curry houses of Brick Lane and you’ll be richly rewarded. Why not explore the seafood-heavy dishes of Goan cuisine, or the nourishing rice dishes from the Himalayan region of Assam? From mountains to sea there’s a whole country worth of Indian food to try in London. Our favourite is chaat; fried dough, chickpea, and potato snacks served with tangy sauces such as tamarind and dried ginger.
Just beyond the couldn’t-be-more English Columbia Road flower market lies Kingsland Road, which by night bustles with ravenous crowds queuing to try Hoxton’s finest in Vietnamese cuisine. Lively dishes using ingredients such as lemongrass, pickles, and chilli, colour dishes prepared with twists of French and Chinese influence. Nowhere is this more evident than in bahn mi sandwiches, where freshly baked baguettes spread with pâté and mayonnaise are juxtaposed magnificently with Vietnamese fillings including marinated meats, coriander, cucumber, and radish.
Not to be missed at any London Vietnamese restaurant worth its name is phở, a slow simmered beef and onion soup, brimming with vermicelli noodles and topped with herbs. There is some dispute as to whether the word phở comes from the French pot-au-feu (pot on the fire) or is a variation on the Chinese lục phở. One thing that’s in no dispute — it’s delicious!
The original location of the South Korean embassy, as well as the first Samsung headquarters established in Europe, New Malden is the south-west London home of some 10,000 Koreans and has a multitude of restaurants to feed them. Spicy, flavourful Korean cuisine is experiencing an increase in popularity all around the world and the London scene is no exception.
The must-try dish is kimchi; pickled fermented spiced vegetables. Most restaurants will prepare their own in-house, which means you can sample kimchi variations all over town. Take a group of friends for gogigui, a Korean BBQ consisting of thinly sliced beef known as bulgogi. Often grilled at the table, it is delicious served with lettuce and a swipe of ssamjang, a sweet spicy barbecue sauce. Or try a comforting bibimbap, rice cooked in a hot stone bowl until it is brown and crunchy, served with meat, vegetables, and of course an egg on the top. Feeling full? Sounds like you’re prime to drink some soju, the sturdy Korean rice liquor that will set you up right for the obligatory night of karaoke.
Head on up north to Harringay and you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice, with Turkish and Kurdish restaurants gracing nearly every corner. Specialities of this region include grilled meats, pide bread, and cold mezze such as stuffed eggplant and grape vine leaves, known as dolma.
Currently on trend in London is manti; tiny ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with lamb, beef, and spices. Traditionally served with a mixture of yoghurt and a buttery chilli sauce, some London restaurants are changing up these flavours to service the hip crowds residing in the North East hungry for new flavours.
Pro tip: try Turkish for your next weekend breakfast or brunch. The Turks like the first meal of the day to be leisurely and generous, accompanied with strong teas and coffee. Be sure to leave room for dessert as well; sugary, crisp baklava pastries are yet another Turkish delight to sample.
No list of London cuisines would be complete without mentioning Italian. Italians have been in London since, well, the Roman ages, and lucky for Londoners, they brought their food with them!
Areas such as Clerkenwell Road are renowned for Italian food outlets. Traditional pizzas are a sure wood-fire hit, as well as pasta with sauces that would make any Italian grandmother proud. As spring arrives, look out for Italian dishes with fresh goats’ cheese, Panzanella (bread salad) with quality sourdough, and peppery fresh rocket. And, of course, high-quality olive oil, the backbone of Italian cooking.
Only the Best
Finding the best representatives of a cultural cuisine doesn’t have to mean spending piles of money. Here are the most important signs to look for to avoid questionable places:
- Recommendations from friends, especially if it’s their native culture
- People who look like they might be from that culture dining there
- A visible kitchen that looks clean and hygienic
- A reasonable crowd — you may have stumbled upon an unfrequented gem, but while you’re exploring, it’s better to play it safe
- Recommendations from websites, reviews, and endorsements
- Happy looking staff — they’re more likely to care about their work
If you’re looking for delicious food in London, it’s a cornucopia out there! Spread your culinary wings to some exciting new restaurants and cafés and eat up.