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The world on a plate, all in one city

What takes your fancy? If you’ve got the time and hunger, you can sample every style of cooking known to man in the Big Smoke. From Jamaican jerk and Southern ribs to Turkish kebab, London is the place to be.

As you may be sick of hearing, due to the puff surrounding the little sporting event that’s kicking off, London is the nation’s melting pot: a third of its eight million residents were born abroad and the city is home to some 270 nationalities. The “food vision” for the Games waxes lyrical on the diversity of the culinary culture here – before (like any true Londoner) plumping for a burger and fries instead.

It’s true that, import restrictions aside, you can eat your way around the world in London. Various food bloggers have attempted to, though they inevitably give up on delicacies from Djibouti, or a taste of Tuvalu. No doubt there are people cooking up nightly feasts from these countries somewhere in the capital’s teeming streets, but they don’t seem to be selling seats.

If you want to find out about the city’s different peoples, the best way in is always food. You may not get through the door at Dalston’s many “members only” Turkish social clubs, but you can try some of the best beyti kebab west of Istanbul at the ocakbasi restaurants that perfume the air around them. No wonder Joël Robuchon, a proudly French chef whose restaurants have 28 Michelin stars between them, has called London “very possibly the gastronomic capital of the world . . . because it’s only in London that you find every conceivable style of cooking”.

There’s a hunger for novelty here that sustains endless food festivals, supper clubs, street markets and general gastronomic tomfoolery, and embraces all tastes and budgets, from the £175 tasting menu in the glass box currently perched on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall to the shiny trailer parked seven floors below, selling pulled pork and pickles for a tenth of the price.

Such was the enthusiasm for the Pitt Cue Co trailer’s brand of Southern barbecue that it has just opened a restaurant in Soho. This comes hot on the heels of the hugely successful burger van Meatwagon. Both businesses are the brainchild of amateur obsessives. Yianni Papoutsis, the patty fanatic behind Meatwagon and the MEATliquor restaurant, claims to have tried more than 1,000 cheeses before he found one worthy of gracing his burgers. Despite the greasy bones that litter the city’s pavements (less wholesomely, London also seems to be the fried-chicken capital of the UK), it is quite possible to find fast food here that’s every bit as much of a labour of love as the perfectly prepped dishes in its 55 Michelin-starred restaurants.

Plum pudding

Although we eat out more than any other region of the UK, London is also a plum place to be a home cook. We have more than our fair share of supermarkets, but there is also the volume and range of population to support thriving street markets (mine offers five peaches for a pound – that’s four more than you’d get at the Waitrose down the road, even if they are so obscenely ripe they won’t last the night), proper butchers and bakers, and the kind of absurdly specialist shops (sushi-grade fishmongers, Iraqi delicatessens) that wouldn’t survive elsewhere.

It’s a pleasure to shop here – as long as you’ve got the time and patience to criss-cross the capital with your bags. Some of the produce is even local; as London experiences go, tucking into freshly laid eggs and home-made sausages in the shadow of Canary Wharf, as you can at Surrey Docks City Farm, takes some beating. There are beehives on top of Fortnum & Mason’s Piccadilly store and a Norwegian smokehouse in Hackney. Supper clubs and street food stalls pop up like wild mushrooms to feed our inexhaustible appetites. From jellied eels (yes, you can still find them) to Jamaican jerk, London is a feast. 


Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue