“Sorry. I think I ate your bacon sandwich.”
The tiny Australian woman didn’t look particularly sorry. I had been delayed by a construction slowdown on the tube and missed the first stop on the Eating London’s East End Food Tour. I managed to catch up with the group at The English Restaurant on Brushfield Street, where they were tucking in to servings of warm bread and butter pudding. I think the Australian would have eaten my pudding too if I had arrived a minute later.
Hanna Saks, leader of this culinary trek, welcomed me into the group and made introductions. There were seven of us in total, clustered around a long table in this quintessentially British restaurant. The building is a survivor from the 17th century and conjures images of Oliver Twist lurking in the corners. These were the perfect surroundings in which to enjoy England’s favorite desert. We licked our plates clean and then followed Hanna as she herded us out the door and along the East End foodie trail.
Exploring East End London’s Food Culture
This was nominally a food tour, but there was to be so much more. Food has always seemed to me to be the pathway to many different layers of a culture. In London’s East End, the food is a map that traces the floods of immigration, the vagaries of affluence and poverty and the history that has played itself out on these narrow, still-cobblestoned streets. Art and architecture are also interlaced with the culinary landscape.
As Hannah told the story of the many waves of immigrants who have landed in the once universally disparaged East End, I thought of Brexit. The Brits who recently voted to leave the European Union did so, I believe, mostly out of fear of the impact of new immigration into Britain, and I wished they could all take this tour. It proves the value and richness that diversity brings to a city.
The East End is a perfect case study in immigration. Because the area was a less attractive and, thus, less expensive part of the city, impoverished newcomers came to its crowded streets and made them home.
The French Invasion
The first influx of immigration came from France, when close to 50,000 Protestants who had lost their civil rights as a result of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, fled to England. The Huguenots brought with them their skills at silk-weaving, silversmithing, and upholstery. They came seeking religious freedom and settled in the poorest part of the city, where they established businesses and got to work. Today, according to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry.
We stood on the corner of Princelet Street and Wilkes Street while Hannah pointed out the large upper windows of the townhouses. She explained how the windows had been designed to allow ample light for the delicate work of Huguenot silk-weaving. Those houses are now coveted addresses that command top dollar in the real estate market – actress Keira Knightley lived here for a while.
Further along Princelet Street, we stopped in front of a house that has been kept in its original condition. It looks vaguely familiar. Hannah explains that it is used in many period television and movie productions and often serves as a backdrop for fashion shoots.
The next major influx was made up of Jewish immigrants who came in large numbers in the late 19th century, fleeing economic hardship and persecution. They also found their way to Spitalfield and the East End, bringing their trades and culinary flavors with them. On our tour, we passed the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor on Brune Street, which opened in 1854 to feed impoverished families.
Later, we stood in a long line to order salt beef bagels with snappy English mustard and a pickle at the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. This tiny shop is so popular with Londoners that the line can sometimes snake outside and around the corner. Luckily, Hannah knows the ladies behind the counter and was able to bypass the crowd to get us each a beef bagel. It may have been the best sandwich I have ever eaten with a soft and chewy boiled bagel, moist thin sliced salt beef and a mustard so sharp it brought tears to my eyes.
The Start of the “Curry Mile”
The next large influx to the East End were the Bangladeshi, who came in the mid-20th century shortly after the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Their influence is unmistakable, as Brick Lane has close to a hundred curry restaurants, as well as spice shops, bakeries, sweets shops and markets. It’s often referred to as the “Curry Mile” or the “Curry Capital of Europe.”
At Aladin, a Bangladeshi/Indian/Pakistani curry house praised by HRH Prince Charles and the winner of numerous food awards, we sampled Tikka Masala, butter chicken, soft and fluffy naan bread and spicy pakoras.
Now, the area is seeing the next wave with arrivals from the Middle East trouble spots. If history repeats, they, too, will find a place in the narrow streets of this burgeoning neighborhood.
Tradition Still Remains
Despite the many cultures that have streamed in to the East End, the traditional food of “Olde England” still thrives. In addition to the English Restaurant with which the tour started, we enjoyed fish and chips at Poppies, voted the best in England. We visited Androuet, a cheese shop that showcases the best of English and international cheeses, and traipsed through the noise, confusion and richness of Spitalfields Market.
For a break, we sampled some English ales at The Pride of Spitalfields, a traditional pub. And along the way, we saw several examples of brilliant street art, including a Banksy installation.
A Lesson in Living
There was a bit of everything on this tour, and that made it incredibly rewarding. What I appreciated most was what the East End proves – that differences can be preserved and celebrated within a larger cultural context. While the area has faced battles in its evolution toward what is today’s stable multi-ethnic mix, it’s heartening that the struggles have resulted in peaceful partnerships.
The tour was definitely a feast for foodies but also provided food for thought and an inspiring lesson in coexistence.
On Brick Lane, there’s a temple that is the ultimate example of diversity. Originally a church built in 1743 as the Nouvelle Eglise for Huguenots, it became a Wesleyan chapel in 1809, then morphed into the Great Synagogue of Spitalfields in 1898. Then, in 1976, the building became the Jamme Masjid, a place of worship for the district’s Bangladeshi community.
Did the salt beef bagel taste better because I knew the history of the Jewish diaspora? Does a curry acquire more layers of complexity when you know the Bangladeshi story? Does a plate of fish and chips taste more satisfying when enjoyed in the context of a global community?
For me, the answer was a resounding yes.
If You Go:
Eating Europe Food Tours – The company runs excellent tours of several major European cities, aiming to introduce visitors to the culture of a country through its cuisine. The East End London Food Tour is just one of their tours in London.