Olympics 2012: Best Markets And Shops For Food Lovers

public marketsJust because you’re in London for the Olympics and watching world-class athletes torch calories, doesn’t mean you should be deprived of saturated fats and carbs. Despite its former reputation as a culinary wasteland, 21st century London has become one of the world’s great food cities, renowned for its fine dining and ethnic eateries, markets, specialty shops, and food artisans.

Take one for the team and pay a visit to the following for a taste of today’s London.

The city has its share of farmers and public markets, but if your time is short, the Borough Market is, in my opinion, one of the world’s great food markets. I discovered it on my day off from working at a restaurant in Marylebone in 2001, and I’ve found few other markets that offer comparable delights with regard to quality and diversity.

Located in Southwark along the Thames, Borough Market was established in 1755 and is London’s oldest produce market. Today, you’ll also find baked goods, meat and poultry, seafood, charcuterie, cheese and other English artisan foods, as well as international specialty products: argan oil from Morocco; spices, pickles, fruit pastes and preserves from the Eastern Mediterranean, India and Grenada; Croatian patés, French goose fat and fresh Perigord truffles; and Calabrian licorice root.

The Borough Market is open Thursday through Saturday; click here for times and bus and Underground directions.

Maltby Street is a selection of “breakaway vendors” from Borough Market, including Neal’s Yard Dairy, Monmouth Coffee and St. JOHN Bakery (owned by chef Fergus Henderson he of the much-loved St. JOHN Restaurant, a champion of offal and author of “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating”). Unlike the market vendors, these are permanent shops that primarily wholesale during the week, and open to the public on Saturday mornings. Psst: Go early to get the custard or jam doughnuts at St. JOHN.cheeseWorld-famous Neal’s Yard Dairy has two shops (the other is in Covent Garden). If you love – or would like to learn about – handcrafted cheeses from the UK, be sure to stop by for a taste.

London’s other great cheese shop is La Fromagerie, with locations in Marlyebone and Highbury. Next door is The Ginger Pig, “butchers and farmers of rare breeds raised on the North York Moors.” Opt for a butchery class, farm tour, or some meat pies in lieu of purchasing fresh product. There’s also a location at the Borough Market.

Marylebone has a lively farmers market, held every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Spitalfields, in the East End, started out as a traders’ market in 1666, and today is a fashionable complex with food, fine dining, boutiques, community events and public art. For non-edible souvenirs, check out Divermenti, a kitchenware store and cooking school in Marlyebone.

[Photo credits: vendor, Flickr user nakedsky; cheese, Flickr user Stepheye]

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Suya: the next kebab?

suya, London
One of the great things about the world getting smaller and everyone getting all mixed up is that we can try fast food from all different cultures. Take suya, for example. I’d never heard of this Nigerian fast food until I lived in London.

My house was on the northern end of Old Kent Road. This area has a large population of African immigrants. I met people from Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia, and I’m sure many other countries are represented. The Nigerians were very visible with lots of restaurants selling suya. It’s like shish kebab with beef, chicken, goat, or fish. The meat is rubbed with tankora powder. There are various recipes for tankora and generally include red pepper, powdered nuts, salt, ginger, paprika, and onion powder. Check out this tankora recipe if you want to try it at home.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty thirst inducing. Luckily many suya restaurants serve palm wine, a smooth, tasty alcoholic drink that’s not too strong. Many restaurants also have live music. West African music is very participatory, with the singer pointing to various members of the audience and staff and making up verses about them. I always got included but not knowing any West African languages I had no idea what the singers said. :-)

I’m thinking suya could replace kebab, which is currently the snack food of choice in London, especially at two o’clock in the morning after ten pints of lager. I’ve never liked kebab, which in most places is unhealthy and more than a little nasty, so suya would make the perfect replacement. It’s filling, salty, and quick, all the things you need after a good pub crawl, and with live music and palm wine thrown in, it makes the perfect end (or start!) to a fun evening out.

This photo, courtesy secretlondon123, shows some of Presidential Suya’s takeaway, with beef suya on the left and chicken suya on the right. Presidential Suya is one of my favorite West African restaurants in London.

Cheap, tasty Indian food in London

Indian food in LondonIndian food in London is often mediocre and overpriced, and a good curry joint is as highly prized as a traditional neighborhood pub. I’ve been to a lot of Indian restaurants in London and a new discovery I made last week ranks as one of my favorites.

Simply Indian is one of those places you’ll only find if a local tells you. Located on 25 Tabard St., it’s away from the tourist center and easy to miss. It’s poorly advertised and its website doesn’t seem to work. The food and service, however, are fantastic, and that’s all that really matters.

The menu offers all the usual favorites like Chicken Jhalfrezi and Lamb Pasanda, along with less familiar fare such as Murgh Sagrana, a mild chicken dish that’s creamy and not too spicy.

“Not too spicy” is a key term here. For heat rating I ordered a medium, which in London still often means you need to call out the local fire brigade. For too many people in this town, eating curry is some sort of endurance contest, best done after fourteen pints of lager. Indian food in India is generally not like that. At Simply Indian the spices are well balanced and are there to be tasted, not simply tolerated.

The service was friendly too, with no surprises when the bill came (something to watch out for on Brick Lane) and only came to a reasonable 27 pounds for two people. They don’t have a liquor license but you can buy booze at the supermarket right around the corner and there’s no corkage fee.

If you’re going to London’s South Bank and are hankering for some good Indian food, check them out. Tucked out of the way as they are, and not catering to the after-pub crowd, I fear for their future. Competition between London’s restaurants is fierce and I hope they’re still there when I return. Their phone number is 020 7407 5006.

[Photo courtesy Fin Fahey]