2002. I was living in Paris then. It was my third trip to London. Southbank, Saint Paul’s, Covent Garden, Soho, South Ken, royal parks, iconic museums, double deckers… Must-sees, checked. I was in search of a different side of the city. Funky, colourful, eclectic with a hint of nostalgia… Old Spitalfields Market, in other words. I spent hours going through the stalls there, delighting in the creativity, the mix of fashion, the uniqueness of it all. I got drunk on the exquisite quirkiness of its atmosphere, on the beauty of the old-fashioned shops around it. The kind of love that does not fade away with time. I watched it change through years. The market grew more elegant, attracting brands in the process, yet, keeping the designers and vintage stalls, tango lessons in summer, street food vans, finding a new harmony in the process.
Last October, it saw a new development: The Kitchens. In the very heart of the antique market was built a block of mini-kitchens, as impeccably equipped as an Ikea pod. To each, its innovative chef, its signature dishes, its personality. A street market hybrid, definitely more stylish, more restaurant quality. There are large, communal tables and benches all around then more food stalls, surrounding the central core. There is everything your heart (stomach and taste buds) can desire. Middle-eastern, Mexican, Taiwanese, Japanese, Italian, dumplings, burgers, steam buns, cheese, heart-melting desserts.
It’s easy to separate the regulars from the newcomers. The latter butterfly for a while, unable to choose just by looking at the menus (too much temptation!), checking instead what people are devouring, occasionally asking where a mouth-watering dish comes from. I envy those working nearby, having access to this foodie paradise on a daily basis. Talk about a motivation to make it to lunch time (let alone stop on the way back home for comfort food): the combinations of starter-main-sweet touch are endless…
Planning to go to The Kitchens at Old Spitalfields Market soon? Here are my favourite dishes.
Trust me on this: ignore everything else on the board, go straight for the Shengjianbao or perfectly crunchy pan-fried soup dumplings, hiding a heart of pork, leek and water chestnut. The surprise? A sip of exquisite stock, filling your mouth, when you take your first bite. A food epiphany, every single time. I actually travel from one side London to the other for Dumpling Shack and I am not the only one…
Chef Tom Griffiths’ latest project, Flank, focuses on a tail-to-toe philosophy. Even better, everything here is cooked on open fire. Think slow cooked smoked brisket, smoked lamb shoulder, braised beef stew… The meat is so tender it melts in your mouth. I have a weakness for the Piggy Bun: the patty, when cut in two, really show the mix of textures and yes, you will be able to tastes this superb complexity of flavours. Bonus point: because this is a nugget and not a patty, it remains juicy but does not turn the experience to messy. This comes with a kohlrabi & cabbage slow, chilli, coriander, lime and plum ketchup, all in a black and white sesame bun. Do not plan to share.
Who doesn’t love steam buns? Fluffy, just the right hint of sweetness. And Yum Buns’ are, I quote, little pillows of joy… They do a Bun Box for £9 only – 2 buns of choice (chicken, beef, scampi, aubergine, mushroom, pork…), 2 crispy veg gyoza, crunchy Asian slaw – and it’s a really good deal. The tofu one is incredibly creamy, silky even. Add to this a black bean mayonnaise. black bean mayonnaise, garlic choy sum, chilli pickles for the kick. Oh yeah. And I’m a meat lover, guys. Says it all.
You may know their restaurant in Dalston, Briliant Corners: Japanese small plates, cocktails and jazz. Sounds like the perfect Friday night, right? I love sitting at the counter in Old Spitalfields Market and watch them work, putting the lunch boxes together as if they were an art of work. Each sushi looks jewel like and oh, the skewers grilling (yakitori chicken, mushroom) smell so good. It’s cooking therapy. The team convinced me to have the pork ramen last time: start with the egg yolk, which seems to enhance every single sip of the stock you will take after and slurp your noodles happily. Perfect on a chilly day to warm you from the inside out.
JiaBa (a traditional greeting meaning “Have you eaten?”) is the closest you will get to Taiwanese street food in London. Their braised beef noodles are excellent but if you’re just looking for a “Grab, go and wander through the rest of market” option, ask for Yansuji, chicken fried with rice wine, as addictive as pop-corn and incredibly satisfying.
Tea, the Taiwanese way… Yi Fang combines delicate brews (green or black, hot or cold, with or without ice and sugar.) with fresh fruit: passionfruit (quite an Instagram hit), ginger, pineapple, lemon, plum, or even winter melon. It’s well balanced, enchanting even. The treat, of course, is to turn it into a bubble tea by asking for tapioca pearls, which are just the right level of chewiness (it makes all the difference). There is something about capturing them with your straw that makes you feel as happy as a child with candy…
Let’s talk dessert. Ever heard of canelés? These are traditional treats from the Bordeaux region. The ingredients are the same as for a pancake mix, with the difference you will pour the batter into a mould and bake it: the outside will caramelise, the inside stay creamy, with a curstardy taste. A kind of crème brûlée version of cakes, in other words. The skill is into finding the right temperature (which vary through the process) to get the perfect crunch. If they are too pale, they will be soft. If they are too brown, they’re often dry. The original canelé is plain – vanilla or rum. Babelle decided to upgrade the cakes by filling with homemade ganache, coulis, curds. And decorate them too: they should look as pretty as they are delicious. There’s a full rainbow of the them to choose from: raspberry, speculoos, passion fruit, peanut butter, salted caramel… Their new flavour is banoffee and it’s finger licking good.
I’m in awe of Aussie dessert chef and chocolatier Terri Mercieca since I tried her blood orange negroni bavarois at Harrods. Her creativity knows no bounds – she brings flavours together beautifully, in surprising associations that leave you voiceless. Her dessert bar at Old Spitalfields Market, Happy Endings, focuses retro ice cream sandwiches with a Michelin star quality: deep fried Szechuan pepper crusted ice cream with pickled pineapple and candied ginger, toffee apple and sour dough crumble with meadow hay infused custard… which she describes as desserts for grown-ups. Being on an umami quest, I couldn’t resist the caramel and miso ice-cream in thin slices of chocolate Guinness cake. Your mind focuses on the caramel first. Brought to its highest heating point, it offers a superb intensity, which lingers on your taste buds before slowing evolving towards a more savoury note, the miso of course. It’s… overwhelmingly good.
There is so, so much to try… it’s impossible to cover it all, even when coming with a group of friends. Breddos is a Mexican-inspired taqueria, Mother Kelly’s has a fantastic range of craft beer, Androuet does raclette and tartiflette, Berber serves Eastern dishes inspired by the Middle East and North Africa, Sood family does super fresh pasta, even Lily Vanilli, aka The Queen of cakes is there. This is a foodie heaven and I can’t wait to spend long evenings there this summer…