Flat Iron Square in Southwark
Once upon a time, visitors to London used to tell me that London rarely changes, especially when you compare to cities in Asia. Well, you can’t really compare London to cities like Beijing or Shanghai, but as a Londoner, I feel that London has changed immensely over the last decade. Gentrifications around London has changed the city’s streetscape dramatically, and it is evolving quicker than people realise.
One of biggest trends in recent years is the rise of street food and outdoor street food markets. In terms of food market, Borough market is one of the largest and oldest in London, but it is also the busiest and most touristy one. Try visiting the market on a Saturday, and it is likely turn out to be an exhausting and off-putting experience. In 2010, Maltby Street Market appeared under the railway arches in the nearby Bermondsey, and soon became a popular food market for many Londoners.
The team behind Kerb is also contributes to London’s thriving street food scene. Their King’s Cross street food market that started in 2012 was highly sucessful and subsequently, they opened four more outdoor street food markets at various locations across London. Now outdoor street food markets can be found in many local neighbourhoods, and Londoners are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options.
Vinegar Yard near London Bridge station
Unlike London’s trend-driven food scene, street food has been prominent in Asia for decades. Night markets, food courts, and hawker centres are popular in many cities. I particularly love street food in Taiwan (my favourite are Tian Jin flaky scallion pancakes and oyster omelet), pad thai in Thailand (cheaper and better than the restaurants), popiah and chai tow kway at the hawker centres in Singapore. Prices are cheap and choices are endless.
Although I think street food in London is quite expensive compare to Asia, there are some interesting Asian street food stalls at the Old Spitalfields Market if you are craving for Asian street food. In 2017, the iconic East London market received a facelift and launched an indoor street food market called ‘The Kitchens’. I have visited this market a few times, and have tried a few dishes from various Asian vendours.
At Pleasant Lady, I tried their vegetarian jian bing (£6.8), a Chinese savoury crêpe with fillings, which was tasty and crispy but quite expensive as a snack. At Dumpling Shack, I tried their prawn wontons in chilli oil (£7.9) which was spicier than I expected, and rather expensive for the portion. The ‘best value’ dish was a fried fish lunch box from the Burmese stall Lahpet (now they have a restaurant in Bethnal Green), which reminded me of my trip to Myanmar a few years ago.
Besides the above, you can also find Yi Fang fruit tea and Wheelcake Island from Taiwan here.
Old Spitalfields market
After an explosion of outdoor street food markets over the last few years, street food markets have been gradually moving indoors. In 2018, the team behind Market Halls converted two abandoned buildings into bustling street food markets: Market Hall Fulham and Market Hall Victoria; and in November 2019, they opened UK’s biggest food hall at the former BHS building.
When my friend and her family came to visit from New York last year, I brought them to Market Hall Victoria on their first night in town. After trying out different restaurants and pub for the next few days, they suggested returning to the food hall again on their last night in town. They were extremely impressed with the simple and fresh pasta from Nonna Tonda, whereas I am fond of the authentic Malaysian food at Gopal’s Corner, which has the same owner as the super-popular Roti King in Euston. Since there is always a queue outside of Roti King, I would rather come here for my laksa or roti fix.
Market Hall Victoria
In Sept 2019, Kerb also opened its first indoor street food market in Covent Garden. The Seven Dials market now occupies the two-storey 21,000sq ft former banana warehouse on Earlham Street that used to be a shopping centre selling street fashion shops since the 1980s. The shopping centre lost its appeal in recent years, and shoppers were few and far between.
The idea to turn an uninspiring shopping centre into a food hall was a wise one. The bright and spacious market is inviting, and big enough for 25 traders, including street food stalls, a bar, a bookshop, and food producers’ stores on the ground floor. Out of the thirteen food stalls, I ordered a portion of salt and pepper squid with chips from Ink, a fish and chips stall. The batter was crisy and tasty, but not outstanding enough to make me return and reorder. I didn’t mind the communal tables, but I doubt you can have a decent conversation with friends if you come during the peak times. This market is likely to attract hipsters and tourists, so do be prepared to pay the ‘West End’ prices for your food and drinks.
If you want to eat street food in a more glamorous setting, then Mercato Metropolitano’s second street food market (the first one is in Elephant and Castle) is likely to impress. Mercato Mayfair is situated inside a Grade I listed, deconsecrated 19th century St. Mark’s church in Mayfair. It is celebrated as one of the finest examples of 19th century Greek revival architecture, and the market opened in November 2019 after a £5m restoration.
Even if you are not into expensive street food, it is still worth a trip to this market just to see its stunning interiors. Wandering around the church one afternoon, I saw pasta and pizzas being served on the ground floor, and upstairs, I saw my favourite Turkish dish – pide– being served at Lala, so I decided to give it a try. Normally, I would go to Mangal Pide in Dalston for this, but the upmarket version was a pleasant surprise, and the seating offered a grand view of the church’s interiors. The crust of the machine-made pide was crunchy and the filling ingredients tasted fresh; although it is more expensive than the Dalston version, I would come back for this if I am in the area. The beautiful setting is also a big draw for me, so I wouldn’t mind trying out other stalls in the future.
Novelty plays a key factor in the street food scene, therefore these markets have to keep changing in order to attract returning customers. I believe indoor food markets would attract more customers in the cold winter days, and judging from the current trend, we are likely to more of them popping up in different locations across the city in the future.