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"If you build it, they will come." Words by Feroz Gajia, Tom Victor, Yvonne Maxwell and Jesse Bernard; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 4: Hyper-Regionalism.
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There are two famous Chinese restaurants in Camberwell, South London, although very few people know both of them. The first, Silk Road, is the darling of London’s if-you-know-you-know food world. Although it initially attracted Chinese students, drawn in by the promise of being the first restaurant in the city serving food from Xinjiang province, it soon picked up steam among Chowhound literati, Observer critics, local students from Goldsmiths, and finally, Left Twitter. It has, in other words, been adopted, which in practise means it’s just full of people like me.
The second Chinese restaurant is Tasty House on Denmark Hill. A standard British-Cantonese takeaway, it has been adopted wholesale by Camberwell’s West African and Caribbean communities. You can see two versions of Camberwell if you just stand outside each restaurant, or even just check their mentions on Twitter. Tasty House is a recurring Black Twitter in-joke, better than Park Chinois, the ‘original bashment meats Afrobeats rave’ and the last place you’re calling before you die. The reasons why it has been adopted are unclear ─ the menu contains nothing noticeably different from a standard takeaway ─ but I believe it has something to do with the quality of the rice, and the willingness to adapt spice levels and pork inclusion for a local community.
When people conceive of diaspora restaurants, they often simplistically map them one-to-one with their diasporas. Chinese people go to Chinese restaurants, Nigerian people go to Nigerian restaurants. Only the British really have the license to go everywhere. But of course, this isn’t remotely true. Everyone eats everyone else’s food eventually, and a city like London contains many restaurants, or even whole cuisines, which have been adopted by various diasporas for reasons of convenience, location, safety, and sometimes just taste. There is nothing more hyperregional than the areas of a city where Turkish food and Indian diners intersect, or where north London Jewish traditions meet north London Black customers. And in those intersections, something new and unexpected happens: a meeting of worlds, a symbiosis, a mutual understanding perhaps. Often it just means the food gets a little bit spicier.
From Turkey to India, by Feroz Gajia
Despite being surrounded by it, Turkish food was on the periphery for me growing up in Hackney. In the ’90s, when eating out was a once-a-week family event, ocakbaşis never got a look in. I'm not sure if the duality of Turkey (geographically and culturally) made the Gujarati Muslim community suspicious, or if it was the tight-knit insular outlook people had when it came to Muslims of other backgrounds, but the familiar faces of halal restaurants were what we stuck to: food from the Indian subcontinent, junk food mimicking Americana and pizza modelled on Pizza Hut.
There were three key changes that led to Turkish food being adopted by South Asians. One was more madrassas (Islamic educational centres) and schools, which led to mixing and an openness to understanding. The second was the vast increase in meat consumption, which collectively happened in less than a decade in London. Something saved for celebratory meals became the ever-so-often, going from the focal point of the meal to just another dish in the array at dinner. Hearing my Bangladeshi friends talk about going through six chickens, a few fish and a couple of kilos of lamb for a family of four in three days drove it home: we were now comfortable with this kind of consumption and there was no turning back. The third was the advent of the Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC), an independently run organisation monitoring and inspecting food through all stages of processing. Being able to see if a restaurant was halal enough from a cursory glance led to new HMC businesses becoming popular overnight, a big change from when most Muslim families would only trust places via word of mouth, usually with an owner and workers from the same background as themselves.
An instant uptick of patrons was guaranteed for any restaurant making the effort and, over time, this inevitably included the many Turkish-run restaurants across north and east London. Being able to sit in private booths in Aziziye Mosque or eat at Sultan's in Ilford was no longer a stretch for Gujaratis looking to broaden their horizons. What was once dismissed as bland grilled meat was slowly accepted by some and became loved instantly by others. Turkish restaurants would have larger booking options to cater to large gatherings of South Asian Muslims. Soups and stews were de-emphasised and meat consumption became the focal point of the meal. Crucially, spicing for the grilled meats was upped. Garlic sauce may have been a concession made for white people, but chilli sauce felt like it was a siren song for the South Asian palate. This spiciness has become more prevalent and baked in as newer concepts make a play for the larger dining market: Maedah Grill near Whitechapel’s East London Mosque being a notable example (no one has been able to back me on this but I’m sure they used to have naan bread on the menu).
For those who love Turkish food for its purity, who enjoy grilled onions more than a mixed grill, this might feel like a dumbing down akin to the one Indian restaurants did themselves in the ’70s and ’80s when they adapted to British tastes. Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much dependent on where you stand. What resonates for me is how the quality and generosity of Turkish food means it is as close to a safe choice in mixed company as there is in London; couple this with its ubiquity across the city at all levels and you get why it is part of the fabric of London’s food identity. No need to sneak garam masala, chopped chillies or chilli sauce in: if you’re within the green belt then the ocakbaşi always obliges.
Treyf and Kosher Chinese, by Tom Victor
The relationship between Jews and Chinese food has been well-documented in the United States, from Seinfeld to Philip Roth. This is partly born out of a marriage of convenience – a sit-down Chinese dinner can become a regular Christmas Day ritual in America for those who don’t celebrate but still desire a special meal when other restaurants are shut. A similar relationship exists for British Jews, although our relative scarcity means these habits have less cultural visibility.
As someone who ate kosher at home but was less strict when dining out, this manifested in trips to two restaurants – both Chinese, neither kosher, but chosen for different reasons. Opera in Hampstead was where I would sneak away with friends during school lunch breaks to enjoy the £5 lunch menu and an occasional illicit beer: the act was quasi-rebellious in and of itself, and was augmented not just by pork and shellfish but also by a level of spice absent from Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine; Szechuan chicken dressed with lashings of peppercorns and chilli seeds, or a kung po pork dish which felt like a double betrayal. The Jubilee in West Hampstead was at the opposite end of the scale: a bright, open restaurant with all of its tables facing onto a busy street, where you couldn’t hide but also wouldn’t need to. It wasn’t just my parents’ favourite Chinese restaurant but one of the only ones they would regularly attend. My dad recently reminded me of a trip where every single Jewish diner ordered at least one treyf (non-kosher) dish.
In the article ‘Safe Treyf’, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine write that ‘Chinese food could be adopted by rebellious Jews because the forbidden substances were so disguised that dishes did not reflexively repulse and so undermine their ability to rebel.’ My experiences represented a blend of the enticingly forbidden – the theatre of sizzling pork which you hear before you see, the plausible deniability of prawn crackers or spring rolls - and the reassuringly familiar sensations of communal dining so intrinsic to our Passover seder.
However, there are also kosher Chinese restaurants and just two exist in north London: Kaifeng in Hendon – named for the city with China’s oldest Jewish community – and Met Su Yan in Edgware and Golders Green. The latter could easily pass for a nondescript neighbourhood Chinese restaurant if not for the lamb ribs and minced chicken on sesame-studded toast. Its presence sets up something of a middle ground, allowing for the disparity of religiousness across a community large enough to allow for informal dining but small enough to ensure faux pas can spread quickly; it can also preempt games of kosher chicken, where two Jews perfectly content to eat pork will convince one another they must visit one of those kosher Chinese restaurants for fear of the other judging them for being more laissez-faire.
Perhaps now, in settling down for sesame chicken toast, there’s a chance to trick yourself into thinking you’re cheating just a little bit. After all, even if the food stands up on its own terms, it can still taste nicer if you’re breaking the rules.
The Bread That Binds Us by Jesse Bernard
The Happening Bagel Bakery opened on Seven Sisters Road in 1994, although, personally, I don’t remember it happening. One day it wasn’t there, then, on another, it had already become one of the few remaining traditions in my family. I thought it was just a ritual only my family shared, as though the shop was built solely for our indulgence, but of course anyone who’s ever bought the bread from there from ‘back in the day’ has their own special relationship with The Happening’s sweet challah, known across north London as ‘Finsbury Park Bread’.
My own parents were introduced to Finsbury Park Bread via my aunt and uncle. At the time, they lived on the estate opposite the painting of Sid the Snail in Tottenham – a symbol that despite all of the changes in Finsbury Park, Seven Sisters Road has been slower to do the same. The estate is still there, I pass it almost every day, and the imagined smell of warm, freshly baked challah engulfs my nostrils again. When they later moved to Woodstock Road, a stone’s throw from Finsbury Park station, we’d stay with them and there would always be a white bag with blue lettering on the side: a home away from home.
Perhaps challah’s closeness to Nigerian agege and Jamaican hard dough, in its dense texture and sweet taste, is why my parents were attracted to a bread not native to our own cultures. It also wasn’t long before other family members became converts, my grandmother for example. “Don’t go there without letting her know,” my mum often says. The bread crossed the generation divide: I hear stories about how Finsbury Park was a wild place back in the ’90s, ravers pouring out of warehouses in Manor House, making the trek to the station, not before stopping to grab a late-night bagel. Dig back deep enough and you’ll find even those who’ve recently discovered it have been brought there by legends of this era retold by an older person.
More than twenty-five years later, I still make the pilgrimage from Tottenham to Finsbury Park. I've been grandfathered into the role of chief buyer since I’m the family member who lives closest. Recently, I tried a bagel without buying the challah. Fear of disappointment had always prevented me from veering from tradition and to choose anything other than challah would be a flagrant family betrayal. Now I’m the bagel’s only advocate in a family of people who won’t hear otherwise. They know it tastes just like the bread, if not better, but to quote my mum: “We’ve been going here for as long as you’ve been around, we can’t just stop and try something else.”
It’s a tradition that still stands despite us being geographically scattered. For my family, it’s bread as sustenance, something that binds us. It can serve as a light afternoon snack when laced with a layer of butter but, after a trip to the market to buy some fish, it becomes an even better accompaniment to the stew made hours later. Nowadays it’s a post-basketball snack if I’ve been playing in the park – The Happening Bagel, feeding north London’s aunties, ballers and ravers since 1994.
If you build it, they will come, by Yvonne Maxwell
To make your way up Brixton Hill is to travel through both time and space, as you move from the bustle of the gentrified high street towards the looming shadow of HM Prison Brixton, alluding to many of the misconceptions that have marred this area and its residents for decades. There are the voyeurs scoping out the market on Electric Avenue; the marketing account manager sporting a vintage Ellesse T-shirt, glittered brows and an intentionally messy bun, carrying a four pack of Stella; and the “yah yah yah” twats spilling over from Clapham and Battersea heading to their new watering hole serving plantation rum cocktails. This is the ‘new’ Brixton: a microcosm of privilege that clashes with its multiethnic working-class roots and an invisible partition that ensures the two sides never truly share space.
Moving further and further away from the mass concentration of bars, Pop Brixton, bastardised “Caribbean” eateries and all-day brunch spots, you now enter the margins of gentrified Brixton. You soon begin to notice a picture of resilience as the local community holds its ground against hordes of Home Counties settlers. The businesses that remain are those that are sustained by the local community and it is here that you will find the truth of the area and a depiction of its slowly fading past.
Sandwiched between a chicken shop and a local supermarket is PAYA, a Chinese/Thai local takeaway, serving familiar favourites such as chicken satay, wontons and Thai fish cakes. Its menu is extensive with dedicated sections for steamed Cantonese dim sum, Thai soups and Indonesian dishes, such as nasi goreng and mee goreng. Part of a larger chain, the PAYA on Brixton Hill is one of several local businesses supported by the local West Indian and West African communities, who have adopted this takeaway into their everyday.
Unlike the connection between Jewish people and Chinese food, the relationship between the Black diasporic communities and Chinese food is still somewhat underscrutinised. There are a lot of similarities across Asian, African and Caribbean foodways – the use of peanuts, chilli, okra, rice and root vegetables, for instance. It’s no surprise that people brought up on West African and Caribbean cuisine are able to find a surrogate home in a menu built on rice, protein, rich soups and sauces. The flavours of the familiar run deep, but the depth of this exchange goes beyond the love of salt and pepper chicken wings and Singapore fried rice, as affordability and accessibility play a major part in these alliances.
On any given day, patrons and staff from T&J Hair Salon next door pour into PAYA, with half-done cornrows and fresh trims hovering over the counter, as the well-worn menus are thumbed through. London tends to have a very ‘you can’t sit with us’ Mean Girls reputation; but in small moments, in small establishments, the guard slips. It’s not always as much as a smile, but more than a head nod; an acknowledgement of two beings simultaneously sharing space.
Feroz Gajia is a food writer and the chef-owner of Bake St in Rectory Road
Yvonne Maxwell is a documentary photographer, cooking enthusiast and traveller, whose work focuses on telling stories of food, culture and people across the African Diaspora. You can find her on Instagram at @passthedutchpot.
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work on her website.