I don’t usually post articles from other publications on my site, but I consider this a public service announcement for all the home cooks looking for hard-to-find ingredients in London town.
When it comes to buying green finger chillies and rice wine, we Londoners have got it made. Flourishing Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Gujarati communities have meant that Asian produce was available in the city long before the big supermarkets cottoned on. In the last decade alone, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Sri Lankan and Thai communities have bloomed across the capital and with them so has the availability of authentic ingredients.
While it’s easy to overspend in certain shops, there are always some excellent bargains to be had (think sacks of rice or big bottles of fish sauce) and exotic products to be pored over. In cities across the land, fresh tamarind pods and galangal are proving easier and easier to locate, and for those further afield, online options are improving (although these can add up and it’s always nicer to handle produce when checking for freshness).
Yes, supermarkets have started selling pak choy and wasabi powder, and have special “ethnic aisles” with bulk bags of lentils and spices, but while these are competitively priced, they’re limited in variety; if you’re trying to find that special brand of miso or roasted curry powder, nothing beats a specialist shop.
Boasting the UK’s largest Korean community, New Malden – and Burlington Road in particular – is the epicentre of Korean food in the UK. For paper-thin chadol baki (brisket), samgyeopsal (unsalted bacon) or an assortment of ready-prepped bulgogi, head to the New Malden Butchers (104 Burlington Road, New Malden, KT3 4NT). Nip next door to Kimchi Mal (Kimchi Village) for an excellent range of home-made pickles and side dishes or check out Hyun’s Bakery for mochi doughnuts (94 Burlington Road, Town Centre, New Malden KT3 4NT).
Back on the High Street, K Mart sells tubs of fantastic home-made chive and chonggak kimchi and hefty sacks of Rhee Chun rice, or there’s Jinmi for takeaway Korean sushi (127 Kingston Road, New Malden, KT3 3NX). While you’re in the area, don’t forget to pick up persimmons (plumper and cheaper than usual) and deeply fragrant nashi pears. It’s also worth seeking out bulgogi sauce with a high fruit content (for example, the “Choripdong” brand has around 17%) which will cost a little more, but that extra pear factor makes the dish.
Hannah Paek of Su La restaurant (where the bargainous barbecue galbi is a must) has seen major improvements in the availability of ingredients over the past 15 years. Her folks once ran a local supermarket and she recommends the new H Mart for its sheer variety. Offering rarities like fresh, pink pistachios, bunches of dropwort, sesame leaves (their vegetables are flown in on Thursdays), unusual cuts of meat and a live crab counter, if they don’t stock something they’ll happily order it in.
Further down the road, Korea Foods has served the community for a decade and does a great line in traditional rice cakes. It’s a good idea to take a car and fill up with long life products and value sacks of rice. Other decent (but slightly dearer) places include the Centre Point Food Store (20 St Giles High Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 8LN), the K Mart in North London (869 Finchley Road, London NW11 8RR) and Arigato (48-50, Brewer Street, London W1F 9TG).
The Japanese tend to be fairly evenly distributed across town, although there are steadily thriving enclaves in Finchley, Acton and Ealing. Reiko Hashimoto (http://www.hashicooking.co.uk) reckons the price of ingredients in the UK is still too high and the availability of supplies too limited, although the basics of soy, mirin, miso, rice and wasabi have gained prevalence over the past few years. She often seeks cheaper alternatives in Korean supermarkets, but would advise against using Korean seaweed or Thai pickled ginger as substitutes for Japanese nori or gari. For Japanese food it has to be Japanese soy sauce (as the Chinese stuff tends to be saltier). She also recommends splashing out on good miso and particularly rates “kyo kaiseki” paste.
Unfortunately, Japanese food is pricey wherever it’s sold, so for the widest selection the Japan Centre is the place to try. For top quality sashimi / sushi grade fish it has to be Atari-Ya. Fumio runs the ShoFooDoh okonomiyaki stall at Chatsworth Road market and prefers the slightly cheaper Rice Wine Shop (82 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UA) and Arigato (see above) as well as buying online from TK Tradings. Every now and again he’ll indulge in the odd Japasta sauce (cod roe with cream, pickled vegetable and tuna mayo flavours are guilty favourites), some quality pickles or shochu. When it comes to eating out he recommends Asakusa 265 Eversholt Street NW1 1BA and the udon at Koya.
Like the Japanese, Thais are spread across the capital. However the heart of the community is around Earls Court, Putney, Hammersmith and Bayswater. Many will happily purchase Thai specialities in Chinatown’s New Loon Moon or See Woo; but for treats like homemade layer cake, they’ll head to Thai shops like Muay in Earls Court (8a Hogarth Road, London SW5 0PT). Also specialising in a cracking range of fresh curry pastes (made by a local restaurant), they sell home-made chilli pickle sauces, tiny pea aubergines, sweet, glutinous rice, fresh pig’s blood, galangal root and holy basil leaves.
Over in Hammersmith, Thai Smile sells popular brands like Aroy-D and Chao Koh coconut milk. It’s also a great place to stockpile frozen coconut cream desserts, fresh banana leaves, saw leaves and turmeric root. For great value Thai jasmine rice it has to be Tawana Oriental (18-20 Chepstow Road, Bayswater, London W2 5BD).
Mark Dobbie of Nahm restaurant tells me that for fresh lime leaves he always goes to Talad Thai. For an up-market Thai restaurant experience the Nipa Thai does a gorgeous soft shell crab with spicy mango salad, or for a more casual bite Rosa’s Ta Lae Pad Cha (seafood stir fried with mixed spices, chilli and galangal) is a popular choice.
If it’s fresh ho fun noodles or pho herbs you’re after, then the shops of Hackney and specifically Mare Street are your best bet. London Starnight (203-213 Mare Street, London E8 3QE) is a firm favourite of the Hung Viet restaurant on Kingsland Road (Hung Viet’s char grilled quail is just incredible) and Hoang-Nam supermarket (187 Mare Street, Dalston, London E8 3RH) have myriad fruits, vegetables and herbs including rau ngot and cai cuc.
Uyen Luu has lived in Hackney for 30 years and is a big fan of Longdan. She prefers buying her fresh goods on Thursdays (the main delivery day for the area) and likes to spend a bit extra on decent fish sauce. Her favourite is Viet Huong, “the Three Crabs brand. It’s expensive [around a fiver] compared to other sauces, but tastes a thousand times better”.
For anything from Bangladesh, whether it’s a carrom board or a fresh jackfruit, Aldgate (or “Banglatown” as it’s called) has it all. Established in 1936, Taj Stores is the longest-established Asian greengrocers in London. The meat counter brims with alternative cuts and they sometimes have goat, venison, pheasant and pigeon. The fresh Bangladeshi fruits and vegetables vary according to the season (on my visit I spotted four varieties of lemon, countless types of spinach, water pumpkins and five kinds of aubergine) and traditional utensils and cookware are piled high at the back.
A few doors down, the slightly cheaper Banglacity (86 Brick Lane, London E1 6RL) also stocks towering aisles of spices, lentils and exotic vegetables. Around the corner off Hanbury Street is the massive Banglatown Cash and Carry which is a great place to stuff the boot of a car with giant bags of rice or a whole spectrum of frozen fish or halal meats.
For the best take away samosas in the area, try the (Punjabi) Needo Grill or for other savouries the Ambala on Brick Lane also has a reasonable selection. For one of the better curries on Brick Lane, ask for the (off menu) paneer shashlik at Muhib Indian Restaurant (73 Brick Lane, London E1 6RL).
Turn left out of South Harrow station and you could quite easily picture yourself in Colombo. Northolt Road is lined with Sri Lankan and Tamil grocers, takeaway shops and restaurants. South Harrow Food and Wine has been around since 1997 and is the biggest in the area. With a roaring trade in the more unusual Sri Lankan vegetables like fresh niwithi leaves, mukunuwenna and white kerala, the shop is a fascinating Aladdin’s cave of rare-find chilli sauces, Sri Lankan noodles, rice flours, dried fish and soy products. They also have a takeaway snack counter, Seeraga samba rice (the tiniest grains imaginable), millet flour, palmyrah cream, red rice and kithul treacle.
Across the road there’s Best Foods (249 Northolt Road, South Harrow, HA2 8HR) and also the Shankar Superstore (231-233 Northolt Road, South Harrow, Middlesex HA2 8HN), both of which have a good, if slightly smaller selection. Sambal Express is the place to assuage an aubergine sambal or mutton roll craving and for authentic Sri Lankan food the devilled chicken at Papaya comes highly recommended.
Chinatown is the obvious place to pick up anything from a new wok to bags of fresh gai lan. For live seafood, extremely fresh sea bass or pomfret, head to the Good Harvest Fish Market (65 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 6LH). New Loon Moon is crammed with interesting staples and has a decent array of fresh vegetables and fruit as well as an irresistible wall of instant noodles. See Woo has plenty of Thai and Vietnamese fare as well as Chinese, and blogger Su-Lin likes to throw a bottle of her favourite Way-on brand of chilli oil in her basket whenever she’s there.
She also gives the Wing Yip in Cricklewood the thumbs up (she especially adores their selection of Tean’s Gourmet Malaysian curry pastes) and also recommends Hoo Hing on the North Circular. London is of course, full of Chinese restaurants, and two particularly good ones are Hunan (where it’s best just to put yourself in the hands of the owners) and for top dim sum try the Royal China Club (40-42 Baker Street, W1).
Indian shops are as evenly distributed around the big smoke as the people themselves. Having said that, suburban shops worth making the pilgrimage to, include V B and Sons in Kingsbury (738 Kenton Road, HA3 9QX) Deepak foods with its lengthy corridors of spices (953-959 Garratt Lane, SW17 0LR) and Bhavins (193-197 Upper Tooting Road, Tooting, SW17 7TG) for its astonishing vista of Indian fruits and vegetables.
Wassim Tayyab, the owner of Tayyabs restaurant (where the tandoori paneer is addictive) likes the Asian Mega Mart in Beckton “it’s like the Asian equivalent of Tesco” he tells me. He also shops at Quality Foods in Ilford (there’s also a branch in Southall).
For fantastic snacks, try the fryer fresh Bombay mix or the jalebis at Natraj. For good vegetarian food, there’s Saraswathy Bhavan, where you can order a six foot family dosa if you’re that way inclined (70 Tooting High Street, Tooting Broadway, SW17 0RN).
BY Rejina Sabur
guardian.co.uk, Monday 5 September 2011 06.00 EDT