The best Middle-Eastern food in London

London has long been a centre of immigration, from Irish, Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century to Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West Indian arrivals after the fall of the Empire. Contrary to popular jibes against ‘British’ food, the successive waves of immigration have all left indelible marks on the island’s cuisine. Salt beef, fish and chips, chicken tikka masala and jerk chicken are all now as British as tea, which of course, came from China. In short, true British food is a wonderful amalgamation of a variety of cultures and tastes; it tells the history of immigration and empire on a plate.

Visitors to London readily head to Indian restaurants, or fish and chips shops, for a traditional local meal. Yet there is one cuisine that is often overlooked, a cuisine that is increasingly popular among Londoners themselves. Middle Eastern and North African food, which, of course, is not one cuisine but a rich and diverse set of food cultures, has emerged as a favourite in Britain’s capital. With the help of famous chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, the Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula, in terms of culinary influence, are in vogue. Thankfully, a dodgy kebab at 3am or a tub of supermarket hummus no longer constitutes our relationship with Middle Eastern food.

And to prove the point, here are three of London’s finest restaurants from the region. The restaurants demonstrate a variety of influences, from Turkey to North Africa via Lebanon, and offer a range of prices.

Gokyuzu

Harringay, in North London, and its main thoroughfare of Green Lanes, is the epicentre of London’s Turkish and Kurdish communities. Along the scruffy, unpretentious road, fried chicken and pizza places fight for commerce with bookmakers and hipster burger joints. But the Lanes’ main pull is the stunning array of Turkish food on offer, with bakeries offering mouthwatering borek and patisseries serving the finest baklava.

Though there are many excellent restaurants, the best, and the busiest, is Gokyuzu. Just a few minutes walk from Harringay Green Lanes overground station, Gokyuzu is worth the slightly awkward trip from central London. At nights and weekends, it is perpetually busy, and queueing is likely for those who haven’t booked. Once in, you’ll be greeted by an impressive range of Turkish classics, such as the tangy, lemony Kisir and the best lahmacun, Turkish pizzas topped with minced lamb.

Despite a potentially confusing selection of mains, confusing in that you will want them all, there is only one serious option for those in the know. Available in several sizes, depending on the party, the platter involves a combination of the finest, juiciest grilled meats, such as chicken wings, lamb ribs and chicken and lamb shish. The hefty portion of meat sits atop a bed of rice and bulgur wheat, reliably soaking up the juices. On the side, warm Turkish bread and a fresh salad offer perfect accompaniment.

Quite reasonably, for the quality of food and size of portion, it is difficult to spend more than £20 per person. For Turkish food, this should be the first stop in London for all food lovers.

Beirut Express

Edgware Road, which heads north from Marble Arch in central London, is home to a significant Middle Eastern community, and is often dubbed Little Arabia. Just a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, it boasts, in particular, several excellent Lebanese restaurants, notably several branches of the excellent Maroush chain.

Maroush cater to a diverse audience, with smart and casual outposts along Edgware Road. For exquisite, cheap shawarma in an unassuming, friendly environment, look no further than Beirut Express. Open until 2am, Beirut Express is perfect for a late-night meal, after a night out in Soho or the West End. If kebab shops were this good in the rest of London, they wouldn’t have such a poor reputation. By all means, the kebabs at Beirut Express are suitable for the sober.

The cold and hot mezza are all superb, especially the sautéed chicken liver and the kibbeh, deep fried lamb meatballs filled with cracked wheat and herbs, and the Lebanese pastries are second to none. Likewise, the mains are fantastic, though slightly pricey.

But Beirut Express is not the place to eat a full meal, there are several top choices nearby. Come for the shawarma wraps, a cheap option at roughly £5, and bask in the glory of a juicy, greasy kebab filled with the finest marinated lamb and the freshest herbs and salad.

London is full of terrible kebab shops offering bland or overly-salted meat presented on top of a soggy pitta with raw onion and commercial garlic sauce. Visit Beirut Express, if only for proof that the kebab, when made right, is the mother of all fast foods.

Moro

Situated in the now trendy Exmouth Market in Farringdon, Moro is the more sophisticated of the three. Opened around 20 years ago, it predates the current wave of smart casual, reasonably-priced, North African-inspired restaurants in London. It remains one of the best.

Moro, whose name comes from the Spanish for Moor, isn’t strictly Middle Eastern. It is a modern, fusion-type restaurant that mixes Moroccan and Spanish influences to perfection. It is the type of place that serves freshly-baked sourdough alongside its starters, and that is a very good thing.

The menu changes regularly, but is likely to feature staples of North African cooking, such as harissa, za’atar, dates, apricots and pomegranates, mixed with traditional Spanish ingredients like chorizo, morcilla and jamón ibérico. It works to perfection. On my last visit, the highlight was grilled skate with paprika and farika, a form of roasted wheat common across North Africa.

Moro is a special occasion sort of place. The customers are unfailingly cool and well-heeled, sometimes too much for their own good. It isn’t cheap, with mains upwards of £20 each, but the food is consistently superb; seasoning and herbs are subtle, hints of the Maghreb beautifully presented and delightful to eat. Next door, a sister restaurant, Morito, offers tapas and small plates on similar lines. If you can, however, stick to Moro, and you will experience fine, modern Euro-North African cuisine and immediately plan, and save, for your next visit.

The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

kimchi-dumplings
Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

bonchon
Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

kimbap
Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

chimak
ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

korean-pork-bbq-1
Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.

The best meals of 2016

The following article features five food experts and their favourite meals of 2016.


Tomé Morrissy-Swan, author of Appetite for Consumption food blog

2016 has been a pretty shitty year. Tragic terrorist attacks and plane crashes, political upheaval across the world, and a spate of celebrity deaths, from beloved musicians and actors to Johan Cruyff, one of the best footballers of all time, have continually shocked us. On a more mundane level, Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Champions League, the Euros and the Ballon D’or is particularly grating.

Thankfully, the culinary world has provided a much-needed tonic to the overbearing doom and gloom. When everything around us seems to be pointing to the end of the world as we know it, food continues to remind us of the more comforting things in life: home, family, travelling and the fact that we have more in common with each other than what separates us (hummus and falafel, after all, are equally as Israeli as they are Palestinian).

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit several gastronomically iconic places; indeed, I was so inspired by the cuisines of such far-reaching places as Israel, San Sebastian and Vietnam that I began to write about food.

In a year in which I was to sample such a vast array of superb and authentic dishes, it was almost impossible to choose a single highlight. In December 2015, I was blown away by shakshouka and hummus in Tel Aviv; in May, the pintxos of San Sebastian were a pleasant surprise, especially when washed down with the cheap and excellent local wine; staying with a local family in Lazio, central Italy, was a delightful introduction to the famous Italian homegrown and home-cooked food culture; in Vietnam, I ate arguably the best sandwich of my life; and green curries in Bangkok and Chiang Mai elevated the dish to favourite-curry status.

Choosing a single favourite, therefore, was an arduous task. Awards, for me, are always slightly dubious, based solely on subjectivity, particularly for anything artistic. How can a certain film be better than another in a completely different genre? How do you ascertain whether a hip hop album  is better than a rock one? Equally, how do you decide whether pho in Vietnam is better or worse than sushi in São Paulo?

My favourite meal, therefore, is one that gave me the most pleasure, changed my views on that particular dish, and partly influenced me to write about food. In August, I spent a day in Naples, southern Italy’s largest city, a baking, chaotic, vibrant place. I fell in love with the town, and that was before I tried the famous Neapolitan pizza. As we arrived at our chosen pizzeria, it was sadly closed. Luckily, a few doors down was Al 22, a traditional, no-frills pizzeria established in 1935. Less than five minutes after ordering, two piping hot pizzas, a Margherita and a Margherita with Salami, arrived. After our first bites, my mother and I stopped, looked at each other, and had to pause to reflect, it was that good. I was so inspired, my love for pizza reignited, that I subsequently began a quest to find the best pizza in London. Simple, cheap food, when made properly, beats any smart, modernist fare. The Neapolitan pizza, at €5, was the best meal I had in 2016.


Ben Preston, of blog.ZenEuro.com, a website specialising in travel and food

Picking my favourite food from this year is hard, mostly because I had the chance to do quite a bit of travelling and try lots of unique cuisines from different places. Some of my favourites would definitely be the pizza from Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, the churros from El Moro in Mexico City, and the tapas from Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona. But, if I could only pick one thing that stood above the rest, I think it would be the classic Greek food at Thanasis in Athens.

Thanasis is in the centre of Athens along a street of restaurants, and is known by tourists and locals alike for having some of the best Greek food in the country. For me, having been raised on souvlaki and tzatziki from Greek immigrants, getting to experience the foods from their origin was an other-wordly experience.

The simplicity of the food really amazed me: The tzatziki, creamy and fresh, drizzled with olive oil, and served with grilled pita dusted with paprika, was just perfect. The lamb souvlaki, succulent, juicy, and served with ripe Greek tomatoes and red onion, was everything I ever wanted a souvlaki to be. I would without question travel to Athens, and Thanasis, again just for the food.

Blog.ZenEuro.com

ZenEuro.com


Lucy Treganna, traveller and food lover

A strong contender for the best food I ate this year is at Pizza 4P’s, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant in Hanoi founded by Tokyo-born Yosuke Masuko. Although living in Hanoi meant I was able to enjoy some incredible Vietnamese cuisine, the craving to ‘go for a Western’ did sometimes set in, and on the two occasions I ventured to Pizza 4P’s it far from disappointed.

Thanks to the ‘half & half’ option they have available for most pizzas, between us my friends and I were able to sample a range of toppings: garlic soy beef, okonomiyaki and salmon sashimi being among the creative Asian twists which impressed. There are also more traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas on offer; on my first visited I opted for a classic margherita and a three-cheese option combining mozzarella, parmesan and camembert on a béchamel base, which was served with a side of honey to drizzle over and complemented the flavours surprisingly well. It was the perfect choice for someone as cheese obsessed as I am, especially as Pizza 4P’s uses its own homemade artisan cheeses produced in the Vietnamese highlands of Da Lat.

On my second visit I selected the anchovy burrata, and the ham, camembert and mozzarella served on a garlic mushroom sauce base. Not just the best pizza I’ve eaten in Asia, but amongst the best I’ve had in my life!


Nicholas Hsien, food blogger, http://www.rockabitebaby.com

Frog legs as a famous culinary delicacy may be one of the few things the French and Chinese have in common, aside from perhaps both governments’ attitude towards the United States. Having eaten frog legs in their Chinese incarnations – usually stir fried or stewed with ginger and spring onion, or cooked together with rice congee – my gastronomical highlight of 2016 was the French take on frog legs, or cuisses de grenouille.

I tried this dish on a recent trip to Lyon, France. The frog legs were lightly battered, and pan fried over a skillet containing butter, garlic and some herbs (including a generous dose of parsley). Et voila! That’s pretty much it, simple as it may sound. The frog legs were supple and juicy – and for anyone undecided about trying, the meat’s texture is like that of a perfectly done quail without any trace of gaminess and evidence of animal fat beneath the skin. Even my dining partner who had never eaten frog legs previously was pleasantly surprised when tasting it. Soaked in garlic butter with fresh parsley, and lightly salted, it was not too heavy or saturating despite the richness experienced in one’s first bite, and goes well with either wine or beer. C’est parfait!

Josh Dell, journalist and co-creator of Fried Culture, a documentary focusing on London’s fried chicken scene, to be released in February 2017.

The best food I’ve had this year was the truffle polenta at Machneyehuda in Jerusalem, widely considered to be the best restaurant in Israel. Nothing makes me smile more when eating out than the phrase “we’re going to need another” the second you have your first mouthful of a dish.

The polenta was one of those dishes. Creamy and gorgeous, the tastes that emerged with every bite have stuck with me throughout the year. Want to try it in London? Look no further than Machneyehuda’s sister restaurant (or at least some kind of sibling), The Palomar on Rupert Street, W1. Almost exactly the same dish is served there, and from experience I can tell you it does not disappoint in the slightest.