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.

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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.

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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.

  

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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.

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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.

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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 Five Best Pizzas in London

Anyone who’s read this blog will know how much I love pizza. When made well, it is quite simply the mother of all dishes. Anything that can taste so good with just flour, tomato and cheese as its base ingredients deserves special recognition. The pizza proves that simplicity is key to a good dish; less is indeed more.

My love for pizza was reignited by a recent trip to Naples, where an authentic Neapolitan pizza will rarely cost more than €5. Thus my quest began to find the best pizzas in London, with only two important categories in mind. I wanted to concentrate on Neapolitan pizzas, with their chewy base, thick crust and simple, top-quality ingredients. A happy side effect of my Neapolitan adventure was that, while never quite as good as in Naples, there are a plethora of joints serving very good Neapolitan-style pizza.

The ideal pizzeria has few options on the menu, concentrating on sourcing the finest toppings rather than gimmicky ingredients (disclaimer: I love a good ham and pineapple, but anywhere willing to feature this in there restaurant is immediately disqualified, there is no place for pineapple on a Neapolitan pizza). Pizza should also be cheap, so nothing over £10 was considered, though a margherita shouldn’t cost more than £7.50.

The following is not an exhaustive list; I haven’t been to every pizzeria in London. I have, however, been to many, and these five, in no particular order, plus one because I couldn’t decide which to demote, are currently my favourites.

Sacro Cuore

At £7.50, a margherita at Sacro Cuore is (slightly) above average price, but well worth the extra pennies. Originally opened in 2012 in Kensal Rise, the owners recently expanded to trendy Crouch End. Thankfully, the new branch has maintained high standards. The restaurant’s website sets out its stall as a serious pizzeria, “for us it is all about the pizza!”, and they certainly mean it: aside from a few starters and salads, there are no alternative mains tarnishing the menu. Sacro Cuore is for pizza and pizza alone. On a cold Wednesday afternoon, I was the only customer, and within a couple of minutes of my order, a piping hot, beautiful pizza arrived on my plate. The base was up there with the best, light and chewy, filled with air bubbles. In addition to the normal margherita ingredients, parmesan added welcome saltiness, and the chef was generous with his basil. There’s nothing worse than a pizza with two measly basil leaves. A minor negative was the tinny flavour of the tomato sauce. Overall, however, Sacro Cuore thoroughly deserves its status as one of London’s foremost pizzas. 

Cost of Margherita: £7.50

Where: Kensal Rise, Crouch End

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Solid basil distribution

Princi

In some ways, Soho’s Princi is a victim of its own success. A visit to the Italian patisserie, bakery and pizzeria often requires a long wait to be seated, thanks to the no bookings policy and the quality of food on offer. On one half of the restaurant is the more informal patisserie and bakery section, where customers can purchase pastries, salads and meals at the bar and find a seat. The other half houses the pizzeria, and one can expect to wait up to an hour for a table. Be patient, the pizza is worth waiting for. Princi was introduced to London in 2008, a branch of a renowned Milanese bakery, and swiftly became one of the most popular Italian restaurants in London. In a huge wood-fired oven, the pizzaiolos produce some of the finest pizzas in London, with thick, chewy crusts and the finest toppings. Some of the more interesting options include Bresaola, rocket and parmesan, and beef ragu, olive and radicchio. Princi is slightly smarter than the other places on this list, a dinner date location rather than the place for a quick snack (unless, of course, you choose to eat from the bar on the informal half). On a recent visit, the margherita, at £5.50, was a bargain, though the website still lists it as £7.50. Most other pizzas hover around the slightly overpriced £10 mark. Nevertheless, it is an authentic and smart pizzeria right in the heart of London.

Cost of Margherita: £5.50/7.50.

Where: Soho

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Minimal basil, but a great pizza nonetheless

Franco Manca

Opened by Giuseppe Mascoli in Brixton in 2008, Franco Manca has become one of the largest pizza chains in the Southeast, with 28 branches and counting. Franco Manca has gone from  small, local pizzeria to pizza monolith, losing points for coolness along the way (opening in both Westfields and owned by a corporation that also possesses Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Real Greek and, heavens forbid, Pizza Express). Yet its service to mankind, at least in London, should not be underestimated. The chain’s expertly crafted sourdough pizzas, still available at unbeatable prices, have almost single-handedly popularised the Neapolitan pizza, superior to every other version of the Italian dish. While other restaurants have started to produce equally delectable pies, Franco Manca still wins for toppings, sourcing from the best local and Italian producers. The ‘No 4’, featuring Gloucester Old Spot Ham and Buffalo Ricotta, is not to be missed. Pleasingly, there are never more than five or six options, though the staff are always happy to accommodate. My advice, get there before it truly outgrows itself.

Cost of Margherita: £5.90

Where: Various

Santa Maria

The website’s claim that Santa Maria’s pizza is “exactly the same as the pizza you can eat on the streets of Naples” is somewhat of an exaggeration, no pizza in London is as good as what you’ll get in Naples. Yet Santa Maria, which opened in Ealing in 2010, and has since launched a second branch in Chelsea, does serve superb pizza. Time Out named it London’s best pizza just weeks after it opened. The restaurant itself is tiny; on our visit, we were told to wait 45 minutes before a table would be free. Thankfully, pizzas are served by the dozen at the pub next door, the Red Lion. The pizza was indeed top drawer. I opted for the Santa Caterina, a margherita topped with Neapolitan salami, chill and parmesan. The base, risen for 24 hours, wood fired and as fluffy as seemingly possible, was excellent. The combination of parmesan and salami, however, was slightly too salty. Another minor complaint is one that may only affect those eating at the pub. A pizza should arrive piping hot, and ours didn’t. Admittedly it was extremely busy, but the distance from oven to pub may have played a part. Nevertheless, Santa Maria is certainly deserving of its position as one of the best pizzas in London.

Cost of Margherita: £6.95

Where: Ealing, Chelsea

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Fundi

A thoroughly modern eatery, Fundi was founded in 2012 by brothers Charlie and Rory Nelson, who built their own oven from scratch and plunged into London’s emerging street food scene. Four years on, they regularly serve some of London’s tastiest pizzas, at reasonable prices, with fixed spots at Street Feast’s Dinerama in Shoreditch and at Kerb Camden. Another conscious peddler of Neapolitan pizza, the pizzas are expertly crafted and baked for 90 seconds (almost double a Franco Manca pizza). The outcome is a delicious, thin pizza, up there with the best in London. I have a personal preference for minimalism when it comes to food outlets, and Fundi obliges, offering five varieties of pizza. Try the affumicata, a delectable combination of smoked mozzarella and pancetta. Most of the pizzerias on this list were established by Italians; the Nelson brothers have matched them at their own game.

Cost of Margherita: £6

Where: Kerb Camden, Dinerama

Well Kneaded

Recently, the Well Kneaded Wagon can be found in several markets across London throughout the week, catering to hungry customers at lunchtime. Founded in 2011, the outlet, which offers “wood-fired sourdough pizza with British seasonal ingredients”, has received countless awards, including winning the best pizza prize at the British Street Food Awards in 2012. And it’s easy to see why. On my visit, there were indeed several interesting “seasonal ingredients”, such as a pizza with smoked pancetta and squash. I settled, nevertheless, for a margherita, my go to pizza of choice. It was one of the best I’ve tried in London, with the fluffiest, chewiest base of all (a very good thing). The garlicky tomato sauce possibly topped that of any pizza I tried; such a simple ingredient can make a big difference. The one downside was size, about half a regular pizza. Of course, this critique is in itself praise; as I finished I was craving more.

Cost of Margherita: £5.50

Where: Various (check website for details)

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Size doesn’t always matter