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.
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.
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.
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.