With aromas spicy and sweet mingling in the air, crowds thronging around us, shouts and sizzles coming from the stalls, it was almost impossible to make a decision about what to eat. Indian dosa, Chinese noodles, Spanish paella, Moroccan tagines, each one looked as attractive as the last. But then we spotted the Venezuelan stall and, minutes later, I was digging in to my first arepa, a corn pancake, laden with slow-cooked chicken, salsa, beans and guacamole, grinning at the sheer deliciousness of it.
Before I moved to London, the only thing I knew about Brick Lane was that it was famous for curry. Then I arrived here, began exploring, and discovered all its Sunday market, graffiti-covered, multicultural glory. Far from just being a street of curry houses, Brick Lane is an utter mish-mash of cuisines and people, from the old Jamaican man, with the deep, infectious laugh and lewd remarks about his excellent sausages, to the Venezuelans serving up the arepas I’d just discovered.
My digital nomad friends Kit and Nick were in town, so we’d gone together to Brick Lane’s Sunday UpMarket, a mostly art and design market held in the minimalist, warehouse-like Old Truman Brewery, but which also includes a substantial food section, which, with stomachs growling, we’d made a beeline for.
Once we’d admired the jewellery, clothes and works of art on display in the rest of the market, showing admirable restraint by merely looking longingly at the incredible cartoon bags and not actually buying anything, we returned to the main street, pausing to grab coffee from a Canadian-themed van, decked out like a ski station.
We soon found ourselves swept up in the wave of Sunday shoppers, catching glimpses of butchers, bakers, cafes and vintage shops as the crowd surged us forwards. We managed to extricate ourselves with difficulty when we passed a doorless opening in a shiny white-brick wall. Intrigued by the sight of a throng of people inside, we went to investigate – and found another, unnamed, food market. It had yet more international offerings – there was even another arepa stall. Despite being full, every smell and sight tempted us, so we had to leave rather quickly.
Just a bit further up, we came across two beigel shops, almost next-door to each other, jostling for customers. The yellow-fronted one, claming to be London’s oldest and best, had by far the longest queue. As each person emerged from the tiny shop, another would enter, in a state of heightened anticipation for their first tooth-loosening bite of a salt beef beigel.
After a little more walking and a few photos of the street art, snapped with the rapid precision of sports photographers in infinitesimally small breaks in the crowd, we had recovered just enough stomach space for a smoothie battle. From a rainbow stall, I chose a vibrant yellow mango and passion fruit offering, while Nick’s was a questionable avocado green. Kit tried both to judge, but we couldn’t decide on a winner. Avocado smoothie is actually surprisingly good.
The rest of Brick Lane’s food scene, seemingly endless as it is, will keep me busy and fed for a great many visits to come, as I eat my way around the world. At some point, I’m sure I’ll make a stop in the Indian curry houses, but they are far from the only thing which make Brick Lane a gastronomic thrill.
Where is your favourite food market?