Anyone who lived in E1 before it was transformed into the City Fringe will shake their head sadly and tell you “it’s just not the same” as when the food in Spitalfields was served from wooden shacks, rather than from gleaming shops of chrome and glass. But with the corporate wannabe-hipsters, estate agents and Fro-Yo bars have come much needed public toilets, and a lick of paint; so it’s not all bad.
In fact, some of what made Spitalfields fun has just been pushed a little further east, to the sprawling disused Truman Brewery on Brick Lane in the form of the Sunday Upmarket – where you can shop for funky t-shirts, trinkets and crafts with the aroma of some great international street eats fighting to reach you through the crowds. If you go early enough you can still meet grandmothers in saris picking their way between the remnants of Friday night’s carnage to shop for spices in the Bangladeshi supermarkets.
Brick Lane, is of course known for its immigrant populations of years gone by, and Sunday Upmarket bears some of the fruits of the many-coloured, many-tongued people of London. If you can’t find a cuisine here – I’m not sure it exists. Lithuanian, Argentinian, German and Japanese and Thai food are all to be found; and there are some great naturally gluten free options among them.
Don’t make your choice too soon! Spend some time browsing as I did. My picks:
Ethiopia is perhaps not renowned for its cuisine, but there are some colourful, hearty stews and casseroles to pick from including lots of vegetarian dishes. All except one when I visited were gluten free and could be served with rice instead of flatbread/cous cous.
Meanwhile, you had to fight to get to the front of the popular Mexican stall, where burly chicos in plastic sombreros were serving up lunch in corn tacos and nachos. They were using Discovery tacos (labelled suitable for coeliacs) so perhaps not too authentic, but good fun, and still very tasty-looking.
Best value had to be from the 2 Cuban hombres, who for £5 after much quizzing about ingredients served me a gigantic plate of BBQ pork with rice & beans, salad, and fried plantain. They even had gluten-free homemade Orange, Almond & Coconut cake on offer. I think it might be time to plan a trip to Cuba if the food is like this!
Unfortunately lots of the Asian cuisine looked to be a cross-contamination nightmare, with soy sauce aplenty; so I avoided those to peruse the stall serving up steamy, plump yellow Arepas – a kind of pancake made from ground corn popular in Venezuela. Whilst there were no gluten ingredients, the flour they were using had a ‘may contain’ warning, so I chose not to take the risk – perhaps something to try making at home!
After all that food, spend some time walking along Brick Lane, Banksy-spotting and watching trendies starting their drinking early. If you have any space left, there are some interesting Indian-style sweet shops which predominantly use besan (chickpea) and nut flours instead of wheat flour; so are a great place to try something new!
Sunday Upmarket, Sundays 10am-5pm, The Old Truman Brewery
Top tip: take cash! The cashpoints here and at Liverpool Street station always have massive queues.
Continuing the Street Eats series, I will soon be visiting the Granddaddies – Borough Market and Spitalfields.