There’s a world of ingredients and culinary cultures to be discovered in the UK’s capital, whether you’re looking for an introduction to a nation’s cuisine or revisiting the flavours of a beloved destination.
Centuries of human migration have helped propel London’s gastronomic scene to global acclaim. Ask any Londoner and they’ll likely agree that the colourful and ever-evolving culinary culture is one of the capital’s most distinctive and treasured qualities. Beyond the city’s restaurants (presently shuttered due to the latest Covid-19 lockdown), there’s a sprawling directory of foreign supermarkets to discover — many spearheaded by entrepreneurial diaspora communities.
Whether it’s an evening steaming Chinese pork bao or an afternoon spent rolling a pickle-packed Lebanese shawarma, it’s possible to conjure the flavours of another country at home simply by exploring the aisles of your local international food shop. Here, we suggest six of London’s best.
1. Mestizo Mexican Market, Camden
This market is situated on an unassuming stretch of Hampstead Road, linking central London with Camden, but don’t let its location fool you. This Mexican food shop greets its customers with a riot of colour and music — a celebration not only of the Latin American nation’s cuisine but also its effervescent carnival culture. This welcoming vibe is perhaps a spillover from its neighbour and sister property, restaurant and tequila bar Mestizo, one of London’s most renowned spots for authentic Mexican food. (Interestingly, both businesses are operated by a collective of Mexican Londoners.) Inside the store, you’ll find everything from top-shelf mezcal, tequila and raicilla (another agave spirit) to artisan corn tortillas (including the blue corn variety). There are also poblano peppers, achiote paste (a popular crimson-coloured seasoning) and preserved nopales (prickly pears). 101 Hampstead Rd, NW1 3EL
2. Loon Fung Supermarket, Chinatown
At this bustling Chinatown stalwart, often the only thing getting between you and the dish you’re desperate to get home and prep is the lengthy queue outside its doors. Inside, the Chinese mini-market is piled high not just with ingredients for your meal but with the tools you’ll need to create it. At one end, choose fresh fruit, roots, fungi, herbs and vegetables such as galangal, enoki mushrooms, pak choi and green garlic shoots; and at the other, pick bamboo steamers (in a range of sizes), sushi rolling kits and tea sets. In the refrigerated section, you’ll find a selection of fresh tofu (both firm and silken), sweet mochi balls in a variety of flavours, plus rice, egg and wheat noodles. Sichuan peppercorns, gochujang (chilli bean paste), Shaoxing wine and many other East Asian cooking essentials can all be found here, too. 42-44 Gerrard Street, W1D 5QG
3. Green Valley, Marble Arch
It’s impossible to walk past the windows of this Lebanese food hall without drooling over its syrupy towers of baklava and sugar-dusted maamoul (semolina biscuits filled with figs, dates and nuts). According to www.nationalgeographic.co.uk, Inside, the halawa (dessert) selection also includes enormous pans of kunafa and nabulsia (types of cheesecake), mushabak (deep-fried batter rings covered in sweet syrup) and basbousa (a semolina syrup cake). At the back of the shop lies the bakery and mezze counter, serving fresh sambousek (meat pies), kibbeh (fragrant balls of ground meat and grain), plus stuffed vine leaves, falafel and tabbouleh. The store has a sprawling selection of Middle Eastern store-cupboard staples: bucket loads of pickles, including turnips and artichoke bottoms; herbs and spices, from ajwain to za’atar; and shelves of fresh-baked flatbreads and pittas, perfect for brushing up your shawarma-making skills with at home. 36-37 Upper Berkeley Street, W1H 5QF