The East End of London offers some interesting options for local cuisine not found anywhere else in the capital, or in the rest of the UK for that matter. You may have to dig around a little to find some of these once-common traditional delicacies, but, if you want to experience real East End life, this is certainly worth doing!
London’s East End Food
The area is also renowned for other cuisines introduced by immigrants over the years. So, what are the food specialities of East London?
Jellied Eels: A History
One of the best-known dishes of the East End is jellied eels. The dish may not be part of the staple diet of Cockneys any longer, but it is still popular with many locals and some visitors. It is made up from chopped pieces of eel cooked in a specially spiced water-based stock.
Eels are particularly gelatinous so, as the dish cools, they turn the stock into a type of jelly. This can be eaten hot or cold, and it is one of those things that you either love or hate. Don’t be put off by the way it looks – it is hard to make pieces of eel in a jelly look really attractive – you might surprise yourself and actually like it if you dare try it!
It is thought that jellied eels date back in popularity to the 1800s – there were hundreds of shops and stalls selling the dish then. The reason for its popularity was the abundance of eels in the Thames.
There were loads of them and they were easy to catch locally. This made them readily available and they were cheaper than meat and other types of fish, so they became a staple food for working East Enders.
Jellied eels are generally found locally in the few remaining pie and mash shops in the East End. Each shop has its own particular recipe, which is usually kept a closely guarded secret.
It is also possible to buy jellied eels from fish stalls in the East End and around the capital and in some local supermarkets.
Pie and Mash
The East End’s jellied eels go hand in hand with the area’s other speciality dish – pie and mash. Again, this dish originally came from the abundance of eels in the area and the need for cheap and nutritious food to feed working people with not a lot of money to spare.
Your typical pie would traditionally have been made from stewed eels with a nice dollop of filling mashed potato on the side.
The piece de resistance of the meal is the liquor, or gravy, that is poured liberally on the plate around the pie and mash.
Traditional liquors are made from the water used to cook eels and this may look a little off-putting at first, as it is green, but bear in mind it is basically a parsley sauce so it does taste better than it looks!
Over time, eel pies were replaced with ones made from minced meat or mutton. Eels became less common in the local rivers and meat became easier to source and cheaper. Most pie and mash shops today will sell meat rather than eel pies now.
Some pie and mash shops also give you the option of a gravy that looks like gravy if you prefer a brown coloured sauce rather than a green one. If you want the real pie and mash experience, however, you should go green!
Cockles and Winkles
In the past, East Enders also ate a lot of seafood and shellfish, often as snacks.
Cockles were often offered as a side dish with a plate of pie and mash and fish sellers and stalls would sell tubs of winkles, cockles and jellied eels on the streets and in local pubs on busy nights.
Again, this kind of food was easily transported into the area from local estuary and coastal towns.
Salt Beef and Curry
The East End of London has traditionally been the first stop for many immigrants looking to settle in the UK. The cultural make-up of the area over the centuries has always been rich and diverse, and many communities have introduced their own cuisines into the East Ender diet.
Although the Jewish community is now focused around North London, the East End is still home to some traditional bagel bakeries, Jewish cafes and restaurants.
You can still buy proper chewy bagels and get an authentic salt beef sandwich here.
Today London’s East End is also the curry hub of the capital. The West End may have more posh Indian restaurants, but the curries you can try in the East End of London are likely to be more interesting and authentic. The Brick Lane area is sometimes even known as Banglatown because of its many Bangladeshi restaurants – if you are a curry lover, this really is the place to eat!