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Nostalgia ’n’ mash hot on the menu

Kebabs on the grill at Mangal, a Turkish restaurant in East London. Kebabs on the grill at Mangal, a Turkish restaurant in East London. (Joe Ray for The Boston Globe)
By Joe Ray
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2010

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My friend Lexy likes to joke about teaching me “proper’’ English and the finer points of her culture. I am “excited,’’ she is “chuffed.’’ For years, she has tried to get me on the football (soccer) bandwagon. Recently she started telling me of the upswing in London cuisine and the mind-numbing goodness of the city’s ethnic offerings. I was leery. Historically, food from the United Kingdom has an awful reputation and a hefty price tag. I couldn’t imagine coming here just to eat.

My skepticism floats away with a bite of takeout the night I arrive. We eat Indian and Bangladeshi dishes from Tiffins Club that use subtlety, heat, and blissful flavor combinations to change my perceptions in a heartbeat.

More surprising is the resurgence of traditional English food. Typical offerings like bangers and mash (sausages with mashed potatoes) and fish and chips are ceding their spots on the menu to food prepared with a respect for tradition and an eye on the modern day. Hopping back and forth between the eastern and western ends of the city, ethnic and traditional come into a unifying whole.

At his West Kensington home, I pose the question of how to learn to love British food to Simon Hopkinson, former chef at London’s groundbreaking Bi bendum restaurant and author of several cookbooks, including the much-acclaimed “Roast Chicken and Other Stories’’ and the just released “The Vegetarian Option,’’ and he smirks. “The smell of my mother’s rabbit pie in the old Aga stove. She’d pick wild rabbit up for a sixpence and braise it for two hours until it was falling apart and serve it with red currant jelly,’’ he says. “I couldn’t wait.’’

Nostalgia, it turns out, is a mixed bag. “There are a lot of boiled things and things at grammar school called dead man’s leg and suet jam roly poly. That’s suet, flour, and bicarbonate spread with jam wrapped in muslin and steamed,’’ Hopkinson says, grinning in a way that suggests he knows it’s hard to appreciate. “It had a cousin called apple hat with sliced apples, brown sugar, and flecks of butter where all the apples go gooey and soft,’’ he says, his eyes going to a happy, faraway place, accompanied by a big, happy “Hooo . . .’’

Dead man’s leg and apple hat might not be common finds on menus anymore, yet they make decidedly strong connections between the stomach, the mind, and the past. “Chefs will doll it up a bit, but there’s a resurgence of British cooking that’s about simple food,’’ Hopkinson says. “Mom made boiled, sliced leeks in a white sauce with lamb and mint sauce. That’s one of my most favorite things. You’ve got the lamb gravy and specks of fat from the skin all mixed together at the bottom of the plate — it just calls for a spoon . . . before second helpings so you can do it all again.’’

Farther west, in Southall, I find an Indian neighborhood so entrenched that the train stop signs are in English and Punjabi. Rumor has it, you can buy a pint at a local pub with rupees. Only a few miles from Hopkinson’s flat, I’m both effectively in another country and completely in London.

I collar a pair of locals, ask where to eat, and moments later, I am sitting at Chandni Chowk in front of dishes of paneer samosa, triangular pastry filled with ricotta-like cheese and peas, and bhalla chaat, lentil crackers with chickpeas, potatoes, chutney, and raw onion. They seduce the taste buds then burn them, sometimes coming on smooth, at other times strong. Single bites can contain spicy, sweet, creamy, earthy, raw and scorched, crisp and bubbled into submission. Chandni Chowk isn’t perfect, but it’s very good and a great first stop in this community.

The idea of London as an unstirred melting pot may also be part of what makes the food so good. “The difference between here and America is that people who migrate to the US become American before being an Arab. Their own cuisine isn’t something they’re living,’’ says Anissa Helou, chef, instructor, author, and London food trend spotter, at her loft in the trendy Shoreditch section of Hackney. “I’ve been in London 36 years and when people ask where I’m from, I should say London but I say I’m Syrian and Lebanese. I didn’t have fish and chips until 10 years after I moved here. We’ve all become British, but most ethnic communities feel their identities retained here.’’

Had the local food been better as these communities evolved, the melting pot may have been stirred more. “When I came here, there was no good food to be had. If I wanted to eat well, I ate abroad,’’ Helou says, recalling the fresh fruits and vegetables of her youth, then the last few decades of London’s culinary history. “It was pretty disgusting,’’ she says, smiling and blushing, “I ate disgusting food.’’

Things got better. “It took a long time after I arrived before it got good. Bibendum was one of London’s first great restaurants, and from the ’80s onward, there would be a few good restaurants popping up. Now I can reel off great places all over town,’’ she says. “The fun thing is that now there’s a very varied offer.’’

We go to lunch at St. John Bread and Wine, one of two St. John restaurants under the eye of chef Fergus Henderson that have helped rekindle interest in traditional British food. We try a foie gras and duck liver paté with a light and buttery texture accentuated by the warmth and crunch of the toast it’s served on, then go whole hog and try a hearty caul-wrapped pork offal “meatball.’’

A few days later, my London host Lexy takes me to Albion, her favorite new English food “caff.’’ We have a starter of pork crackling, the layer of crispy fat that forms on top of a roast. It’s a carnivore’s ultimate snack food, both snowy soft and shattering with crispiness, served warm and accompanied by hot applesauce. (It should also come with a portable defibrillator and a little sign that says, “Warning, this may stop your heart.’’) Afterward, I try a steak and kidney pie, the UK equivalent of chicken pot pie. It comes with a pot of gravy on the side. I realize that with gentle prices and high quality, there’s no reason something this wholesome should have fallen out of favor.

For a full dose of nostalgia, I find Bob Cooke slinging pie, mash, liquor, and eels behind a counter at Hackney’s F. Cooke. “Pie ’n’ mash is East End,’’ says Cooke, who, at 55, is the last in a 145-year-long line of cockney Cookes who have owned this and other nearby pie shops. “We’re all named Fred or Bob.’’

This shop on the road known as Broadway Market, near the beautiful London Fields, has tiled walls, marble tables, low wooden benches, and sawdust on the floor. Cooke’s clients are stocky locals, artsy types, and tourists who wait at the counter for a steaming tower of meat pies and mashed potatoes, often with a curious green parsley sauce known as “liquor.’’ Everything is ordered in units and eaten with a fork and spoon; knives haven’t been available here for years. One pie and one mash makes for a handsome lunch, but a pair of stout brothers walk in. They each order three, and finish them off in 10 minutes.

At the bench under a paper titled “It’s my favourite meal’’ by Eleanor Jackson, age 10, I tuck into a plateful and the pie spills out gravy. “It may be on the lower stratum of food,’’ says Cooke, “but there’s a nostalgia for it. The people who know it, they come back. We had a pair of old girls who came in for lunch every Saturday at noon for 50 years. You could set your watch by it.’’

“Pie and mash,’’ concludes Cooke, “keep you young.’’

Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.

If You Go

What to do

Mangal
10 Arcola St.
011-44-20-7275-8981
www.mangal1.com
BYOB Turkish grill, $15.
Rochelle Canteen
Arnold Circus
011-44-20-7729-5677
www.stjohnbreadandwine.com/home/
Lunch plates, $3-$20.
Tiffins Club
249 Amhurst Road
011-44-20-7254-8459
Takeout only, $3-$12.

Where to stay

The Hoxton
81 Great Eastern St.
011-44-20-7550-1000
www.hoxtonhotels.com
From $76.
Hotel
2-4 Boundary St.
011-44-20-7729-1051
www.theboundary.co.uk
From $305.