It was food that brought me to East London, and food is the reason I've chosen to make a home here. I remember vividly my first taste of the East End, on a winter night in 2005. I was living in Yorkshire at the time and came to visit a school friend whose chef-artist boyfriend was living in Hackney, back when rents here were cheap and chef-artists were moving east. He took us for Vietnamese on Kingsland Road, a stretch of Shoreditch famed for its Vietnamese canteens, and ordered a banquet of rare beef wrapped in betel leaves, golden-crusted, garlic-flecked deep-fried soft-shell crab, lacy bánh xèo bulging with prawns and bean sprouts, and steaming bowls of pho. I'd never tasted anything like it.
When I went downstairs to the bathroom I got lost amid a labyrinth of shelving, cardboard boxes and restaurant stock. Behind a makeshift wall of Tupperware I stumbled upon a startled elderly Vietnamese man in a nightgown tucked up in bed watching a flickering television. At that moment it was obvious to me that this place was so much more than a restaurant. It was a family, doing the best they could with what they had.
That's what people in the East End have been doing for centuries. Hemmed by the Thames and River Lea and its surrounding marshland, this part of town has always been poorer and more industrial than the west, its economy built on manual trades such as tanning, rope- and lead-making, rendering tallow and brewing. Outside the original Roman boundaries of the City of London, its location meant that the noxious smog of trade didn't bother the city's rich. It was a community for the proletariat and for immigrants, a place where they could find work and affordable housing.
Waves of immigration - from Huguenots and Ashkenazi Jews in the 17th century to 20th-century diasporas of Bengali, Vietnamese and Turks - have contributed to a heady richness of cuisine: curries and bánh mì, bagels and böreks. But the East End has always had its own distinctive culinary identity, and is arguably the only part of London to have an indigenous cuisine. Protein-rich eel - one of the few fish to survive the waters of the heavily polluted Thames - was the original street food here. Fished from the river in huge nets, it was initially sold from carts in back alleys, and then from the eel, pie and mash shops set up in Victorian times. Shops such as F Cooke on Broadway Market still do a roaring trade.
Another wave of newcomers has arrived in the past decade: young talented chefs who have worked in some of the world's top kitchens. East Londoners by choice, they've been drawn by cheaper rents, open-minded diners and the industrious energy of the area. Last year twice as many restaurants opened here than in the West End.
Leading the way are chefs Isaac McHale at Shoreditch Town Hall, and James Lowe around the corner at Lyle's in a former tea warehouse. Before opening their own places, they made their names cooking together in a disused space above legendary Spitalfields boozer The Ten Bells. As well as geography, it's this DIY spirit that binds the people, places and food of the East End: diverse, generous and real.
This is a one-off, a true expression of East End hospitality. Everyone who comes through the door of E Pellicci is greeted, usually by Nevio Pellicci, his sister Anna or their cousin Tony, who slip casually in and out of Italian as they chat to customers and shout orders. Portraits of their Tuscan grandparents, Elide and Priamo, who opened the café in 1900, flank the service hatch, behind which Maria, the 76-year-old mother of Nevio and Anna, cooks fortifying fry-ups, doorstop bacon sarnies, and béchamel, ragù and pesto. Her glorious lasagne comes in a big bowl that could feed two for £7.60 ($14).
The unwritten rule at E Pellicci is that everyone talks to everyone at shared tables, and the mix of clientele makes for compelling conversation. "It's a hub in the community," says Anna. "The demographics in the area have changed so much over the last 20 years, but we get everyone coming in here… so many lovely friendships have grown out of that."
332 Bethnal Green Rd, Bethnal Green, +44 207 739 4873
Set in the converted bike shed of a former Victorian-era school in Arnold Circus, in Boundary Estate - London's first social-housing development - Rochelle's has the air of a secret place, an incongruous pocket of serenity amid the bustle of Shoreditch. Visitors ring a buzzer on the street and enter through the schoolyard, past ivy and foxgloves, to a simple, modern space with an unfussy menu of brilliantly cooked seasonal food.
In summer, sit outside and admire the pots flush with lovage and lettuce, and the fig tree whose leaves will infuse ice-cream. In winter, sit in the warmth of the open kitchen, rich with the smells of slow cooking, surrounded by jars of preserves. Owner and executive chef Margot Henderson, the wife of St John founder (and GT columnist) Fergus Henderson, and head chef, Anna Tobias work on menus that change daily and let ingredients shine in the likes of lamb, anchovy and chicory salad, or lemon sole with capers and dill.
Rochelle's started as a canteen for local artists, hence the name, and though it remains unlicensed (it's BYO) and open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays only, its following is large and loyal.
Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, +44 207 729 5677, arnoldandhenderson.com
Hill & Szrok
The idea is so brilliantly simple, it's a wonder there aren't butcher's shop-restaurants all over London. And yet Hill & Szrok on Broadway Market is unique in the capital. By day, the butcher's shop sells premium meat and traditional sundries, but come six o'clock the marble counters are scrubbed and the space is transformed into a compact restaurant serving some of the best meat in London.
Manning the kitchen almost singlehandedly each service is young chef Alex Szrok. Master butcher Tom Richardson Hill runs the butchery side of the business, maintaining a dialogue with Szrok that informs the menu and minimises wastage - the chef uses bones to make stocks and jellies, makes scratchings from pork skin, and renders fat from the scratchings for lard used in making pastry. This nose-to-tail approach means Hill and Szrok can afford to keep their meat and meals well priced while maintaining a homemade quality in everything they do.
60 Broadway Market, Hackney, +44 207 254 8805, hillandszrok.co.uk
To say that chef James Lowe is a stickler for detail at his Shoreditch restaurant is an understatement. His focus on excellence and the pursuit of the best British ingredients has vaulted Lyle's into best-restaurant lists and won him a Michelin star in the two years since it opened, in 2014. The restaurant's tone is informal yet professional, the vibe is fun and prices are reasonable - the set four-course dinner menu costs £44 ($82).
Lowe's intense seasonal focus means diners might find oysters topped with a bracing rhubarb granita one week, a rich risotto shot through with puréed nettles and topped with buttery snails the next. Game, a penchant since Lowe's days as head chef at St John Bread & Wine, is also honoured. "It's produce-led, it's British, there is a modern approach, it's pared-back and all the food is common sense," he says.
The chef's wanderlust during his 20s, much of which he spent travelling and cooking, is expressed in a Basque-style charcoal grill for searing dry-aged meat and grilling whole aged turbot, a Japanese approach to clean, layered stocks and sauces, and a New Nordic nod in his use of foraged produce. From the sleek Ercol furniture and sourdough baked daily to the carefully chosen wine and rotating coffee selection, this is a showcase for excellence and craft.
Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High St, Hackney, +44 203 011 5911, lyleslondon.com
There's an almost daring simplicity to Towpath café overlooking Regent's Canal that underpins its charm. Though it calls itself a café and diners eat outside at plastic tables and old school chairs, the tiny kitchen applies a similar rigour to some of London's best restaurants in its food sourcing and preparation, whether it be eggs and mojo verde on toast for breakfast, or a lunch of whole roast plaice with buttered new potatoes.
It's founded and run by food writer Lori De Mori and chef Laura Jackson. Jackson describes her food as "homely, not fussy". "I plan my menu around what produce is good, and I'm cooking food I would love to eat," she says. "One of my favourite things to cook is roast chicken. In summer I do it with farro, peas, broad beans, mint, spring onions, and lemon-parsley dressing with aïoli. You pour all the gravy over the farro and it soaks it up like a sponge. That's pretty much me on a plate."
Open March to November, 36 De Beauvoir Cres, Hackney, +44 207 254 7606
This tiny, white-stucco bakery on Hackney's leafy Wilton Way has become one of London's best-loved food haunts. Customers can watch Claire Ptak and her bakers work in a light-filled open kitchen, rolling pastry to encase wobbly custards for seasonal quiches, or creaming butter and sugar for sensational sponges. These, along with cookies, brownies and cakes, are displayed in vintage glass cabinets.
Ptak named her bakery after the wild violets she remembers from her childhood in California. She studied film theory and video art, then cooking, and landed a life-changing job in the pastry section of Alice Waters' celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Ptak grew up foraging, and these days she heads to nearby marshes in search of rosehip for hedgerow jelly, while foraged fig leaves infuse custard and ice-cream, and elderflower is used in homemade sodas. She has found wild pears and mulberries growing on housing estates near the bakery, and grows her own herbs - her lemon verbena appears in quick strawberry jam.
"For me it's really instinctual," she says of her baking. "I taste something and I want that satisfaction. I want every bite to be a great experience."
47 Wilton Way, Hackney, +44 207 275 8360, violetcakes.com
This is an edited extract from East London Food by Rosie Birkett and Helen Cathcart.