Hackney, the part of east London where I live, has certainly been made culturally richer, and its eating options yummier, by a long history of waves of immigration. If I walk the length of Kingsland Road, I’ll pass though Vietnamese, Chinese, West Africa, Turkish and Orthodox Jewish communities – and their eateries.
But the biggest food influx in east London in recent years has been…yes, American food. Within easy walking distance of my home in Hackney and where I work, a little further south, there are countless rib rooms, multitudes of dirty burger options, red velvet cupcakes and whoopie pies galore, and no shortage of speakeasy gin bars. And not only have east Londoners been chowing down on barbecue and fondant icing, and slurping juleps and Old Fashioneds, for a while, but we’ve also adopted other US dining conventions, like having cocktails with dinner (just fine in my book) and queueing at no reservation restaurants (not so happy about this one, unless I can have a cocktail while I wait).
I think, however, that I can now sense a new trend on the horizon that’s on the verge of displacing the American food that’s been so ubiquitous here in recent years. Just as the humble burger got jazzed up, layered up and priced up into the gourmet delight east London’s hipsters know and love, humble fried chicken has now ben getting the same upmarket treatment at spots like Tramshed and Wishbone.
But I think all this clucking over spicy wings and poussin is actually part of something even bigger and newer than the fast food-gone-gourmet scene. There’s so much more to chicken than American-style fried chicken, divine as it can be at the right place. Many cultures across the world love chicken and think of it as their own – just ask the Singaporeans, or Jewish people – but right now I’d like to highlight the fact that it’s at the centre of French cusine.
You may think the promise of “a chicken in every pot” is something US presidents say. However, it was in fact first used as a political slogan by late sixteenth/early seventeenth century French king Henri IV. And a cousin of a friend who works in a very swanky London restaurant, says the smart money on the London dining scene is looking east to Paris rather than west to New York these days.
Just to be clear, we’re talking French food Hackney-style here – the informality of the indigenous greasy spoons and the more recent US diner trend has made an indelible impact on how any food gets served up here. This is not slices of kiwi fruit and raspberry coulis novelle cusine-style dishes. We’re talking peasant food and Parisian café fare – croque monsieur, coq au vin and proper chocolate mousse, all washed down with humble vin rouge.
I even reckon there are signs that this new-style earthy French food is even making its presence felt in the Big Apple. For instance, the latest foodie craze there is a doughnut (ok, if you insist – donut)/croissant hybrid that apparently has Manhattanites queuing round the block every morning.
But if I want American food with a little bit of je ne sais quois, I know where I’m going. New Orleans was always there already, taking African dishes and adapting them with French techniques, or making a French staple from local ingredients and creating something new and special in the process.
New Orleans food is my favourite food in the whole world. For anyone like me who was brought up standard European home cooking, eating gumbo or beignets in New Orleans feels like a departure, but also a homecoming to somewhere you never knew you belonged. Is there a better way to represent America on a plate?