While strolling through London looking at its most famous sites, you won’t fail to notice the huge variety of street food that is on offer around every corner. You will find the usual suspects such as the caramelised nuts stands, hotdog and burger vans and the classic ice cream van. Here is the history of street food in London.
London is also known for its fantastic street food markets, such as the ones in Camden Market, situated a short walk away from the Lancaster Gate hotels, Borough Market, Dalston Food Market, Berwick Street Market and Whitecross Street. For any food lover, a trip to one or many of these markets will open you up to a whole new world of tastes and flavours and, while many will think that street food is quite a new concept, it actually dates back to the Roman era where street food was one of the main ways that the lower classes survived.
Roman and Oyster Street Food
Romans founded Londinum in AD43 and many of the citizens didn’t have kitchens and therefore relied on street vendors as their main food source. The Romans probably had a good selection of foods to choose from, however, there isn’t any written proof of what they sold, the only thing that has been found during excavations is oyster shells. Oysters were known as ‘poor man’s’ food and could be found everywhere as they were the most common shellfish to be found on the British coast. Leadenhall Market now lies on the centre of Roman Londinium and pays homage to the Romans love of food by holding an array of restaurants and eateries all under one roof.
Medieval Street Food of Hot Shepe’s Fete and Strabery Rype
A leap into Medieval times shows that oysters were still a popular choice with the crowds due to them being extremely easy to source, however, there were a few other choices that may not be equally as favoured today such as sheep’s feet. Fruit and rushes were frequent wares of street vendors as well as hot pies.
Stuart and Georgian Street Food of Cherries
Cherries were a breath of fresh air in the Stuart and Georgian times; street sellers were known to carry their items for sale on their heads which left them open to the elements, birds and garde loo’s i.e chamber pots being emptied from upstairs windows. Cherries were sold on sticks and were very popular while the muffin men sold pastries and cakes to the public. There were turkish men selling rhubarb, women selling nuts from barrows and street sellers selling fish from head baskets. Some of these vendors have been immortalised in artists work such as ‘The Shrimp Girl’ who was depicted selling shrimp from her head basket by William Hogarth.
Victorian Street Food of eels, pies and puddings
The Victorians took street food to a whole new level with over 6,000 street sellers combining weird and wonderful foods perfectly. They branched out from oysters and included whelks and cockles to their street menus, as well as hot, cooked eels. These were imported from the Netherlands, boiled and seasoned before being served hot to customers with a dash of vinegar and, because the vendor needed his cup back after you were done, the eels were more of a snack than a proper meal. Eels were also used in pies and were a very popular filling in the Victorian era, increasing in popularity as the 1800’s crept on, to the point that pies were also sold on the streets. Other street food favourites were the classic pease soup, rice milk which was like today’s rice pudding, and sheep’s trotters.
1900’s Street Food and the Birth of International Flavours
The early 1900’s were much the same as the Victorian era with chestnut sellers and sandwich men but, after the two World Wars and a complete rebuild of London, it became a safe haven for many in Europe and attracted a vast amount of many people from different countries; this led to a completely new way of street vending. More spices were added, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese foods were springing up all over the city and introducing the British public to more continental flavours, a tradition that still holds strong today.
London’s Street Food Today
In recent years, London has become incredibly busy with its residents and commuters constantly rushing hither and thither to get to where they need to go that much quicker. In today’s society, rather than street food being a cheaper way of eating and more necessary for survival, it is more a matter of convenience as people tend to have less time for a sit down meal and like to grab their food on the go. Burger vans, crepe stands and kebab shops have now become a drunkard’s best friend, refilling their tanks with much needed sustenance and greeting them back the next day to nurture their hungover states. While there aren’t eel stands anymore, you can still find a fine selection of seafood for sail at the docks in the city or at a local fishmonger where they hold the traditional cockles, oysters and whelks in high regard. If you want to sample the amazing street food of today, there are annual award events hosted in London where you’re welcome to peruse and gorge on the delicious street food that is on offer. When you are filled with delight and delicious food, don’t forget to give thanks the Romans who started this wonderful tradition.
So, enjoy a foodie weekend in London