Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 24, 2024

London’s food is bloody good

By YUYU HUANG | January 26, 2024

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COURTESY OF YUYU HUANG

The U.K. isn’t known for its food, but I had a pleasant surprise during my trip there! 

From schoolwork to COVID-19 and miles of ocean, I’ve faced quite a few barriers in visiting my cousin in London — I even missed her wedding! But, I finally got the chance to fly across the Atlantic and had an unforgettable week there. She and her husband took me on a tour of the city’s must-visit spots. What left an indelible memory was not the old-world architecture and stylish storefronts, but the thrill of unraveling its food scene with my picky taste buds. 

Right after I landed, I was swept up in a joyful catch-up with my cousin and her husband. It felt like no time had passed since we last met. But we barely had time to relax before diving into our food itinerary. 

Our first destination was a place rich with history — The Ivy, a famous classic English restaurant in London. We decided to order some of the most iconic British dishes, including the Sunday Roast and Yorkshire Pudding, accompanied by sides of fries and fish. To be honest, the not-so-great reputation of British cuisine is not unfounded. The dishes were a feast for the eyes but flavor-wise, they were a bit flat. Yet, this restaurant's popularity endures, likely owing to its provision of unaltered hometown flavors for customers.

Having sampled traditional British tastes, we were ready to dive into our true culinary tour.

At dusk, we sauntered around Soho, immersing in the tempo of London’s nightlife. For my first dinner off the plane, we chose this quaint Spanish pub called Lobos Tapas to nosh on some tapas. Their Iberian ham was thin as silk, the octopus was tender as can be and the Padrón peppers, sprinkled with salt, carried a mild tang. Each dish, enhanced by smoking techniques, had lasting and layered flavors. 

The following day, we wandered into Chinatown. The food collection was immense, spanning from the age-old Lao Po Bing to Asian-style bagels, and from classic black sugar pearl tea to chic cheesy fruit teas. For lunch, we chose JinCheng Alley. This is a Sichuan restaurant frequented by my sister’s friend from Chengdu because of its authentic hometown flavors.

COURTESY OF YUYU HUANG

The table was quickly turned into a mala panorama: The shimmering red chili oil floated with Sichuan peppercorns lent each dish an alluring sheen. Meats like rabbit and chicken feet, which are naturally mild in taste, were elevated to mouthwatering delights through the artful blending of sauces and spices. Sichuan-style vegetables were no less remarkable. Our choice of fried eggplant, dipped in a light batter, offered a memorable contrast with its crunchy shell and succulent flesh within. The combination of pea shoots and ya cai, though unassuming in appearance, surprised us with their silky tenderness and inherent freshness. 

One evening during the week, we dined at Golden Dragon, a restaurant specializing in Hong Kong-style Cantonese fare. The signature of Hong Kong cuisine is its expert use of thickening sauces. The lobster we ordered, for instance, was enrobed in a garlic-laden sauce, further enlivened by the addition of spring onions and ginger, which intensified its sweet profile. The pan-fried tofu, drizzled with prawn sauce, became a tender vessel for opulent marine flavors. 

It was an odd discovery to stumble upon “Fujian fried rice” here, a dish name so familiar-sounding yet bewildering since it was nowhere to be found in my home province of Fujian, itself. I presumed some inventive Fujianese immigrants had devised this recipe. This comforting plate boasted a bed of fluffy rice smothered in a rich oyster sauce and speckled with sliced duck and mixed vegetables. Though simply assembled, the dish's flavors were multifaceted, illustrating how immigrants have adeptly introduced their heritage to a new cultural landscape.

On my last day in London, we swung by Temper Soho, a smokehouse nestled in the busy Chinatown. With discretion, we chose their hundred-day dry-aged steak, cooked medium rare. With one bite, the butter-tender beef dissolved effortlessly, unleashing a burst of flavors as powerful as a Basdar warrior’s might. Alongside our choice of steak, we added an array of sides: tacos topped with soft-shell crab, juicy lamb carnitas and creamy, melt-in-your-mouth burrata. For a moment I was lost in a meaty maze, with flavors and textures enveloping me from all sides like crashing waves. 

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After dinner, we headed to the final stop of our London trip, the Sky Garden. Perched atop a skyscraper, it features a variety of bars and a breathtaking panoramic view of London’s skyline. We each chose a drink: a sweet and sour berry cocktail for me, a crisp mojito for my cousin and a soothing rum for my cousin-in-law. The light alcohol nudged me into a reflective mood. My cocktail’s semi-sour tang mirrored my bittersweet sentiments as our fleeting reunion drew to a close.

Echoing the start of my journey, I ended my trip at a British breakfast spot at Heathrow Airport. There, I dared to try the infamous black pudding, an oddity that raises eyebrows for its ominous dark color and the main component of pork or beef blood. Strange as it sounded, it actually tasted rather innocuous — faintly salty with a spongy texture. My attention turned instead to the Eggs Benedict, savoring each component: silky poached eggs, the English muffin soaked in Hollandaise sauce and smoked ham to top it off. I tried to etch this classic combination into my memory as a suitable end to the amazing gustatory trip. 

“Food in London is bloody good” — I was still somewhat surprised typing it as the summary of my trip, given Britain’s past “reputation” for unexciting cuisine. However, as a global hub, the influx of flavors from around the world has transformed London into a food lovers’ hotspot. This dramatic shift, taking place in under 20 years, set against Britain’s thousand-year history, is truly remarkable. 

Rooted in rich history, yet infused with contemporary shifts, London has nurtured a modern way of life. After finishing university, many of us think about moving to megacities like New York, Tokyo, Singapore or London. I, too, now often think about how I would fit into the fast-paced city lifestyle, and it might just start with exploring a menu dotted with unfamiliar words.


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