On Friday I met up with food writer and champion of Britain’s great food traditions, Simon Majumdar. He was filming for a piece on street food with the Guardian and was keen to bring together the old and the new as we pondered the question, ‘has the new wave of British street food got what it takes?’
First stop was mobile seafood institution Tubby Isaacs – operating from the same East London pitch since 1919. Simon’s argument is that it’s all very well us fancy food vans gadding about and crying ‘street food!’, but we’ve got to know the roots of where it all began and show some respect.
As one of eat.st‘s founders I was all up for doffing my cap at the alter of street trading tradition. In my research on the subject it is the fruits of the Thames that would sustain London’s street eaters the most: oysters, cockles, mussels and winkles…and those slippery little blighters – eels. Whilst the former have all been absorbed into our food culture and been hailed across the board as delicacies, it is only through the gentrifying effects of smoking that the eel has found any respectable footing.
Rubbish, said Simon – you need to know about jellied eels. And with that a quivering bowl of gelatinous fish chunks was pushed towards me. With Paul the owner, Simon and a big camera all looming over me I forged ahead, exuding a jaunty nonchalance. Suck on it and spit the bones on the ground, instructed Simon encouragingly. It felt like the first time I smoked a cigarette – down at the Youth Club surrounded by a brigade of ice-washed denim fans with excrutiating perms.
I dived the plastic spoon into that yellowish gunk and selected my catch. Moist squelching ensued as I cut that eel loose and tossed it into my mouth. Gnaw, gnaw, suck, suck – I separated the flesh from the bone and downed it on one. Quite tasty actually – especially given that we’d soused the bowl in Paul’s extra hot chilli vinegar. Yup, no problems there.
Have another one, suggested Simon. The camera came closer, Paul looked pleased. Sure, why not. But this time the piece was at least twice as large. I could barely fit it in my mouth. I wrestled and grappled with the almighty dense nugget, spat out that bone, got the thing down my gullet and decided I’d paid my dues – no more.
But more there was. Not more chunks or jelly diving but more…after-shocks. Yes, the only way to describe the rest of the day – and despite all else that I went on to eat – was one of repeated blows to my vom barriers as the eel chunks nudged up against them.
I’m glad I tried those suckers and I loved seeing all the brawny Eastenders turning up for their weekly/daily doses – but I think there’s probably a reason why that particular tradition has all but faded away