It’s never sunny in London…?

The sun. When talked about in relation to England, most of the world would assume you’re talking about the tabloid and not the giant ball of burning gas in the sky, because we all know that this country never sees the sun.

If there is one fairly constant belief about the UK, and London in particular, it is that the weather is constantly terrible. Grey and rainy is how the city is pictured, with dour black umbrellas eternally held above every head. Sunshine couldn’t be further from anyone’s imagination.

However, no one seems to have told London this.

In recent weeks the spring weather here has been glorious. Blue skies have graced us daily, with warmth from the sun licking our skin. It has been weather for being outside, for picnics in the park or long walks through leafy streets. And, for me, it has been ideal for hitting up the markets.

London does markets well, which is good as they also do them a lot. From the permanent mega-bazaars like Camden, through to suburban four-tent farmers markets, there is a style to suit every taste.

For me, though, it is the smaller street food markets that most entice. I’m not really talking about the really slick ones, where all the big-name street sellers hock bite sized restaurant food to trendy people in scarves in some inner-east courtyard, although those do have their charm. Rather, I’m talking the more neighbourhood version of these, where the food of the world is served from rickety little tents.

At these markets, the owners are less likely to be professionally trained, and aren’t just jumping on the latest street food trend. Yes, you’ll probably find a burger or two, but they’ll be nestled beside someone selling a traditional Malay curry, or proper Polish sausage with rich cabbage accompaniments. The people selling them will most likely from Malaysia and Poland, as well.

This is food learnt in home kitchens, made exotic by the fact that they aren’t cooked in our homes. You can travel the world in a carpark, all under a warm sun. Is there a better way to spend a spring Sunday afternoon?

On a recent Sunday wander through Notting Hill I wandered past the antiques of Portobello Road, and posted on various poles down the street were printed A4 sheets of paper. These pointed further down the road with three words: Acklam Village Market.

I walked further with no expectations, and found a huge, slightly ratty looking banner, under which was a slightly ratty looking market. An old caravan was selling wine from a big bowl of ice as soon as you walked in, followed by a winding maze of stalls. Wafting from every stall were wonderful spicy, sweet aromas, mixing together in the air.

There were Thai salads, Cuban desserts, Argentinean empanadas, Moroccan tagines and more. I went to the Venezuelan stall, Guasacaca, where the t-shirts reading “Keep Calm and Eat Arepas” proved to be good advice. Arepas are disc shaped pieces of cornbread, cooked on the grill before being split and filled. Taking the recommendation of the server, mine was filled with tender pork, black beans and cheese, topped with a sweet avocado sauce.

It was warm and messy and delicious, exactly what street food should be. Eaten in the makeshift market bar, with a glass of Pimms cup and some live music in the background, it was a delightful experience.

Places like Acklam Village Market exist across this city, and they deserve to be packed for as long as the weather holds.

Sadly, as I write this a mere week after that visit, rain is bucketing down outside. Today, the stereotype holds, so the markets may be a little less well attended. But I have faith that on a day soon those black umbrellas will be put away, and the London sun will throw out those expectations once again.

And when it does, another arepa might be in order.

The street food riddle

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What came first, the chicken or the egg? If my grandfather’s axe had its handle replaced by my father, and its head replaced by me, is it still my grandfather’s axe?

To these ancient puzzles, I add one more.

Is street food still street food if neither sold nor eaten on the streets?

This deep philosophical question was running through my head as I wandered through the dark, smoky party that was Street Feast at Hawker House. Ten food stalls and four bars, housed in a old factory now full of cheap tables and chairs, this was the first winter market put on by the Street Feast team.

It felt like an underground warehouse rave for middle class hipster foodies. And it was fabulous. From the sticky, smoked pork ribs to the luxury of a lobster roll, the food was all pretty excellent, and the whisky bar really knew how to make a Boulvadier. I was in my element.

But the entire event was inside, under a roof. Bao, tacos and chicken wings may be thought of as street food, but here the closest you could get to the street was to head out for a smoke. You were more likely to be sitting up in a rickety little loft than seeing anything resembling a road. In that case, does it still count as street food?

Perhaps my idea of street food is a little too romantic, though. Maybe it’s too proscriptive to think that the street is a major part of it. No longer do we have the tiny little cart selling oysters or smoked fish on the corner. That’s an image of the long past, kept in my head from books and movies.

Even the food truck culture seems to have moved on, though. You read about the early days of Kogi, Roi Choi’s Korean taco truck from LA that was one of the first big stars in the field, and they talk about pulling up to a parking lot alone until someone saw the cops and they fled. There was something special about that, and if you kept an eye on Twitter you could really get an experience. That was only in 2008, too!

Here in London, I’ve seen many food trucks, but none of them by themselves. They seem to live in clusters, forming little market squares on a set day in a set location, the same few options every week. In a little square off Brick Lane that had some great little vans, some of them looked like they weren’t able to move at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The street food markets and convoys are great fun. You get to choose between a number of different options, all at reasonable prices, all generally pretty good quality. It’s just that it feels like a food court more than a street stall. An exceptionally good food court, for sure, but still.

Which brings me back to my question. Is the term “street food” even useful in a city like London? This is a city where nearly every food is sold from a van or a stall somewhere, but also served on a white tablecloth. When you can get roast chicken by the roadside and fried chicken at fine dining it makes the distinction a little meaningless.

So I don’t know if the sliders and sorbets and Hot Toddies being sold at Hawker House really are street food. What I do know is that it is really, really good food. This is a group of businesses at the top of their game, coming together to create an atmosphere of celebration. It’s worth the smoke and crowds and hipsters.

They have two more weeks before they pack up shop. If anyone is in London, you should get yourself there. Take the party off the streets.