Ultimate vegan rumble showcases knockout street food: Kerb, London N1
September 2, 2017
Eight of London’s best vegan dishes faced off in a street food showdown – and a Venezuelan chip butty knocked out opponents to claim top prize.
The Living on the Veg munch-off, organised by street food impresario Kerb, took place under West Handyside Canopy in King’s Cross. For under 30 quid, ticket holders could sample the eight traders’ signature dishes, quaff a drink, then vote for the winner.
Street food should be vibrant, indulgent and calorific, a sponge for the beer you’ve just downed, and a gentle reminder of the night you’ve had next morning in the unidentifiable stains on your best shirt. Every dish here fit the bill – the perfect riposte to those who suspect that vegan food is brown rice, tasteless tofu and foul-smelling vegan cheese.
Inspirations came from as far afield as Eritrea, Thailand and India – and as close as that Chicken Cottage at the end of the road.
Billed as the ‘ultimate vegan rumble’, after eight courses and a few cans of vegan lager, that certainly wasn’t the sound my stomach was making as I prised my jaws open for the eighth dish. For those that think vegan food isn’t filling, I’ve stepped away from all-you-can eat pizza buffets and twelve-course French tasting menus with more spring in my step.
Here are the eight dishes, in the order we ate them, and where you can find them now.
Where on earth do they eat fried bread chip butties? Newcastle? Glasgow? On board Viking longboats? Venezuela, apparently, and we went Caracas for this shamefully delicious fried arepa (a freshly made, traditional Venezuelan cornbread) stuffed with cassava sticks, sweet fried plantain, chunky avocado salad, a surprisingly authentic-tasting ‘feta’ and garlic and habanero mayonnaise. A bib would have been more useful than the single serviette we were given for this messy, multi-textured mouth-stopper. For the full guilty pleasure effect, eat at a bus stop at three in the morning, crying, and with sauce running down your arm.
Currently trading at Hawker House street food market, near Surrey Quays, SE16 on Fridays and Saturdays, 5-11.
This Eritrean ‘afro-taco’ was a kind of double open-faced wrap – and the prettiest face of the evening, brightly decorated with red cabbage, green chilli, coriander and sesame seeds. A wheat tortilla was topped with a dinky injera (slightly sour, squidgy East African flatbread, pockmarked like an English crumpet) and crowned with red lentil stew (timtimo) brash with garlic, ginger and red cabbage and ginger slaw. ‘It looks too pretty to eat,’ someone said, but nothing ever is. The injera (flexible, spongy, juice-thirsty) stands up as a perfect street food holster for the thick flavoursome stew inside. The result is fresh, light and devilishly spicy. Not just a pretty face after all.
Currently trading at Netil Market, London Fields, E8 on Saturdays and selected Sundays.
There’s not much that can’t be given a new lease of life by coconut milk, lime juice and chilli. A sailboat heaped with butternut squash and tofu puff in a red curry sauce on rice, strewn with crispy shallots, chilli and Thai basil. A decent curry, although for me it lacked a touch of heat and sourness. The crispy marshmallow texture of tofu puff was a revelation, gooey and slightly crunchy all at the same time, a perfect foil to the softness of the butternut or any vegetable that’s left in a curry pot for some time. Someone leaving the event gave me their voucher for this dish as they had to leave, so I had two of them. I didn’t complain about going back for seconds.
Currently trading at Kerb markets all over London – London Bridge, the Gherkin, Paddington, West India Quay. Check out their website to see where they are this week.
I had high hopes for this vegan Indian curry, and wasn’t disappointed. With all the efforts that go into spicing a good Indian sauce, meat often disappears without a trace into it anyway. Lack of meat notwithstanding, SpiceBox brought some plant-powered barbecue flavour to the party with this chargrilled cauliflower steak, served with a rich, custard-yellow makhani sauce on naan with coriander chutney and homemade pickles. The naan was cut into a triangle so it looked like a slice of seriously overloaded Indian pizza.
Delicious, but for me the curry needed more heat or sourness to cut the creaminess of the dish. I understand they’re selling to the masses, so they may have cut back on the heat. The naan was a bit too flat and dense – I like mine sprouting enormous scorched bubbles – but I’m only quibbling because this dish really hit the spot.
With permanent premises in Columbia Road, E2, SpiceBox can be found in London at Kerb markets, and touring the rest of the country. Visit their website to see exactly where.
Seats were scarce and vertical eating is tiring after a while. Spent far too much time at Mr Potatohead’s vegetable carving table, where we were encouraged to fashion root vegetables into characters, butchering carrots to make them look vaguely lifelike and ended up just admiring the far more creative offerings like these.
Biff’s Jack Shack
As we passed the halfway point, we moved on to meat substitutes, and really started to feel the burn.
A well-dressed kale and almond salad perfectly complimented a rich, crunchy ‘buffalo wing’ soused with maple bourbon hot sauce and blue ‘cheese‘ sauce – a crispy fried dream team. The wing had been double-fried for a cracking crisp exterior, and the inside was spicy jackfruit moulded around a sugar cane ‘bone’ which you could gnaw on or pick your teeth with at the end. Clearly, some pretty impressive technical and taste combo knowhow had gone into this dish.
Jackfruit has a meaty, stringy texture and is best known as a kind of vegan pulled pork substitute. Did it work quite as well as an ersatz chicken wing? Although bursting with flavour, as my teeth stripped it effortlessly from the bone I realised it was a little too soft for my taste.
Currently trading at various markets, including Camden and South Bank, but visit the website to see where they are this week.
I’m used to those crumbly, tasteless white baguettes so many Vietnamese banh mi vendors use, as if the bread is just an afterthought. Here, the bread was almost too good – nutty and chewy and flavourful. Smeared with mushroom walnut pate, its sides lolling with thick slices of Korean-style barbecued seitan, this vegan banh mi was a deeply satisfying east-meets-east triumph of savouriness, so rich and filling I felt like calling for my umami. Lacking some of the verdant summer freshness and herbiness of other banh mis, this was a real northern European rib sticker. It was a shame I was wilting by this time – I would have liked to have ploughed into this one first.
Currently trading at Brick Lane market, Saturday 11-6, Sunday 10-5.
TEMPLE OF SEITAN
We all worship seitan now – the queues for this stall were round the block when we arrived, even though you get a voucher for eight stalls and Temple of Seitan weren’t going anywhere. Even this early, they looked like nailed-on winners. Temple of Seitan’s fame precedes it: perhaps everyone wanted to go there first in case they ran out, or just eat the stuff and get their vote in early. I’ve eaten at their Temple of Hackney outlet and I understand what the fuss is about. (It was originally called Temple of Seitan, but forced to change its name after local evangelical Christians lost their shit. You might think all that ‘God is love’ protesting might have been better directed at factory farming rather than a perfectly decent pun.)
Anyway, Temple of Seitan didn’t bother with any bells and whistles – a fried ‘chicken’ slider (seitan) with agave mustard glaze in a brioche bun. That’s your lot. Naturally, it was great – it’s better than real fried chicken (not hard, admittedly) and you have the side order of knowing your late-night heart-stopping junk food snack is only harming you.
Permanent premises in Hackney, E9.
When your stomach feels like it’s been poured full of concrete after seven courses of Thai, Indian, Venezuelan and American junk food, the last thing on your mind is a hot stodgy dessert. A sorbet, perhaps? A wafer-thin mint? A bit unfair on vegan pie specialists Young Vegans, who most people left till last as they were the only purveyor of puds. This chocolate peanut butter mud pie brownie oozing with nutty sugary lava with a blob of vegan ice cream proved a struggle to eat but was worth the white-out. Maybe next time I’ll do the puddings first to give them a fair crack.
Currently trading in multiple locations. Visit their website to see where they’re appearing this week.
AND THE WINNER OF THE GOLDEN CARROT IS…
RUNNER-UP – House of Seitan
WINNER – Petare
Early favourite House of Seitan pipped to the post by chip butty champions Petare. Here’s to the next event, and let’s hope they can top it.