This Pizza Is Like an Edible Version of London
A Walthamstow pizzeria asked eight local cooks to come up with an idea for a pizza slice, creating a jerk chicken- and saag paneer-topped pie that reflects the diverse East London borough—and the city as a whole.
All photos by the author.
In the living room of a flat in Walthamstow, East London, Shirin Bobat puts down a tray of homemade lamb samosas and batata vada, golden fried potato balls. She pours hot chai from a silver teapot and encourages me to add a spoonful of sugar to my steaming cup.
"There's also some mint chutney and ketchup for the samosas and batata vada. Only because my kids won't eat anything without ketchup. I've got some Indian sweets for you as well. More chai?"
I hastily pile the little beige parcels of joy onto my plate, almost forgetting that I'm not here to chat condiments (or carb-load).
Bobat is one of eight Walthamstow chefs and cooks who have helped create a pizza as part of a community project spearheaded by local restaurant, Sodo Pizza. Based on the 2011 census results, the pizza's eight slices reflects the area's top eight ethnicities: British, Pakistani, Polish, Romanian, Jamaican, Indian, Turkish, and Lithuanian.
Dan Birch, Sodo Pizza co-founder and chef, tells me: "Walthamstow feels like its own town centre. You have new people coming to the area but there's also there's a long standing community of people who have been here for up to 40 years. We wanted to celebrate that."
In the Doomsday Book, Walthamstow is recorded as "Wilcumestou"—the place of welcome. And in recent years, it has been living up to its ancient name. According to figures from the 2001 to 2011 census, the percentage of Walthamstow's population from all ethnic groups—except white British—has increased. For 26 percent of residents aged three-years-old and over, English is not their main language, compared to 8 percent nationally. It's one of the most diverse boroughs in the country, with 48 percent of residents coming from an ethnic minority background.
Bobat tells me about her experiences of living in the borough.
"I grew up in South East London, which is where my love of cooking started. We had a grocery shop so we had all this fresh produce to work with. My parents lived with an older couple also from India and I spent time cooking with them when I was younger," she remembers. "We moved to Leytonstone [near Walthamstow, in the same borough] because there were no brown people where we lived. My mum and dad felt awkward all the time. In East London, we started eating a lot more Asian food and my mum picked up a lot more from neighbours. Asian communities are very inclusive."
Bobat, who is currently working on a food history book documenting recipes from the Mogul Empire and contributing a saag paneer slice to the Sodo pizza, has lived in Walthamstow since 2002. She explains how she has seen the area change: "Before, it was the place of chicken shops and kebab shops (although some of them are really good, like Best Western chicken shop down the far end of Hurst Street). Now, there's every type of cuisine you could want. I always used to go to Islington or Stoke Newington if I wanted to eat out. Now, I stay in Walthamstow, which means my money is being spent where I live. It's better for the community."
But with the regeneration of the area comes increasing house prices and rumours that branded pop-up mall Boxpark will open in the neighbourhood. Bobat also suggests that changes to Walthamstow aren't always made with residents in mind, giving the example of a new cycle route intended to reduce traffic.
"You aren't going to get Asian women in their saris and shalwar kameezs getting on a bike to go to the shops to get their groceries. It's just not going to happen."
My next stop (with a small takeaway paper bag full of samosas in hand) is Shameem Mir's house, where I'm greeted by the heady scent of simmering curries. Mir is the founder of Sham's Kitchen and hosts pop-ups and private cookery classes based on her family's recipes from Lahore in Pakistan. She welcomes me into her home and we begin discussing the changes she has seen in Walthamstow.
"You have to accept that there will be new people coming in. I really like the fact that we have more bars and restaurants now. It's really buzzy," she tells me. "It's really changed but it's only because people who can afford to eat out and drink out have moved here and those businesses have survived. You've still got the real people, the high street, and people who haven't cashed in and want to stay here forever."
Mir says that changes in the area have helped her food business thrive.
"I sell my curry in the Gin Palace round the corner as part of a regular pop-up. That's a new bar and gin is something that has got really trendy," she says. "People asking me to cook for small parties in their house is only afforded by a certain kind of person and paying for cookery classes is a relatively new thing. It's not something my mum would have done."
Mir piles rice and three types of curry onto my plate, including a taster of the Punjab masala sauce with aubergine that goes on top of her Sodo pizza slice ("It's just like having curry with naan.") She tells me that her upbringing was split between Walthamstow and Lahore.
"I also spent some time in Dundee but I just noticed the lack of diversity. I remember coming back from Scotland and I'd just stand in Kings Cross station and it felt like I was home," says Mir. "I've been here now since 1989. I love the fact Walthamstow is diverse and real. It's a great community feel. For example, I get most of my catering jobs through word-of-mouth and Walthamstow community Facebook groups. People are accepting of each other here and really care."
Mir walks me to my next destination, along the way sharing tips for cooking aubergines that she learned while catering a party recently and pointing out local restaurant Eat 17, whose owner Chris O'Connor created the British bubble and squeak pizza slice.
We reach Walthamstow Town Square Gardens, where I find Joel Swaby, founder of Caribbean street food pop-up, Shellybelly's. He's setting up his stall for the upcoming HighTide Festival, a celebration of the local arts scene.
"I've lived in Walthamstow for pretty much my whole life. With Shellybelly's, we try and stay as local as possible and do events in the area which is why the Sodo pizza is a perfect fit. Coincidentally, I realised the other day that I actually went to school with Fiona Palacioglu, who works at Sodo and is making the Turkish lahmacun slice," says Swaby, as he fires up the grill.
He continues: "I kept my recipe simple. While ackee and saltfish is Jamaica's national dish, I don't know how well it would work on pizza. I'm not a classically trained chef, but what I do well is jerk chicken. And jerk chicken equals Jamaica for a lot of people. There's a tomato base, Julie mango sauce, and jerk chicken. Very simple."
I ask why he decided to make staying local central to his business.
"It's a no-brainer. I'm seeing the area change but it's still very community based and there are still a lot of people who love the area. I also think there's a niche for good, consistent food and good customer service that can be lacking when it comes to Caribbean food," comments Swaby. "Maybe I wouldn't have been so lucky if I started this ten years ago but now people are much more conscious about shopping local and taking pride in their local area. Those who are moving to Walthamstow aren't trying to change things."
And he's positive about the future of Walthamstow's regeneration.
"As long as the people that come here have respect for the diversity of the area, the culture, and don't try and claim it as their own, I think everybody can coexist. Think of the borough as a large house. Enter the house with respect, don't try and barge in on people's rooms, or redecorate and make it your own. Just respect people's space," Swaby says with a smile.
Leaving Swaby to stoke the coals, I make the short walk to Sodo Pizza. Here, I meet Giedre Biliotaviciute, who owns Lithuanian restaurant Krantas and has written a book about her experience as a Lithuanian living in London. Her slice—along with Polish chef Damian Wawrzyniak's interpretation of a traditional mushroom and sausage zapiekanka baguette and Romanian chef Dorin Sutu's sesame seed-covered meatball slice—complete the pizza.
"Lithuanian food is similar to Russian or Polish so I wanted to include ingredients on my slice that are just specific to Lithuania," she tells me. "So, there's smoked pig's ear, smoked pork belly, and medziotoju cheese (a hard, smoked cheese)."
Biliotaviciute tells me why she's proud to be championing Lithuanian food in Walthamstow.
"I've lived in Walthamstow for 12 years. There are many people from different countries but we're all neighbours and always talk. You have people from India and Pakistan, or Spain and Italy. They come in and want to try the food," she says. "Then I also get a lot of people from Poland, Russia, Latvia, and Estonia who know the food. They come in and enjoy it because they miss it."
But for Biliotaviciute, the most important thing is for the children of Lithuanian natives who've made Walthamstow their home to get a taste of their heritage.
"The kids of many people who have been living here for 20 years don't know their national food," explains Biliotaviciute. "When I see they like the dishes I cook, it makes me happy because it means they like the food, they won't forget it."
Leaving Walthamstow, I realise that despite the area's strong sense of community, a pizza won't stop property prices soaring or conglomerates taking advantage of the latest trendy postcode. But at a time when governments seem more intent on dividing us than unifying, celebrating the differences in our neighbours' backgrounds and coming together over food is more important than ever. And pizza is one hell of a delicious way to do that.