The Last Bite: Gözleme and Gungo Peas at a 19th Century Street Market

Welcome to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. First, we visit London's Ridley Road Market.

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Jan 25 2016, 11:00am

Welcome to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?

Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold.

First up is a visit to Ridley Road Market in Hackney, London.

Ridley Road Market in Hackney, London.

Ridley Road Market may be the only place in London where you can buy a fake "Versache" handbag, a cow foot, and a yam heavy enough to kill someone with.

Dazzling yet shabby, abundant yet decaying, the East London street market is a ramshackle bazaar of contradictions.

Home to 125 food and clothes stalls, it stocks a never-ending range of Caribbean, African, Asian, and English groceries. Perfectly crowned pomegranates give way to razor-sharp aloe vera leaves. Bajan Hot Pepper Sauce sits beside mountains of raw tripe. Pint-sized, bottle-green avocados outshine bruised plantain and brittle saltfish.

Plantain and green bananas for sale at one of the market's fruit and vegetable stalls.

I was born and raised in Dalston, minutes away from Ridley Road, and the market has always had a presence in my life. If I wanted to get anywhere, I had to pass its rotting fruit aroma and the metallic odor of butcher blood. From being chased and gently reprimanded for nicking strawberries as a kid to buying 50p mascara and developing conjunctivitis as a teenager, my magpie eyes were always drawn to the delights of Ridley Road.

The news that Ridley Road might soon shut up shop is so hard to stomach. To the dismay of many, the local council has just announced plans to increase rent for market stallholders by 20 percent from April onwards. This amounts to up to £800 a year extra for every stall. They also want to force stallholders to foot a £500,000 annual cleaning bill.

READ MORE: Sheffield's Traditional Market Stalls Traders Are Still Standing

If the council get their way, it will be nigh on impossible for Ridley Road's stallholders to survive. Traders are already struggling as it is and will have no time to budget for their new increased rent.

"The stallholders are really worried," says Larry Julian, the chair of Ridley Road Traders Association. "At the moment the market is on the decline and having a rent increase of that amount would cause a hell of a lot of problems for the smaller traders. Competition has already grown because of supermarkets and Internet shopping."

Larry Julian, chair of Ridley Road Traders Association.

A proper old-timer, Julian has worked on the market for 50 years.

"I was about 12 or 13 when I started. I lived in the market with all my family. My family's one of the oldest here now. We've been here since the start. I'm the fourth generation and I'm 62," he says. "It's a very big community which is such an asset to Hackney. The market brings the community together, you don't get that a lot in other areas."

And this is plain to see. Greetings echo as stallholders greet punters like long lost cousins. An outwardly tetchy Caribbean lady helps a Hasidic Jewish woman choose the perfect pear, carefully sizing each one up.

Wandering past string vests, Nollywood DVDs, and other bits of random clobber, I run into Barry. Having worked on the market for 37 years, his family has been here since Ridley Road's humble beginnings at the end of the 1880s.

Joseph's stall selling tinned West Indian food.

"My dad used to sell fruit and veg but just after the war, when they brought black people over to help the labour force out, he started selling this stuff," Barry says, gesturing at the piles of West Indian veg on offer. "We've got plantain, green banana, chow chow which you put in stew or you boil and put in salad, dasheen, sweet potato, plantain, yam, Casaba."

Despite this array of produce, Barry's stall can struggle to attract custom.

"We get a real variety of customers now. Everybody's trying it. But business at the moment is terrible. Look at all the people queuing up," he nods at the empty space. "So many shops and stalls in the area sell this stuff now. Then there are the supermarkets, which charge £1.50 for three onions in a bit of polythene. You can get a big bowl down here for 50p."

So what does Barry think will happen if the rents increase?

"I actually think a lot of these people will pack up and go," he says.

And him?

"It's hard enough now," he adds. "I'm looking for a job to get out of the market".

Joseph, 25, is equally despondent.

"Of course, it'll be hard but what can we do," he says. "Right now, it's not busy so if they put the rent up not so many people will have stalls."

Born in Nigeria, Joseph has worked on Ridley Road for eight months, while the actual stall has been there for 36 years.

"We sell West Indian groceries and some African stuff too. Our produce is quite unique," he says, waving at the wall of tins and bottles in front of him. "Our most popular product is saltfish and peas for rice and peas."

Laid out in front of him are neatly stacked tins of gungo peas, pigeon peas, ackee, and callaloo. Brightly coloured bottles of Tropical Sun Hot Pepper Sauce surround jar upon jar of guava gam, "cock flavour" soup mix, and tubs of FuFu flour.

Unusual cuts of raw meat and fish also line the market. Afghanistan-born Shafaq, the manager of both a butchers and fishmongers, talks me through his foodstuffs.

"We sell broiler hens, beef shoulder, and brisket," he says. "The most popular is mutton. It's used for Afro-Caribbean, Nigerian, and Ghanaian stews. Cow foot and dry codfish is popular with African customers too."

Pig trotters.

As well as selling meat, Shafaq also has a curious gamut of fish. Everything from smoked barracuda to red snapper, crab, red bream, parrotfish, and Koya.

"This fish came in today," he says. "It was two feet long. It only has one bone. It's what they use in Kashmiri kebabs. It's very soft and tasty."

READ MORE: London's Dining Scene Is Killing Off Jellied Eel Shops

Ridley Road Market hasn't always stocked such an exotic range of produce. Back in the 1950s, the clientele was predominantly Jewish. This changed when the area became home to one of London's biggest Caribbean communities in the 60s and 70s.

Today, with Dalston and East London being swallowed up by the "G word"—yep, "gentrification"—Ridley Road is one of the last remaining strongholds of multicultural, working class London.

Alongside groceries, the market has its own proffering of street food vendors. Take Elia's Kitchen, a food van selling gözleme, a traditional Turkish pastry.

"We've been open for ten months," Evrim, the front lady and pastry maker tells me while rolling out dough. "They sell gözleme everywhere in Turkey but especially on the Middle Eastern side. We eat it at every time of day."

Evrim, pastry maker for Turkish food van Elia's Kitchen.

"Business is good at the moment. For me the rent won't be a problem," she adds, providing a welcome change from the other market workers I've spoken to. "Our customers are very mixed but especially Turkish and English. The spinach and cheese filling is definitely the most popular."

Elia's Kitchen isn't the only place selling hot food. At the bottom of the market, there are Mr Chaudhry's infamous stuffed naans, freshly cooked in a colossal rotating naan oven. At the top, Kashmiri Kebab peddles homemade samosas, kofte wraps, and a wide array of fiery Kashmiri curries.

Samosas and curry for sale at Kashmiri Kebab.

While neither of the two street food operations would be affected by the rent increases—they're shop fronts rather than stalls—if the market were to close, business would no doubt decline.

Unlike nearby establishments charging a fiver for a jar of acrid kale juice, everything in Ridley Road is modestly priced, no matter how specialist. A quid will buy you four gigantic avocados. Despite its affordable produce, it will be difficult for Ridley Road to survive if rents are indeed increased. Instead it is likely the market will slowly wither away and eventually close altogether.

Ridley Road stallholder.

When you get beyond the smiles and handshakes of stallholders, it is obvious that many traders are seriously disheartened. After all, their entire livelihood is under threat. As is local residents' sole source of cheap grub.

If Ridley Road goes, an immeasurable chunk of Hackney's heritage goes with it. The generations of local families' who have got up at the crack of dawn—rain or shine—to feed their local community will be lost and eventually forgotten.