Too broke for cheap eats? Tuck into a slippery heritage treat.
Somewhere half-decent to live ain’t the only thing that’s now beyond the means of most Londoners. We’re also rapidly being priced out of the street-eats market. What was once the food of the poor is now the food of the doing-pretty-nicely-thanks-for-asking. You name it – fish ’n’ chips, burgers, hotdogs, kebabs and the peasant fare of six continents – we’ve tarted it up, shovelled it in, wiped our greasy hands on our Nudie jeans and happily handed over a tenner for the privilege.
Luckily, one classic London fast-food staple has so far proved resistant to the posho makeover: eels. Not the famous cockney homewares store (‘Nice ’atstand, ’Arry. ’Abitat?’ ‘No, mate, ’Eals’). I mean the sinister river-dwelling phallic symbol.
Jellied eels are the original London street snack. For 200 years they’ve been a unique product of this city. One moment, the befanged aqua-penis is happily swimming in the turd-filled Thames and haunting the dreams of sexless Victorian spinsters; the next, it’s netted, bashed on the head by some Bill Sikes character, chopped up, boiled in its own gelatin and dished up to Londoners. Whose response for two centuries has been: ‘Urrrrgh! Gross!’ Other world cuisines feature eel dishes which are genuinely delicious, so it seems almost perverse that London’s only contribution to international gastronomy is a way of cooking them that everyone hates. They’re the perfect culinary embodiment of this city and explain why we’ve always been so keen to embrace other cultures’ humblest edible offerings: our homegrown alternative is totally grotesque.
Amazingly, it is still possible to find jellied eels in London. Sneakily, they’re served in pie shops. These are always completely tiled and have sawdust on the floor, suggesting that the proprietors are expecting some kind of violent bodily reaction on the part of their customers. Ignore all that, though, cos eels are cheap. For those of us who now can’t afford shakshouka or poutine, who don’t want to spend a whole day’s wages on an unbleached tub of pho and can’t stretch to a £15 lemon-sole fishfinger sandwich served on a roof slate, the humble eel could be about to have its moment. Jellied eels’ overwhelming unpleasantness of appearance, taste, texture and association mean that they will put off all but the hardiest (or hardest-up) foodies. They’ll sort the men from the boys: you’d expect all those Nazi-haircutted ‘Peaky Blinders’ lads with their tats and tweed waistcoats to go mad for something as heritage and geezer as jellied eels. They won’t, though. Dressing like a nineteenth-century docker is one thing. Eating like one is another. Plus, you can’t really Instagram jellied eels. If you do, it looks like you dined lavishly on rollmop herrings and oysters then puked the lot into an enamel basin.
Still, eels are part of London’s culinary future. Proper street food for the skint, they’ll fill the hole when all other options have become fashionably overpriced. So look out for a Citroën van from ‘Democratic Republic of Conger’ or ‘Elvers Have Left the Building’ sometime soon, and I’ll see you in the queue. All covered in slime.
Check out London’s best pie ’n’ mash shops (where you can get maybe get eels).