Somewhere, there is a quaint little farmers market; a row of striped awnings where the stands are helmed by a short bespectacled country-looking chap in a flat cap. He wears those fingerless gloves and he is blowing into his cupped hands to keep them warm as he talks to about to you about fancy produce. As for that produce, it is very nearly the same polished, glimmering, flavourless out of season stuff you’d find at the supermarket, only it is priced double because it is stacked up on antique looking wooden crates and the labels are hand written in cursive onto miniature chalk boards.
Ridley Road market in Hackney is not that market. Ridley road is chock full of my neighbours, most of them from West Africa or the West Indies and all of them determined to haggle for the rock-bottom best price for a whole fish or a paper parcel of mutton scraps.I’ve observed enough to know that the stew will also include huge, brown yucca, bright red palm oil, any number of spices and herbs (inevitably including allspice), and a bunch of scotch bonnet peppers.
The fish at the stalls glimmer with bright stripes and bright eyes on beds of crushed ice. Most of the fish I recognize from diving trips to the Caribbean, their hand-soap blue and candy-orange glow neon against the backdrop of dark-gray mackerel, light-gray sea-bass and twilight-black pike. The mechanics of how such tropical fish have come to rest here – fresh, not frozen – in east London on a Tuesday is a mystery.
The meat stalls are even more mysterious. There is the hazy glass display shielding the expected cuts of lamb and beef. But things go of-piste above the counter, where very dead, but only half-plucked chickens hang from wiry legs that look like they did a fair share of running before they were eventually caught. Then things get very… ethnic, we’ll say. Deep cardboard boxes of all manner of animal part, most of them dried, all of them curling and bending in multi-colors of tendon and leathery skin. There are certainly ears, and snouts and feet. But there are loads of other things too, and many still have fur. “For Stewing” is the only response I receive when I inquire as to what the parts are.
When I ask about stewing –what to put in it how to do it right, - I am mostly met with big smiles and blank stares of non-comprehension. When I ask for a recipe, I recognize the look as the one I would give to someone asking me for an ice-cube recipe. The making of a weekend fish stew is something so thoroughly ingrained in muscle memory, having been passed-down through the osmosis of tradition, that it is executed without thought, without planning, and certainly without measuring or consulting a shopping list or recipe.
And so this will be my next mission… ne Food Pilgrimage: To construct a Ghanaian or Nigerian or Ivorian or Caribbean fish stew from the constellation of oddities and bits available here at Ridley Road. I am determined to commit the concepts to memory, identifying an end goal through instinct, recognizing success through my own measure.
The great magic trick of this London landscape is that two blocks over, there is a market just like this selling all things Vietnamese. A few streets behind me is the all-too-authentic Turkish grocer, and one street south begins a long strip of impossibly trendy pubs serving ale and pickled eggs to a clientele adorned with creative moustaches, brown wingtip shoes and impossibly tight jeans.
That is London. That is my neighbourhood. And today, I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.