Leicester is For Food Nerds: A Tangentially Culinary Introduction to an Unlikely Place

Leicester (lɛstər/ les-tər) isn’t exactly on the global culinary map.

It’s barely on any map at all, except perhaps one detailing manufacturers of, say, sturdy meat pies or Indian sweets.

 

AmritCakeShop

I love you, Amrit cake shop (on Welford Road, by Clarendon Park Road)…

 

Rumour has it that people have traveled vast distances to get a big box of Burfi from one of the sweet shops in Leicester’s uber sub-continental Golden Mile.

On the pie front, there’s that town nearby that has the same name as a famed pork pie, Melton Mowbray. Like Chevy Chase, Maryland, it’s unclear which came first, the town or the trademarked namesake.   Similarly, the town of Dildo in Newfoundland and Fucking, Austria.

Just kidding.

Of course the pie came first. Meat pies have existed since long before humans climbed down from the trees to hunt and gather primitive versions of toad in the hole (the older versions involved real toads in real holes, poked at with sticks).

Leicester is also famed, historically, for its role in the manufacture of socks and stockings. They haven’t made socks here for a while though, so the wealth of the hosiery magnates is long gone and there’s no one left to manufacture any of those laurels for the city to rest on.

It’s a city that seems to be, perspectively speaking, neither north nor south in the geographic identity politics of England. Northerners think it’s southern and southerners think it’s northern, if they think about it at all. Which they generally don’t.

If you are English, I dare you to try to conjure up a Leicester accent. No one really knows what people here sound like because, well, the city is not even seen as a useful stereotype/archetype for soap operas or television comedies like, say, Birmingham or Manchester or Newcastle.

I, however, think about it a lot- mainly because I live here now and have a rather large and newly acquired extended family living in the area so will have this as another constant in my life. Also, I have a lot of free time these days in which to think about such thing. Nursing is handy that way.

As I tried to do with Shanghai in the early years of this blog, I want to figure out what makes a place interesting. The bits that might be overlooked if you’re just passing through. And really, unless you have a good reason to specifically come here (friends, family, business, etc), I doubt you’re going to alight at the train station up the road and exclaim, oh man, I’ve waited my whole life to see the wonders of Leicester and finally, finally, I am here!

It’s not that kind of city.

It’s a bit plain, a bit post-industrial-revolution, Victorian brick-heavy on the architecture front, with great swathes of unnecessary 1960s brutalism thrown in for good measure.

 

home

It’s like Coronation Street, except different.

 

The city centre is a curious mix of pleasant cafes (both of the generic Nero/Costa type and the low key Portuguese egg tart or grannies-tea-toast type), betting shops, bakeries selling halwa and lassis as well as cream cakes and chip cobs, chain-smoking day drinkers hanging around outside pubs or clomping up and down the pavements with their tins of extra strong lager and shouting at people, charity shops, boutiques selling fastenators and fancy underpants or really nice kitchen ware, pedestrianized old cobbled lanes that have been neatly gentrified, champagne bars, chain pubs, and trad sweet shops with jars in the window and a hippie head shop that’s been there for decades.

Richard III is in a parking lot somewhere downtown, but I forget which one.

There’s also a proper, working, open-air fruit and veggie market with incomprehensibly shouty vendors and locals with their polkadot wheelie bags buying three kilos of plantains and punnets of cheap strawberries.  If you are West Indian or West African, there are dedicated stalls there to meet your home cooking needs. A few times a week, Thai culinary needs are met as well. Jamie Oliver reportedly once visited and sang its praises but apparently no one paid him any attention because it’s still a thoroughly practical and untouristy place, unlike most of the markets in London.

 

leicester market

These ladies aren’t tourists.

 

Leicester, as a city, is fine. There’s nothing wrong with Leicester. It’s just busy being Leicester.

However, there is one area where it excels and that is one where you can (if you want) claim your hipster foodie bonus points for finding X before it was famous.

This is a city with an immigrant population that is big enough to tip the culinary diversity scales way over into the pragmatically awesome side. A third of the population was born somewhere far, far away (like me). Over half of the population sports a skin tone other than white and about 15% speak Gujarati at home. It is quietly, magnificently diverse. And practical. Very practical.

Simply put, it’s catering to its customer base who expect to be able to get their [insert food item here] just like it was back in Wroclaw or Beijing or Jalalabad. They simply aren’t interested in half-assed chop suey served with chips and drink (though you can get those on the, um, ‘English’ menus) or supermarkets that don’t have 20kg bags of chapati flour or 15 kinds of lentils or 5 litre jars of pickled Turkish peppers (we’re down to the last few inches, for the record).

 

Yours

The lady in the queue behind me found everything she needed to make dinner.

 

The Chinese hot pot place up the road still looks like there should be men sitting around the tables with their shirts hoisted up to their nipples, patting their sated bellies, smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking lukewarm Snow beer from 600ml bottles in small glasses. The menu only bothers to translate about half of the dishes into English and even those are done in a half assed fashion. The food, however, is delicious and exactly how you’d get it in Chengdu, except with less gutter oil.

 

Sichuan Brothers Thwack

Thwack knows his Sichuan peppercorns

 

The Turkish mangal place around the corner looks, feels, smells and tastes exactly like hundreds of others east of Istanbul that I’ve frequented over the years- and unusually for England but very reminiscent of, say, Kayseri, it’s unlicensed. No booze. Not even beer. In England! It does, however, serve a proper frothy ayran served in a trad metal cup, and their tea is spot on, served in the proper incebelli bardak.

 

ayran

Ayran, with accessories from Thwack’s current Cubist period

 

The clientele in both places is overwhelmingly Chinese and Turkish. In both places, the waiters happily swoop in to whisk your baby away for a cuddle and a tour of the kitchen so you can eat with both hands free for a change. The same thing happened in our favourite Bangladeshi run place around the corner. You’d barely think you were still in England, where equivalent childcare would cost you roughly half your annual salary. Also, it would never happen in a restaurant.

In addition to remarkably unadulterated places to eat out (and I haven’t even delved into the bulk of them, given the hundreds of sub-continental choices alone), there are countless international grocery stores and supermarkets catering to every need. Saltfish? Van otlu peyniri? Lotus root? Kilo bags of cumin seeds? Tinned breadfruit? Red rice? You can get them all here at a very reasonable price. I’ve been baking with wholemeal chapati flour for the past 9 months because a 10kg bag of it is not only cheaper than standard English whole wheat, but it’s also lighter and a finer grind. It makes both excellent chapatis and light and lovely chocolate cakes.

 

spices

We stocked up on a few spices at Yours when we moved into our house.

 

 

A Few Resources to Start With…

 

A few good restaurants I will miss when we leave-
 
Saray Mangal
3-5 Highfield Street, LE21AB
Tel: 0116 254 5200
 
Sichuan Brothers Restaurant 169A London Road
Tel: 0116 2547 302
 
Spice Bazzar 326 Welford Road
441162705110
 
Handy Dandy Grocers and Supermarkets-
 
Yours Supermarket (Asian and African hypermarket, excellent for spices, olives and Turkish cheese)
203 Belgrave Gate, Leicester, LE1 3HT Tel: 0116 262 0999
 
Leicester Public Market
11 Market Place, Leicester LE1 5HQ
 
East Asian Grocers, for your dumpling and Grumpy Grandma lajiao needs- 
 
Wang Fung
1 Jarrom Street
Leicester LE2 7DH
 
L-Mart
192 Welford Rd Leicester 0116 270 1599
 
Tai Fat
5 Melton St Leicester
 
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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.