When my mind is on Sheffield and its food, rather than meat pies, Henderson’s Relish or roast pork sandwiches with dip I think of the exotic, mysterious and enticing smells of London Road. This street is testament to the changing patterns of migration, from the earliest country labourers to the industrial centre, through more contemporary […]

When my mind is on Sheffield and its food, rather than meat pies, Henderson’s Relish or roast pork sandwiches with dip I think of the exotic, mysterious and enticing smells of London Road.

This street is testament to the changing patterns of migration, from the earliest country labourers to the industrial centre, through more contemporary movements from the Far and Middle East. This has created a rich tapestry, not just in the social make up of the area, but in its eating spots.

Take the healthy smattering of restaurants from the Far East. It’s feasible in the space of 500m for the palate to travel 500km, from Beijing, through Hong Kong, to Hanoi and Osaka. Try as one might, it’s impossible to produce pleasing dim sum in the home. It’s just about possible to make a gloopy mess of gelatinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf, which is so sad that it reduces a table of guests to tears. It is, then, beyond imagining that one could knock up a dozen very gently spiced, umami rich and supremely toothsome char sui bao. Happily these are to be found with great ease on London Road. Earlier last year social media swooned over pho, the Vietnamese national dish of noodle soup. Pho is also well represented on this stretch of road, and testament not to the displacement wrought by war overseas, but cohesion at home.

A hotter ticket now is the food of the Levant. The spiky, citrusy, spiced food from the Eastern Mediterranean, with its wonderful and strange ingredients, has been brought to wider attention recently by Yotam Ottolenghi, but it has been nestling in Sheffield’s bosom for much longer.  If I read the love someone has for their recently discovered lahmacun, the delicious thinly rolled bread topped with finely minced lamb, in another self-indulgent blog I might scream. For the past decade, at least, these and other heady delights from the Middle East have flourished in Sheffield.

These are more easily made at home, and the cuisine of the Middle East is not so distant from our own in its techniques and essential dishes of grilled, roasted and stewed meats. Yet it is in the delightful flavourings – the sumak, the zatar, the tahini, the pomegranate Molasses – where excitement brews. These are thrilling, cheap and easily available. A huge bag of dried mint costs little more than £2. Try making a tomato sauce spiked with this instead of thyme or oregano and be surprised at how the tomato is made lighter and perfumed, instead of heady and brooding.

It’s also fair to say that the food stuffs procurable on London Road, and indeed through the areas of Sheffield where migration has settled people, are of a quality which is hard to find elsewhere. I have often wondered how and why this is the case, that the often most maligned in society have access to the best produce, the fleshiest peppers and tomatoes, the juiciest fruit, the meatiest bunches of herbs and leaves. One idea is that in food we can maintain our cultural heritage, and so the preservation of those most important of things – history, tradition and family – demanded the best, but within a certain price range.

It is often the case that many things are unobtainable elsewhere, and not just these spices. It is only shops which cater chiefly for an Eastern European market in which there is a wide and varied selection of quality mustard. The bread sold in these establishments is true bread, unlike the foul plastic paste produced by the Chorleywood bread process procurable in other shops.

It is this bread, and this food, which I would seek to break and share with friends. It is in eating and sharing this food that we can connect not only with distant lands but with our neighbours, and it is this exchange which is defining modern Britain.

Oliver McKinley