I’ve had some pretty good experiences with Street Feast, the people who run Hawker House. It was through them, for instance, that I found my favourite Chinese breakfast dish. Jianbing guozi – wonton skin and hoisin sauce, wrapped in a scallion omelette, inside a mung bean crepe – is apparently a morning staple in Tianjin, but I first tried it at Dalston in an abandoned, open-air warehouse turned weekend food market.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I am told that they are in Canada Water for a second year, taking over a warehouse two nights every week – just ten minutes from where we are going. Of course we’re going. I decide not to have lunch that day. I go to the cash machine to get a few crisp ten pound notes, expecting to use most of them.
The warehouse space, cold and dark, is roughly lit; music sashays through the room, relaxed but warm, giving enough space for each stall to display its own character, whether it’s Indian purple-and-gold or a fisherman’s steep-roofed hut. It feels like an event Gatsby might have held if he lived in our time, and it is about as popular.
We start off with something whose goodness is perhaps least surprising. Prawnography has been at Hawker House the last year too, I’m told, and they have confidently brought the same game as before. Which is fair enough given how strong that game is. To start with, a tiger prawn is grilled until its shell’s fragrance is on proud display, then paired with an unctuous sauce with a whisper of Sichuan peppers. It’s old news that a bit of creaminess works great with the sweet smoke of grilled crustaceans, but old news is still great news.
Crab with fries is less showy but just as good. In the English fashion, the texture of crab is sacrificed by having it all shredded up into little chewy bits, but the nutty, marine savour of the resulting sauce more than makes up for that – especially when it’s soaked into the fries, turning them just a little soft.
Speaking of surprises, Club Mexicana definitely delivers. First we have tacos filled with jackfruit. While in Singapore they are almost always eaten raw and ripe, here the unripe, whitish flesh is chopped and grilled without too much seasoning. The result – generous chunks and flakes and bites of mildly sour jackfruit, with a slightly crisp skin and a floury, yielding interior that mixes nicely with juicy black beans.
We also get the fish, and for a while we marvel at how nice the fingers of fish are – the skin again slightly crisp and still a little slippery, before we get to a mild flavoured, pliant inside. And then it occurs to us, passing by again, that Club Mexicana is 100% vegan; my friend and I had both been tricked by tofu with a slice of nori on it. I suppose you might reasonably be horrified, but I urge you to look upon this positively – and also go try it.
The purple and gold place, Rola Wala, is a move back into playing things relatively straight, with quality over quantity. Instead of plodding naans, their food is served on little saucers of bread, along with a load of accompaniments to give the usual Indian effect – a broadside of spices, with flavours firing off in every direction. They say each assembly can have up to 43 different ingredients, and I find that perfectly plausible.
The most memorable thing to me here is the grilled chicken – a rush of cumin and char, nestled with a blur of tastes – mango, raita, coriander and a shove of chilli.
Another new discovery I’ve had is arepas, at Pedare. Now the kong bak pau craze is sweeping through London, and arepas is a Venezuelan hinged sandwich much like that. But it is fully Latin American – the sandwich is a fried corn bread, the insides moist and grainy, brimming with excellently cooked brisket – dripping with juice and flavour, yet still chewy enough. Coupled with slightly sour plantains and black beans, it makes a properly substantial meal.
As with their other projects, though, behind the good food is the skilful hand of Street Feast, the organisers. It’s not that hard, in a city as vibrantly food-packed as modern London, to gather (curate?) a group of good merchants and plonk them together somewhere. But entering Hawker House feels more like entering some sort of art exhibition where the art happens to be edible – and it certainly is a contrast to the stark, residential quiet of the neighbourhood at night.
Between the graffiti and ambient music, the swirl and pool of the young and attractive customers, Hawker House manages to work a little magic into the space it’s given. And the magic works for them too – I use all my tenners and have greasy fingers and a stupid happy grin on my face.
London SE16 7PJ
Fri – Sat, 5pm – midnight, till 25/26 March
Free entry before 7pm, £3 after