Community and Making It On Your Own

Putting this market together has been one heck of a journey. There has been so much to do and think about in order to make it happen and try to make it a success. Sadly, it’s meant I’ve not really been able to blog about it as much as I’d have liked to.

However, one thing that has really struck me is how despite sometimes feeling like you’re on your own with the long hours spent planning and publicising, sorting out equipment and facililties, persuading our amazing stalls to come on this journey, marketing and meeting, printing and leafletting; the truth is that in a few months I’ve grown a network of amazing partners and friends who have been incredibly supportive and helpful in providing their experience, knowledge and wisdom, trust in the idea and project, enthusiasm, hands-on practicality and good humour.

Early on, I had approached one of our partners, BanhMi11, to take part in the market. I had seen them a couple of years ago on television in Nigel Slater’s cooking show about contrasting and complementary flavours, making delicious grilled fish summer rolls and at the time had sat up and taken interest. I was enthused to see two Vietnamese women creating authentic SE Asian food from their home country and family experience on prime time television. Nigel didn’t give many clues as to who they were – just mentioning that they were from a market in East London. This set me on a mission to track them down and sample their food.

The street food scene was already burgeoning in markets at the time but this was probably about the start of the great pop-up markets like Kerb, StockMKT and Street Feast; and in general East Asian food stalls were not widely represented. From trusty Google, I managed to work out that they were probably one of two stalls in Broadway Market selling Vietnamese food; and my money was on BanhMi11, judging from their website. It was interesting to read their story – two friends with day jobs, who had given these up to follow their passion for the food of Vietnam. I visited the market and, on a cold rainy winter’s afternoon, sat in our parked car with a steaming cardboard container of their 3-day cooked beef pho, savouring the light flavoursome stock, delicious herby beef and noodles and blow your head off fresh-cut bird’s eye chillis.

But East London was so very far away…

Nonetheless, I visited when I could and watched their progress, as they grew and expanded – running deliveries to Canary Wharf, setting up their dining club and opening more stalls. Then, when my office relocated to Soho, I found one day from their website that they were opening a new stall on Berwick Street in the lively week day market. How excited was I? Hopping and skipping excited I can tell you.

On their first week I was there 3 times in the same week. Their banh mi, French baguettes filled with incredible meats or tofu cooked to their own delicious recipes, were always the most popular and there was often a long queue. For me, though, I loved the Imperial Pork BBQ on Vietnamese bun noodle salad or the delicious heady beef pho with lashing of fresh chilli.

When my office moved again, I was so disheartened and said to the friendly stall manager that if I could find a spot down in Southwark for them would they come? She said – find us a spot and we’ll see what we can do.

Fast forward 9 months…

In my new setting, I’d spent my time wandering around the local area, looking for new places to eat that satisfy my cravings for the food from home and other parts of SE Asia; but also trying to find ways to entice restaurants and street stalls down to this neck of the woods. This part of Southwark/Bankside sits in between two busy hubs – the London bridge area and Waterloo/Southbank areas, with lots of tourists nearer the river around the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe. Yet, the businesses which are moving in aplenty, and the local resident communities are poorly served for independent local eateries and shops.

Fortunately, things are changing and there are some gems that have been around a long while, like Pickles caff on Great Suffolk Street, or relative newcomers, my local favourites Woolfson & Tay and Bangkok Kitchen. When I took the challenge to put this market together, BanhMi11 were amongst the first I contacted hoping they would be able to join us. Since I’d seen them last, they’d opened two shops and become stars of the street food scene, demonstrating in huge shows like the recent Foodie festival at Battersea Park. So, it was a long shot…

They were incredibly supportive, saying they’d like to help however they could but they were hoping to move into a new direction, exploring ideas in events that would explore different concepts or the role food, the preparation and eating of it, plays in Eastern culture. Would I be interested in an event like that? This intrigued me as, being Malaysian, our food culture is very much centred around communal eating and sharing of dishes. We sit around the table, sharing the same food and many foods like dumplings or summer rolls are prepared together, with everyone sharing the workload. Steamboat is a great favourite of mine, where we sit together at the table, plunging all manner of delicious meats, seafood, vegetable and noodles into steaming hot broth to cook and then devour it all, drinking the flavoursome soup at the end of the meal.

I am thrilled therefore that they are going to be at 5 Foot Way’s first market, talking about their fond experiences of Vietnamese culture and food, drawing upon the recipes in their first and new cookbook, The Vietnamese Market Cookbook, to draw us into that experience of shared communal eating. In this extraordinary event, diners will get to try their hand at making delicious summer rolls together, guided by Van and Anh, the friends who founded the company, and enjoy that communal sense of sharing whilst still making it on their own.

This has been a great journey and I’m looking forward to a spectacular day and event.

UPDATE: THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELLED. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, BanhMi11 have had to cancel this event. Apologies for any inconvenience caused and we hope you will enjoy the rest of the market.

A Purveyor of Fine Literature

  • W&T shop frontUPDATE: I’m so sad that Woolfson & Tay closed down but am leaving this post as a tribute to one of the best independent bookshops and nasi lemak sellers in London. Sadly missed…

Hang on a moment, I hear you say – what does a bookshop have to do with a street food market? All will become clear…

Our second vendor can only be described as the perfect bookshop. Still… what does this have to do with food, I hear you holler. Bear with me…

Woolfson & Tay is a local independent bookshop, very conveniently placed just around the corner from my office, and a mere skip and a hop from the venue on Union Street, where our first pop-up market is being held. Originally the bookshop was in that delightful corner of London that is Bermondsey Square and I tried to make it over there whenever I could. Their selection of books is thoughtful and seems to cover the whole spectrum of fiction and non-fiction that particularly tickles my fancy. A cookery book or travel writing, new novels or classics, children’s book or minority writing – it’s all there with handy tips from the team on which are their recommended reads, or you could have a chat with them about the books if you needed a bit of a steer. But when their lease came up, they moved into Bear Lane and that’s when I really got to know more about them.

Imagine my excitement, whilst plodding my weary way to work one morning to see a sign go up in an empty unit proclaiming that W&T would be opening there soon. Ooo – straight off to the internet went I, and lo and behold, it was true – W&T were coming! And what’s that – they hold author talks and events… and they have tai chi classes on Saturdays… and they have hot beverages and amazing cakes by Kaelie…

Cakes by Kaelie








an excessively cute dog



…and, this is when I nearly fell off my chair… HOT ASIAN LUNCHES. Oh… my… god… that I didn’t know… is this the perfect bookshop or what?

Next thought in my mind was – what kind of Asian lunches? They were still in the process of refurbishing and there were no details on the proposed menu on the website yet. Still, this was a big step in my evil aim to make this part of London my little South East Asian culinary enclave. I had a suspicion that Tay might be Malaysian which could only bode well. As countdown commenced to their opening day, they announced a soft opening – no lunches yet but soon to follow. Positively champing at the bit by this point, their menu went up for the first week’s lunches – a different meat or veggie option each day ranging from Malaysian chicken curry (yes!) to Chinese mushroom and chicken cooked with goji berries (sounded Chinese but could be Malaysian Chinese), and other tasty sounding dishes.

First lunch day – oh no, lunchtime meeting, I couldn’t go – but my Malaysian food obsessed colleague went down and came back with chicken curry and rice. He was unsure… needed more chilli and spices, might be watered down for English tastes. Oh dear, I thought, that’s a shame. But then the following week, nasi lemak was on the menu. Undeterred I was straight down there and delighted to see a huge vat of rich, unguent chicken curry swimming with curry leaves, star anise, cinnamon sticks emitting an heady aroma. This was accompanied by a thick, rich, radioactively red chilli sambal, ikan bilis (crispy fried anchovies), cucumber and coconut rice. With my bounty hot in my hands, back at my desk was the great unveiling of what has become a firm Bankside favourite. Oh the curry was good – thick and full of flavour. The sambal was sweat-inducingly spicy (and has become even more so over the months) and the ikan bilis were crunchy little morsels of salty, savoury delight. I thrust my plastic box of deliciousness in front of my colleague’s face who agreed that it looked much improved, and on tasting he proclaimed it so. A success!

W&T Nasi LemakWoolfson & Tay has become a firm lunchtime favourite at our office now. We takeaway several times a week and are sad when Frances Tay is away because she does the cooking, and we are therefore deprived of the tasty goodness they provide. As word of mouth grows, they’ve become busier and busier, and Tuesdays are now Nasi Lemak Tuesdays when we have to get down there quick before the food sells out – usually by 13:00. They are introducing another Malaysian favourite – curry laksa on Thursdays, and I can’t wait.

It was therefore a no-brainer when selecting vendors for the market to ask the lovely Fran to set up a stall to sell her delicious nasi lemak. I really can’t wait!

The first vendor

No prizes for guessing who was amongst the first people we asked to join us in the market. When we moved down to Southwark, I spent several fruitless days wandering around the area looking for something cheap, tasty, filling and which would hit the spot as far as my spicy chilli, noodle and rice cravings were concerned. You can take the gal out of Malaysia but you can’t take Malaysia out of the gal.

Honestly… I wrote to my favourite eateries telling them about the lack of non-chain, hot food, Asian eateries in the area and sent them my research on foot fall, the type of competiton in the neighbourhood, the type of customers there would be (local offices and tourists from the Tate Modern, Globe Theatre etc), available A3 retail units nearby – that’s how desperate I was.

Imagine my delight and surprise then to see this unassuming sign, across the road from the Union Street Theatre, right on my way to work, yet tucked away and easy to miss…

Bangkok Kitchen extOooo… eyes open wide, I crossed the road oblivious of the traffic and sniffed the air tentatively. It was 9am, so not much was happening. I peered in expectantly as the little person in my head filed the place away for further inspection.

12:00 sharp I was out of the office and down the road… lovely curry spicy smells drifted on the breeze as I got nearer. There was a queue outside… good sign. As I went walked up I could see there were two stalls – one with pre-cooked steaming hot curries and stir fries, yellow chicken curry, tom kha gai, chicken with basil and cashew nuts, vegetarian green curry, salmon red curry. Mmmmm……… The formula is simple – you can have steamed or fried rice, or fried noodles, paired with any of the hot dishes.

P1060484On the side, a seemingly innocuous but oh so essential table of condiments – mind bogglingly hot sliced bird’s eye chillies in fish sauce (oh yeah, bring it on!)…


…chilli oil with dregs, sweet chilli sauce, crushed peanuts and lemon slices – so you can tailor your meal to your satisfaction. On the other stall, they cook fried noodles or rice to order from a menu of Thai favourites.

BK Kitchen

These are cooked to perfection – really well seasoned, noodles have just the right amount of bite (not too sloppy), and fried rice with a spicy kick. They use heaps of fresh vegetables, spices and herbs and it all tastes good, good, good. Nothing too fancy – just honest, tasty, cheap food like you would find in South East Asia, where workers, families, young and old can sit down for a great meal. As an added touch of loveliness, they give away free prawn crackers on Fridays but you have to get there early before they run out. What more could you want?

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thinks Bangkok Kitchen is awesome, as the excellent She Simmers wrote about them here. A gem of a curry rice shop indeed…

I’m thrilled to be partnering with Bangkok Kitchen on this, our first South East Asian street food market. Farhen and Guitar, business partners of BK, have been so incredibly helpful – we’ve got off to a brilliant start. So, who next?

How it started

Well, my long time friend and occasional business partner, Hi Ching, heads up an arts company, River Cultures and got in touch to tell me about a new arts festival he was putting together, looking specifically at South East Asian arts and culture. What could I do to help?

Hi and I had worked together a few times before. First he cast me in a mad show that he had written and produced at the Albany Theatre, then we partnered up on various Chinese New Year Festivals at Canary Wharf, in the City and the Southbank, and setting up and running an organic teahouse in Oriental City.

Well – what about something to do with food, I said. Food is, of course, integral to any culture and SE Asian life pretty much revolves around where to get the next excellent meal. Hi knows I’ve always wanted to develop a food court or street food project, knows I’m mad on food, a bit OCD when it comes to organisation and project management – and thus the Five Foot Way street market was born.

So, the next step was to find a place to hold it. I was really keen to hold the market near my office as I had grown to know many of the businesses in the area, and spent my lunch hours walking around and exploring – mainly to find delicious lunch options. By coincidence, Hi had organised several events for the arts festival in the area, and there was a natural synchronicity in the way things were beginning to pan out.

I trawled the internet for venues in the area, pounded the pavements after work and during lunch looking for places that looked like they might be suitable and contacted the very helpful Hire Space in my quest for the perfect venue. Now, Southwark is up and coming, and there were a lot of possibilities but it doesn’t yet have the trendy appeal of Bermondsey or Shoreditch, so it wasn’t looking great.

After pondering the various options, I was thinking we’d have to look further afield which would have been alright I guess, as the arts festival is running Londonwide but it made me feel a bit sad, as I really wanted to put this small patch of London on the map. A bit of resident’s pride I guess. Then as luck would have it, I was picking up my lunch from one of my favourite local eateries, Bangkok Kitchen and they were advertising a new bar and nightclub venture of theirs, Star Anise. Oh – that looks good, I thought – it’s in a railway arch, has lots of room, is nearby, is available to rent for special events, won’t break my budget. The cogs in my head started ticking…

Had a quick Google and found their Facebook page and got in touch. Well, we arranged a meeting and met up with the gregarious and energetiic Farhan, and his talented business partner, Guitar, and the pieces just fell into place. But not in the way I imagined. It soon became clear that great though the space at Star Anise is, the courtyard which houses Bangkok Kitchen would be much better. It’s semi-open-air and semi-covered, so we’ll get the feel of an outdoors bustling market, and still be prepared for possible inclement October weather (although I’ve put in my order for brilliant weather early). I love the atmosphere at Bangkok Kitchen, it’s semi-secluded and when it’s busy there’s the pleasant hum of people just enjoying their food in a relaxed environment. It feels as close to a South East Asian street stall as I could wish. This blog post from She Simmers sums up how great it is there.

So there we have it, the first leg of this journey is done. Next, how to find the food?

The Market – 5 October 2013

5 Foot Way’s first South East Asian street food market is confirmed and in the diary for 5 October 2013. It’s taken many years of dreaming and finally I’ve taken the plunge and found a venue. I’m very excited to have found a lovely space off Union Street in Southwark. I’ve lived in Southwark for nearly 20 years, and my office moved to this area last year. Since then, I’ve been making friends in local businesses and exploring the area.

Ever since I started working in Southwark, I’ve loved finding out more about this patch of London which is seeing fast growth and development – not just the usual chain stores and large building projects, but small quirky businesses and community projects that give the area a great neighbourhood feeling.

As a massive food enthusiast, I’ve been keen to do my utmost to find independent, high quality food outlets; and also tried to find places where street food vendors could set up shop. In the last few months, I’ve been excited to find Bangkok Kitchen, a gem of a Thai street food stall on Union Street, who are our partners in hosting this unique project. The timing seems right – the market will run in conjunction with London’s first South East Asian arts festival – SEA Fest, and together we will be showcasing the very best of the region’s arts practitioners and culture in the UK.

Over the next month, I’ll be posting up details of the talented and passionate street food vendors we have lined up for 5 October and am excited to partner with them in showing the best of South East Asia.