You're not going to find them listed in a Time Out guide and they're unlikely to catch the eye of the KALE alumni crowd, but London's independent local shops are treasure troves of unusual ingredients. From peanut puffs to Turkish bread, plantains, and a whole lot of tinned fish.
Thanks to waves of immigration to the capital, areas like Dalston, Brixton, and Walthamstow are now home to shops stocking a multicultural array of produce. Often open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, these cornershops are beacons of community (and two litre-tubs of hummus).
Sophie Missing and Caroline Craig know exactly what I'm talking about. Co-authors of the recently published The Cornershop Cookbook, the pair create surprisingly complex—and tasty—dishes with supplies sourced entirely from their local shop. Topshelf tins and dry goods are transformed into "bastardised koshari," Spam ramen, and slaw with shredded star anise chicken.
But this is about more than whipping niche ingredients into Ottolenghi-inspired dinner party brags. Supporting local business via interesting weeknight dinners is an ideal made real in Missing and Craig's ode to the cornershop.
We got in touch to find out more.
MUNCHIES: Hello! Was the book a lot of fun to put together? Caroline Craig: Oh yeah, absolutely. We challenged ourselves. I had to conquer the yam, Sophie had to conquer peanut butter noodles. It was great fun and a lot of pasta eating. I had to stop Sophie from putting 95 pasta recipes in the book.
Well, there's a lot of pasta out there. This is your second cookbook together. Did you have a moment where you thought, We only want to focus everything on local shops? Craig: Sophie's always wanted to do a corner shop book—this was her first book idea actually. Sophie Missing: It's actually my husband's idea. He used to live by Arsenal tube station in this tiny little flat we called "the corridor." You could touch the walls if you stood in the middle of it on either side and he just bought everything from the shop underneath. He'd leave his keys with the guy there and spent at least half of his salary there. He was always saying, "Why doesn't someone write about the weird and wonderful things you can make from a tin of peas?" So we thought about it a long time ago but it wasn't until Caroline and I worked on the first book that this one seemed kind of doable.
What did you find so challenging? Missing: I think it's hard because we're in the city and we have amazing shops around. We need to balance not using what people might see as elitist ingredients but also make sure the recipes aren't so simple that people are like, Come on!
So it was about celebrating weird ingredients whilst making sure it was approachable for people living outside of cities? Craig: Exactly. That's why at the beginning [of the book], we use a list of things that you can try and pick up in the big supermarket. It's things like fish sauce and sesame oil. Then when you've got those things, we try to keep everything else quite generalist.
Even in the past five years, I feel like the local shops in London have flourished. It seems like they're offering so much more than they used to. I wondered if you found that too? Craig: It wasn't until I moved to Stoke Newington that I realised you can buy fresh Turkish bread and feta and olives in barrels at the back of local shops. I think there have always been amazing stores in pockets, but people are so much more interested in food now. The nice thing about using the local shops as well is that you can ask for them to start stocking something you like.
Have you ever done that yourselves? Asked for secret items? Craig: I'm always after fresh herbs, that's the one thing. I think if you can have access to fresh herbs on tap, that will lift your dishes, whatever you're making.
Where are your favourite corner shops? Is there anywhere else that's surprised you? Craig: We haven't lived there but we love Palm 2 in Clapton [East London]. Missing: Oh my God, I love that store. Craig: This is quite predictable but I love Leila's on Arnold Circus. Newington Green Fruits & Veg. Missing: Yeah, Newington Green Fruit & Veg is amazing. Craig: I've been desperately trying to make friends with them there for like, five years now.
That's such a London thing, isn't it? Like, Can we be friends yet? I've been coming here seven years! Craig: I think I'm too needy, they can sense it. My mum is in there though.
In a city that often feels unknowable, it's rewarding when you can go back to these stores as you get to know an area. You learn that one shop is great for fresh herbs, another one is good for every kind of tinned bean … Missing: And you do just feel like your place in the community. It's part of the fabric.
Can you tell me a few things you've learnt from shopping at local shops. Does it require a different mindset from being in the supermarket? Craig: You have to be a bit more confident about substitutions. Don't not make something because you don't have any flipping sesame oil. Have an open mind to substituting fresh for dried herbs. Missing: I think the most important thing is to think about why you might be using a certain ingredient. Say they've inexplicably sold out of limes, are you using the for a sharpness or could you use a lemon? Could you just use some vinegar? Could you just do without?
Are there any other things that you've discovered you can use from the local shop? Craig: Any tinned fish, they're amazing. Capers, jarred artichokes … Missing: … large pickles! Craig: There's a fish recipe [in the book], like a sort of fish pie, and you can make a salsa verde to go alongside it. It's so good and you mostly use weird stuff like pickles and capers for it.
Do you each have a favourite recipe in the book? Craig: There's the turkey soup that I love. It's so delicious and deceptively complex, even though there're very few ingredients in it.
Missing: The artichoke linguine and the Venetian spaghetti—I think they've both got five ingredients, max. But they're very elegant so you could wolf down a bowl to yourself, or serve it for friends coming round. Multitaskers.
And finally, what does your 2 AM carrier bag from the local shop look like? Missing: Instant noodles, I'd say, because you can just about manage to throw them together. You could make the pad Thai ones from the book which are basically instant noodles, ketchup, peanut butter, and lime juice. Craig: My drunken snack of choice is always eggs on toast. I'd just have eggs, chili sauce, toast. Missing: My God, you're so elegant. Craig: No, I promise you I do it! And I wake up and there's chili sauce all around my kitchen.
And what better way to wake up? Thanks for talking with us!
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.