Man at His Best

Opinion: How Simple Food Brings Joy To Your Life

Simple food is, like, so hot right now.

BY Ming | Apr 17, 2017 | Food & Drink

I am in London and the weather is actually decent, for once.

It is cold but sunny on this Sunday morning, and the market is slowly coming to life. Gloved hands warm pots of food, roll out flatbreads, and mix vats of spiced apple cider and mulled wine. An Italian gentleman makes casual conversation with his pretty redhead colleague as he pours warm water over cheese curds and pulls out knots of fresh mozzarella. Two bearded and pierced fishmongers scoop crushed ice onto displays, preparing to stack oysters and clams that will soon get shucked and served by the half dozen with wedges of lemon. For the next hour or so, a collection of stalls and food carts will continue to ready their wares in preparation for the weekend crowd.

The food is not fancy, but smells damn good. Ethiopian stews with their various hues and textures, mounds of inviting pulled pork and lamb, fresh jam doughnuts—a veritable feast for the eyes and rumbling stomachs. Everything comes to you on recycled materials, all brown bags, corrugated fibres and potato by-products. You’ll find no microgreens here, no perfect quenelles of ice cream, no sprinkling of smoked salt flakes or meticulously round-cut leaves. My ears are unaccustomed to the range of English accents around me, but conversations sound easy and happy. I am surrounded by people from all walks of life; street food is the great leveller, feeding all who seek it regardless of background. 

Across from this collection of stalls is a Pret A Manger, a prolific chain of wholesome-but-fast food joints known for their takeaway options and low prices. Surprisingly-inviting items fill their display fridges, from flashy layered pudding bowls to sensible salads and indulgent cold sandwiches, their contents pressed up against clear cellophane proudly. They are just as busy as the market barely 30m away. Not 100m away is another Pret, with just as many people as the first shop. Both have identical products made fresh daily with the happy declaration that it is as unprocessed as Pret can make it. Their good reputation is astonishing, given their outlet density is higher than that of any commercially-processed fast-food joint. Again, nothing fancy here, just fresh ingredients in clean and tasty combinations, in attractive packaging.

I look at the stalls with their cooked food, barely a stone’s throw from what should probably be an evil corporation that preserves all of its products. On the one hand, two-dozen trails of steam and vapour disappear into the cold, bright blue sky over a smattering of well-worn wooden picnic tables. On the other, polished steel and glass fronting a modern shopfront with floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating those already sexy-looking display fridges.

Noon rolls around and the market is now in full swing, queues form at every stall and all the picnic tables are shared by people looking to tank up and wander around. Cups of Pret coffee can also be seen in hands everywhere.

Everyone looks happy.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.