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Diversity Dished up at Taste of London 2012
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Diversity Dished up at Taste of London 2012

Taste of London 2012: a look at London and how the city and it's many migrant chefs have helped change the shape of dining in the capital

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There are only two cities in the world that have such an ethnic variety as far as the cuisine is concerned and that is London and New York
Jason Atherton.

The stories of London's immigrants are plentiful, tales of Jewish migrants escaping to England during persecution, Indian migrants in search of work, settlers looking to escape for safer shores. Thai, Pakistani, Cuban, Mexican, Russian, Italian and French - just a snap shot of the melting pot of London, just a few ingredients in a dish that contains flavor from all over the world, a dish that is truly unique. A city that houses a population that's only 53% European with the further 47% made up of immigrants from all over the world.

Nowhere is London's cultural diversity more apparent than in the food on offer throughout its streets. A regular to the city is not surprised to walk down a street in Soho and find a Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and an Italian restaurant all next to each other, or to stroll down Brick Lane and sample Bengali, Indian, Pakistan, Turkish, Greek and a famous Jewish bagel all in the same street.

It's this mix that identifies the city and at this year's annual food festival, Taste of London, this bold collection of cultures, flavors and traditions was rounded up and presented to a public with vigor and eager palates.

Benares and Tamarind, two of London's Michelin starred Indian restaurants, a whole village dedicated to London's bustling Thai food scene, Thai dishes from The Blue Elephant - the second Thai restaurants to ever open in London. Born and bread British chefs like Jason Atherton and Theo Randall, both influenced by London's wide ranging offerings - the festival has it all, a microcosm of what London is today.

A city where chefs learn a lot, pick up dishes from other cultures, skills from other walks of life. As Jason Atherton from London's Pollen Street Social explained: "Although my food is labelled as modern British it's very much eclectic, I use everything from Japanese seaweed to chili, lemon grass, kafir lime leaf.

"In my opinion I've been very lucky to have worked in Spain, France at a three star level, I've lived in Dubai -I've travelled the world globally from japan and through to the States, I have restaurants in South East Asia so I'm very knowledeble about that culture and there's only two cities in the world that have such an ethnic variety as far as the cuisine is concerned and that is London and New York."

What Jason describes is a city where chefs come to show of their work, a pilgrimage to make their mark and spread their flavors to the world, to develop and learn, to add to London's mix. Like chef Peter from Tamarind, London's first Michelin starred Indian restaurant, he arrived in London in 2004: "I came to  cook Indian and Malaysian cuisine and then I joined Tamarind and since 2006 I have been there. London is a great place because of the opportunity to work with so many different chefs, no one cusine dominates here, Thailand, Italian, Indian - it's so diverse there isn't a better place in the world to be a chef."

Or Noorer Somany-Steppe from The Blue Elephant who came to London 35-years ago and fell in love with the place. "As a chef I love London city - you can eat Lebanese, Thai, Indian, English. I came to London 30 years ago - my husband had an antique shop  - the first thing I remember is English breakfast, I loved English breakfast.

"We were the second Thai restaurant to open in London and I was so impressed when we did - we were so busy for our first evening that all the flowers fell off the stems - the British people love Thai food. I think London people have the hardest palates to please."

Her daughter Sandra has grown up with Thai and English cultures in her life and despite now spending most of her time in Thailand her affinity with London is strong, as she explained: "I think London is one of those cities where all the blends of foods and cultures just mix well together. I think compared to other European countries and even the USA, British people eat more spicy food and having a restaurant in London means we can showcase authentic Thai food. I remember when we first opened and people didn't really know what Thai food was about but the British people love to travel to Thailand and now they really appreciate our food."

It's this that Taste of London gives you, rounded up on in Regent's Park is a sample of London's wide ranging cultures. Diversity dished up and ready to be eaten. The old traditions from Michel Roux and his slow cooked beef polenta through to Jason Atherton and his modern British food with influence from all over the world. Taste of London is a look at how London's diversity has influenced the food on offer in the city, an example of just how far the food in London has developed and benefitted from the migration of chefs eager to present their food to the world.

As Theo Randall, the Bristish born chef known for his classical Italian cuisine at The River Cafe and now The InterContinental Hotel, put it: "Back in 1989 Italian food in lots of restaurants in London was anglicized - Italians coming over to england and trying to please the English market with pizza and spaghetti.

"What's happened over the past twenty years is that restaurants like The River Cafe have produced a lot of famous and amazing chefs, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall , everyone has gone off and had this sort of philosophy. It's The River Cafe philosophy but it's this Italian style and respect for ingredients."

Randall talks of 1989 when people didn't know how pasta should taste, but now, as the chef points out, "take a walk down any shopping isle in a supermarket in London and you'll see a whole range of Italian foods. People can choose: do I want buffalo mozzarella from this place?  What sort of parmesan would I like: should I get two year old or three years old?"

All questions many of us now ask and something that's taken less than 25-years, 25-years from the watered down anglicized spaghetti Theo described to authentic Italian restaurants, discerning palates and a nation of people who can now cook Italian food - pasta al-dente of course.

Italian food is a great example of how food breaks down cultural barriers more than any other medium - food is something that through time is accepted and appreciated on a high level and this acceptence of new foods is something that happens again and again on London's streets. Indian, Japanese and Thai - all now common, an integral part of London's diet.

All this and yet the City continues to evolve, to fill with new settlers, new restaurants looking to change the flavor map of the area, lay their stake and hopefully have their food adopted by the nation. Who knows, maybe one day see their ingredients on offer to the public in supermarkets as Theo Randall noted with Italian ingredients.

Restaurants like Asia de Cuba with their mix of Asian and Cuban flavors on offer in London's West End. Their chef, Paul Whittick, a Londoner cooking cuban, himself a great example of the far reaching influence of migration in London. As he explains "I was just absolutely intrigued by Asia Di Cuba, the salt and sweet flavors and lots of different chilies, I've learned a lot about the food from the staff and love the quirkeyness of their cuisine.

"Ceviche is something that I've learnt quite extensively and right now there is a lot of ceviche places opening in Soho, apparently that's the new flavor to replace sushi and we do around 4-5 different types. It's so diverse in London and the Olympics is justing pushing it more - every little niche seller is getting in and opening their own thing."

"London is so cosmopolitan it's like being in New York - the diversity in the differet restaurants - that's why I stayed in london for 25-years. It's all still growing and evolving - opening up new places all the time it's just so exciting." And Paul is one of many chefs on a new journey trying to offer the hard to please London food crowd something new and exciting.

Taste was full of these chefs, chefs pushing a new approach and style, an influence from somewhere in the world. There's the ones who had made it after years of hard work like Theo and his Italian food, his style of cooking now a part of the everyday British life. The ones just started to come through like the chef from the Tamarind Restaurant and those, like Paul, just starting on a mission to push a cuisine in a city bustling with flavor, a city that's always ready to accept new tastes but a city known for it's tough to please palate.

As Jason Atherton summarized: "When someone says you have become one of the best chefs in London I truly believe you can count yourself to be one of the best chefs in the world, because London for me is where it's at."

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