Koshari Street at the Real Food Market, Southbank

Before heading out for an evening of jazz – the ideal way to unwind on a Friday night –  my companion and I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat. As her train was arriving into Waterloo, we thought we’d opt for something in the vicinity. Aside from the usual and uninspiring chains lining the Southbank, Waterloo is surprisingly sparse when it comes to dining options. There is, of course, Marie’s Café on Lower Marsh Street, a Thai-style “greasy” spoon serving authentic Asian fare for dirt-cheap prices. But wandering around the Southbank I was surprised to find the Real Food Market was still thriving at half seven on a Friday night. With the wealth of options on offer, we decided to pick up something here, the aromas enticing us to enjoy all the fun of the fare.

The Real Food Market features around 40 food and drink producers selling seasonal produce and ready-to-eat foods. With its focus on sustainable and ethically produced food, the market proudly supports small producers and independent traders. What’s more, together the stalls offer a globetrotting menu, ranging from Italian handmade gnocchi and Spanish charcuterie, to English foraged mushrooms on sourdough and Levantine foods from Arabica. After much deliberation, notably between a chickpea tagine served in an organic flatbread alongside accompaniments including a red cabbage salad, spicy chutney and mint yogurt, and a spinach filo pastry encasing chickpeas, couscous and raisins, I opted for the Koshari Street pot.

I’d been wanting to visit Korshari Street’s store on St Martin’s Lane for some time (which I eventually later did following a theatre trip to see Photograph 51 featuring Nicole Kidman). The brainchild of Anissa Helou, an internationally known food-writer and champion of Levantine cuisine, Korshari Street has adapted and blended traditional North African and Middle Eastern dishes and brought them into the 21st century. This therefore seemed like the ideal opportunity to try out this humble and healthy hotpot.

Koshari has its origins in Egypt, where it’s a national dish sold on both road-side stalls and in restaurants. It’s even considered by some to be the food that powered the Egyptian revolution, when it fuelled by the masses in Tahrir Square. And it’s not difficult to see why. A vegan mix of lentils, rice, macaroni and vermicelli, Korshari is then topped with a tomato sauce, chickpeas, caramelised onions and an oh-so-delicious duqqa spice mix. The duqqa, a traditional Egyptian spice blend that includes coriander seeds, mint, sesame seeds and peanuts, is Anissa’s distinct recipe and key in giving the dish an extra crunch.

Although this is fast-food, produce is meticulously selected. The team seemed to have assembled a high-quality army of suppliers. I’m told that their rice and pulses are sourced from Brindisa, London’s premier Spanish suppliers, whilst their chillies and spices are sourced from The Spicery, who are amongst the few to stock flakes of naga jolokia chilli, which was once considered the world’s hottest pepper. Better still, Persepolis in Peckham provides Koshari Street with their slivered nuts and other exotic ingredients. Indeed, the entirely vegetarian Persepolis is also on my hit-list of Peckham eateries to visit – particularly as their menu of Snackistan Savouries and Bevvies is enticing and everything can be offered gluten- and dairy- free. I’m especially eager to try their Baked Sweet Potato filled with Persian Baked Beans and Halloumi (£3.50) alongside a Date and Cardamom Latte (£2.00) or a Vegan Hot “Chocolate” with carob and spices (£2.75). Even their smoothie menu is unusual, featuring a Mango Smoothie with tamarind and ginger (£2.75) and a Banana Smootie with carob and halva (£2.75). But that’s enough on Persepolis, back to Koshari Street…

There’s something very comforting about pot dishes and this one proved no different. The dense mix is incredibly satisfying, warming and nourishing. It’s even on “About Time” magazine’s list of London’s top vegan dishes (http://www.abouttimemagazine.co.uk/food/top-5-vegan-london-cafes/). Although I had my doubts about the seemingly random mix of rice, pasta and vermicelli noodles – what I thought resembled a throwing together of leftovers with a few fresh herbs and spices to top – the assemblage all contributed to the varied textures and layers of the pot which complement each other well: the crunch of the onions contrast with the softness of the chewier base, whilst the sauce, available in three levels of piquancy, lend an additional bite. Portions are also generous; a small-sized bowl cost £3.50, while a larger version is £4.50

Although we were tempted by the sweeter offerings in the market, the unseasonably warm weather for October soon came to a halt. As it started to drizzle, we hurried into the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, where we enjoyed our hotpots whilst having a long-overdue catch-up.

The Real Food Market is held weekly from Friday through to Sunday behind the Royal Festival Hall.  For speedy service, fresh produce and affordable prices, head here.

The Real Food Market, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX

Website: http://www.kosharistreet.com/

Rating: ****

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