Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

Justin’s London (I): Brixton Market

The year was 2011, at the very beginning of my blogging pursuits. As a sixth-former who spent a many Saturdays going around town, I dedicated much of my blog posts on London (with the very first one on Greenwich).

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David Bowie Mural at Brixton. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Looking back, it was more of a casual travelogue than any detailed guide. I have enjoyed writing those, so much so that I dedicate much of this blog’s continued existence beyond its nascent days on them. Of course, moving away to University and other assignments have moved away from them for a while, but since I’ve moving back to the southeast I do quite intending on restarting them again – this time bilingually!

I begin again, at the place that I used to buy my weekly groceries: Brixton Market. As a young boy, I was once ‘strongly encouraged’ to be very careful around Brixton. While for certain the Wikipedia entries over the riots did not make great reading, the problem most likely lied with a unworldly 13-year-old rather than the state of the neighbourhood. Regardless, I took the advice to heart and so for much of my time living nearby Brixton did not mean much beyond the interchange for the underground or where the Tesco met Iceland: that trip opened my mind to the kaleidoscopic fabric of Brixton and at the very least the different cuisine options there.

From my first post dated October 2011, I subtitled the piece with the Chinese phrase “別有洞天” which roughly translates to “not like how it looked from the outside”. Almost five years later, that notion is probably quite a joke, for Brixton has become far more than just a grocery stop: it’s now one of those new ‘hip’ places, which for better or worse has certainly made its name among Londoners – but not quite internationally. And so when the opportunity to take out-of -town friends to ‘new’ London places came I did not hesitate.

Running up the stairs from the underground ticket hall nothing too much seemed to have changed. Despite my middle of a weekday arrival, the street remained bustling as always and perhaps even more so for David Bowie’s recent passing. The regular fixtures on the high street remained, so was the crowd by the bus shelter that seems to continuously refill with new passengers emerging from the underground. That feeling of familiarity from a few years ago did give me a sense of warming in my heart.

Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Lunch was first in order and with friends new to the area, one would look no further than Brixton Village and Market Row. The Markets were where you feel the difference of the changing times: it was quite a shock to see a cheese and wine shop (in my mind the most middle-class establishment this side of Surrey) in between the old Caribbean grocery and fashion stores. I am not sure what to think of the changes and the increasingly sophisticated shops, for when it comes to gentrification emotions run high, and I don’t think I am enough of a local to have much of a say. New isn’t necessarily better, but it surely is exciting?

Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Not interested. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Despite this, I was glad to see all of my old-time favourites where they were, and that the place certainly retained much of time multicultural and Bohemian feel. Coming on a weekday afternoon, the market is sleepy and a few interesting shops were unfortunately closed (there’s a Danish place that’s been filed under ‘will go’). Franco Manca, the famous pizza place, may now have branches in the city, but seeing the ever-present queue I reckoned many people are much like me and still prefer the original. After playing around with a shopkeeper’s cat (is there a commandment that photographers must like cats?) I was glad to see Okan, my go-to place for Okonomiyaki, open.

Okonomiyaki. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Okonomiyaki. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Okonomiyaki is a speciality of Kansai (Western Japan), a cross between pancake and omelette if you may. It’s usually filled with meat or seafood and topped with a distinctive brown sauce that split opinions like marmite (image a sweeter Worcestershire sauce. I am firmly entrenched in the pro-sauce camp).  During my more obsessive Japanese phase, which included at teaching stint at Okonomiyaki’s spiritual home, I used to venture here often for a taste of authentic Japan. Even though those days are now all but behind me, it’s always nice to nostalgically revisit the past every now and then.

Okan, Brixton. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

Okan, Brixton. Photo Credit: Young Ah Kim

The decor of the restaurant was a modest modern affair, much like those ‘cool’ little joints that you’ll find in the back streets of Osaka. The staff were all Japanese who somehow withstood my attempts at a Japanese conversation (for fortunately ordering food is within my linguistic level) and were kind enough to not switch to English.

The restaurant is called ‘Okan’ for a reason, and ordering Okonomiyaki in its various guise is obviously a must, but since I’m with friends so we all ordered some grilled Teppanyaki. The food as it used to be was authentic and homely – a reminder to those of my host family back then (the Miso soup in particular was a treat). To be honest, I was unsure how the Okonomiyaki here measures up with those elsewhere in London or in Japan objectively, but a reminder of Japan thousands of miles away for less than £10 is surely not anything to sniff at!

The logical step after a satisfying lunch was naturally some coffee and cake. I first began to try coffee outside the typical franchised options here, and I am glad to report that Brixton now has a plethora of options for that. Although I cannot claim to know coffee well, I’ve had many over the years (because writing new blog posts while nursing a cup of latte is pretty much how I dive into my fantasy as a writer…) and many thanks to Brixton for that as I turned into Wild Caper. Famed for its Mediterranean food, I must confess I’ve only ever been there for good coffee, and this time it was no different.

Oh and cake.

After a good cup of Cappucino (yes I know you weren’t supposed to have them past the morning, but I’m never a purist) and some good chat, it’s time to go. I think I can attest that Brixton is still a very good place to spend a leisurely afternoon, and hopefully, I’ll be back soon. For nostalgia. But also the new and exciting.

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