LONDON — Too many tourists were afraid to come here this summer because of the Olympian deluge. But now the coast is clear.
Head to Portobello Road Market, where you’ll find great paella, cooked right in front of you. Nick Friedman, an unlikely paella maestro, works outdoors on gas burners. This self-taught South African cook oversees two, sometimes three, super large pans of simmering rice, chicken, squid, New Zealand mussels, garlic, beans, onions, and tomatoes tossed with saffron and paprika. The aromas draw crowds, which start gathering around his stall well before the Spanish specialty is ready for lunchtime service.
“Anybody hungry?” Friedman yells. It’s his signature line, which announces that the mix in the pans has achieved the ideal moist top and crunchy bottom layer, called the socarrat. Varieties for sale often include Valenciana (chicken and beans), seafood (shrimp, mussels, squid) and vegetarian.
Paella in restaurants is so labor intensive, it is typically featured as a menu item to be shared by two persons. In London, though, the rustic rice fare is gaining popularity as a street food. Besides Portobello Road, it is also at Borough Market near London Bridge, The Real Food Market at Southbank, and Eat Street Food Market near the newly renovated St. Pancras Station. It is typically sold in a generous individual serving in paper bowls for between $8 and $10.
“Paella is the perfect combination of colors, flavors, and textures,” Friedman says. “It’s all in there: yellow and gold, green, red, black, pink, crunchy, soft, sweet, savory. Everything. It’s also a great balance of carbs with protein. So, it’s the ultimate dish.”
Friedman sells his paella under the banner Jamon Jamon (the word is Spanish for ham). He came to his calling after a visit in 2001 to Valencia, where paella originated in its modern form, and where he learned to make it. In 2004, he decided to open a stall near Portobello Road Market featuring Spanish ham and cheese baguette sandwiches. To supplement the menu, he added a chorizo and bean soup, tortillas (Spanish omelets), and, for good measure, paella.
“By the third week, I ditched the soup,” Friedman recalls. It wasn’t moving. “By the fifth week, I ditched the omelets and sandwiches and started selling only the Valenciana. By week eight, I added the seafood paella. It had gotten to the point where all people wanted was paella.”
Jamon Jamon relocated to Portobello Road Market in 2007, after Friedman moved to the top of a wait list. He also began catering private functions at music festivals around the United Kingdom, including Glastonbury in southwest England and Green Man in Wales. And he sells at the food markets at Southbank and Kings Boulevard. Another cook, his friend Doug Robertson-Ritchie, typically assists him.
On Saturdays, Friedman arrives at his stall at 7 a.m., prepping the paella and setting up large gas burners for the three-foot-wide pans. He uses only “honest food,” organic and locally sourced ingredients. The Valenciana, alone, requires about 25 pounds of chicken. As he sautes the parts and, in another pan, the calamari, tourists stop to watch and chat. Friedman is amiable even when Spaniards challenge his preparation. “That’s not how you make authentic paella,” one of three young women from Valencia tells Friedman in Spanish. “You need to cook over a wood-burning fire, not gas.”
As he pours in chicken stock, he smiles. “Come back and try it,” he says. Aside, he adds: “They always come back and apologize. The Spanish all have several opinions on how I should be cooking.”
The big pans are typically ready by 11:30 a.m. “You can’t rush paella,” Friedman says. “It has to be made a certain way and ingredients added in a certain order. Add to that, we are making it live in front of a market audience each time, with every mistake or short cut easily noticed. It adds to the challenge. It’s very satisfying . . . then you take a breath and start over, trying to make the next one as good as the previous one.”
Paella in London can be found at Jamon Jamon at Portobello Road Market, Stall 89 near Westbourne Park Road, London, W11, on Sat; The Real Food Market, next to Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, Fri-Sun; and Eat Street Food Market, near St. Pancras Station, Kings Boulevard N1C, Thu-Fri.; or go to www.jamonjamon.co.uk.