The best way to experience food and culture of London's East End

There's nothing historically or culturally significant about it, but getting your Hampsteads* around the bacon sandwich at St John's Bread and Wine, Fergus Henderson's famed nose-to-tail-eating restaurant in Spitalfields, ain't a bad way to start a food tour of the East End of London.

Beautifully thick rashers of Gloucester Old Spot bacon are cooked on an open flame and then jammed between slices of chunky house-made bread that's been toasted on the same grill. The bread is white and smothered in butter and the whole thing quite literally oozes taste (you will need that napkin).

It's not surprising to learn that this concoction has been voted one of the best bacon butties in London for several years running.

Tour company Eating Europe was founded in 2011 by American Kenny Dunn, who moved to Rome in 2008 and began showing off his neighbourhood to visiting friends and introducing them to his favourite restaurants and shops.

These humble culinary strolls later became Eating Europe, which today runs food tours in Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, Lisbon, Naples, Strasbourg, Rome and Florence. Among the tours in London are the daytime East End Food Tour and the early-evening Twilight Soho Food and Cocktail Tour.

Food, of course, isn't just food. Dig deep enough and you'll find, among the meat and two veg, history, theatre, culture and religion. East London, especially, is a palimpsest on which the menus of generations of immigrants are still visible. It's a place where history comes alive on the plates and on the palates of the people who live, and have lived, here. As the British pop group Madness described it in The Liberty of Norton Folgate, their 2009 hymn to the area: "The perpetual steady echo of the passing beat, a continual dark river of people, in their transience and in its permanence."

Among the people swept through on that dark river were Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution in Catholic France, Jews fleeing Russian pogroms and, later, escaping the Nazis. In more recent decades, it's immigrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan who have made it their home. Many of the old synagogues, themselves once churches, are now mosques. And the latest wave of people to arrive and make this their home? Hipsters, laughs our guide.

From St John's we – our guide, Dinah, myself and an extended family group from the United States – cross the main road and, in the shadow of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, go for a ball of chalk** down Brushfield Street towards the cleverly named English Restaurant, where a sophisticated version of the classic poor man's bread-and-butter pudding awaits. Yes, more butter – look, nobody said this was going to be easy.

The 17th-century heritage-listed English Restaurant does what it says on the tin – and with its dark varnished wood, snug benches and panelling it looks like it's just fallen out of the pages of a Dickensian novel. The pudding is small but perfectly formed – positively Pickwickian in taste if not in plumpness. I should point out that, alongside the food tastings, our guide is regaling us with stories of what she says used to be the "dirty backyard of London".

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What follows is a smorgasbord of social history, local culture and a culinary adventure. We try a couple of tasty British cheeses at Bedales, a cheese and wine bar in Old Spitalfields market; chow down on fish and chips and mushy peas at Poppies, a popular chippy that recreates the ambience of a seaside town from the 1940s and whose walls are peppered with the rhyming slang of the local Cockneys; get stuck into three Ruby Murrays*** with pilau rice at Aladin, one of the famous Brick Lane curry houses; and try manfully to fit in a salt-beef beigel with mustard and pickled gherkin at Beigel Bake, the 24-hour Jewish bakery near the junction with Bethnal Green Road.

In between the food, we visit the site of an old Jewish soup kitchen, goggle at the incongruousness of London's first cereal cafe (where a bowl of cereal with milk sets you back at least £4.50), peer into the windows of Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant in Artillery Lane, admire the graffiti art and listen to stories of death, deprivation and murder.

As a seasoned glutton, my beigel (not "bagel", thank you very much) is gone before you can say mazel tov but the Americans wrap theirs in paper to eat later. We are, however, not finished.

At the junction of Bethnal Green Road and Shoreditch High Street, the Tea Building is a massive warehouse built in 1933 as a bacon factory for Allied Foods. Today, it's a multipurpose space featuring restaurants, bars and a rooftop private members' club. On the ground floor is Pizza East where we flop down on one of the long wooden communal tables and try to find room for the restaurant's highly praised salted chocolate caramel tart – a dessert that's consistently voted one of the best in London. It's a fitting end to the tour – a final sweet belly flop onto the shores of the 21st century after swimming through the layers of history that make this area so captivating.

The Twilight Soho Cocktail tour is another matter entirely. There's booze, for a start. And while East London's stories are mired in the poverty-stricken areas outside the old walls of London, Soho is synonymous with glitz, glamour and dodgy goings-on in the centre of the metropolis. This is the historical home to the swinging '60s, London's jazz scene, its theatre land and the epicentre of London's sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

It's an evening that starts outside a pub and wends its way through Mexican and frozen margaritas at La Bodega Negra, explains why Soho is called Soho (it's not what you think) and heads on into early evening via Spanish jamon and cheese at Enrique Thomas, and craft beer and pies at The Nellie Dean of Soho pub.

The highlight of the night, for me, is the steep climb up several flights of stairs to reach Opium, a 1920s Shanghai-themed "cocktail and dim sim parlour" where, in the insanely cool surroundings of a place we'd never have found on our own, we tuck into Chinese dumplings and a tea-based cocktail served from a traditional teapot.

All in all, it's a fun night that pulls back the shallow upper layer of this notorious area and exposes some of the lesser-known stories, histories and best-kept modern secrets. Like the East End tour, it ends on a sweet note with a moreish hazelnut-praline confection in a hidden underground cocktail-and-dessert bar. The bar, behind a nondescript door on an ordinary street, is called Basement Sate. Which seems a perfect name on which to end.

(Cockney rhyming slang: *Hampstead Heath = teeth; **ball of chalk = walk; ***Ruby Murray = curry.)

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin was a guest of Eating Europe.

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FLY

Major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London.

TOUR

Eating Europe's East London tour departs at 10am, 10.45am or 11.15am, Monday to Sunday, and takes about four hours (the Sunday tour takes in a stop at the Pride of Spitalfields pub just off Brick Lane) and costs £80. The Twilight Soho Food Tour departs at 4pm, 4.30pm or 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, takes about three-and-a-half hours and costs £99. See eatingeurope.com

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