Stoke Newington is a district in the London Borough of Hackney, east London. Its high street starts off as Kingsland Road on the Dalston end and after around a mile it becomes Stoke Newington Road, and then into Stoke Newington High Street. It is one of the most vibrant stretches of road in the UK with everything from kebabs to Mexican food and cocktails to hidden clubs and organic stores. Much of the gentrification of the area has been based around Church Street, where there are many independent shops, pubs, bars and cafes…
Stoke Newington is deeply multicultural, with large Asian, Irish, Turkish, Jewish and Afro-Caribbean-origin communities. The borough of Hackney has historically welcomed people from around the world: inward migration can be traced back to the 17th century with the arrival of immigrants such as the French Huguenots.
There are well established Caribbean, Turkish and Kurdish, Vietnamese and Orthodox Jewish communities as well as more recent arrivals from African and Eastern European countries.
The 2011 Census estimates Hackney’s population to be 246,300, with around 40% of the population coming from Black and Minority Ethnic groups. The borough has one of the largest groups of Charedi Jewish people in Europe, predominantly in the north east, and representing 7% of the borough’s overall population.
At least 89 different languages are spoken.
Hackney’s Caribbean community is remarkably diverse compared to some other areas in the UK. People from Antigua and Jamaica have settled in Stoke Newington, St Lucians and Dominicans mainly moved into Clapton in the 1960s and 1970s, and Hackney was also a main settlement for refugee Montserratians displaced after the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano in 1995.
At the time of the 1981 census, 26,653 people (around 15% of Hackney’s population) lived in households headed by somebody born in the Caribbean.
This multicultural structure of the region is also reflected in the cuisine on offer at the many different restaurants adorning the Stoke Newington streets. When walking along Stoke Newington streets, many restaurants, café shops, groceries and patisseries serving delicious and colourful foods that give the high street a unique feature.
Over a half a century of Turkish migration brought kebabs to the region
Stoke Newington was one of the places where the first examples of Turkish cuisine in the UK were seen, as the area was among the first destinations of Turkish immigrants who came to London since the early 90’s.
The appearance of the vast number of Turkish restaurants on the street is down to migrants from Cyprus and Turkey. A cinema was among several Turkish-speaking establishments that appeared here in the 1970s, attracting people not just from London but across the country.
Later came the Halkevi — the Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre — which helped attract Kurdish speakers as well, many of whom left Turkey for both economic and political reasons, especially in the 1980s. Persecution in Turkey, Iraq and Iran drove many Kurds to this part of London.
In time, the many people who worked in nearby textile factories switched to food businesses, with supermarkets and restaurants appearing to serve locals and those living further afield.
Most popular kebab shops’ names spread from Stoke Newington
The arrival of so many Turkish and Kurdish speakers helped drive a boom in food businesses. Some local residents even pickup Turkish words from restaurant names like “Testi” (water jug), or “Devran” (era), some are also becoming more familiar with the names of Turkey’s cities such as Istanbul or Urfa.
Like Harringay Green Lanes in North London, Stoke Newington is home to as many businesses run by Turks and Kurds originating in Turkey and Cyprus as Harringay, giving the locality a unique identity.
The first of these kebab businesses around Stoke Newington was Niyazi Usta on Mare Street, which can trace its roots to the 1970s, followed by Bogazici Kebab in Dalston and Ali Baba in 1977.
Istanbul Iskembe, the restaurant run by the entrepreneur Mustafa Topkaya which claims to be the first to introduce chicken doner in the UK, also emerged around this time. Topkaya entered the kebab business in 1984 with Archway Kebab, a business that operates to this day, and expanded to include Kebab Delight in 1986 — but it was with Istanbul Iskembe that he innovated in the sector by transitioning from a takeaway business to a restaurant that offers sit-down meals.
Other restaurants in the area can claim to be the first in the country to use the words “Mangal” the Turkish word for barbecue, and “Best” in their names.
The first Best Kebab was opened in 1985 by Osman Cinik and it operates to this day, although he claims no responsibility over other restaurants that have imitated the name ever since. Before that there were another two Turkish restaurants at the same address.
The first Mangal was opened on Arcola Street in 1990 and was the first to introduce the traditional Turkish concept of “ocakbaşı” or dining next to the charcoal grill where the food is cooked. It was Jamie Oliver who brought the practice to wider British attention.
“I love them – and I just love the dude who sits there playing the piano,” he once said of Mangal, mimicking the motion of the ocakbaşı chef twirling the kebabs.
“Their food is well-sourced and the charcoal is amazing.”
In 1994, the chef Ali Dirik left to set up Mangal 2 nearby, and now there are dozens of other restaurants carrying the Mangal name.
The first businesses that moved the traditional stove-basin cooking in Turkey to London were also found in Stoke Newington, and these businesses still accompany the multi-cultured flavours of the region. Alongside Mangal restaurants, these establishments that bear names such as Cirrik, Hasan, has charcoal grills that are in the middle of the restaurant or in a visible place. On the one hand, chefs cook meat in line with the demands of their customers, on the other hand they prepare salads and appetizers to which they add vegetables such as cooked tomatoes, onions, peppers and aubergines.
There are many popular Turkish dishes like shish and kofte kebabs or the iconic doner, the takeaway classic including cuts of rotating meat often wrapped in flat bread with salad, but other speciality dishes such as Manti (stuffed dumplings) are available too on Stoke Newington High Street.
Those businesses have become an inseparable part of the region, which has a history of hundreds of years, and kebabs have become a noticeable part of social life in Stoke Newington, just like on Harringay High Street a few miles away.