I very nearly didn’t make it to Mei Mei. It’s right in the middle of Borough Market, you see. Now, Borough Market is clearly a brilliant thing: a beautiful thousand-year-old market carefully recalibrated for the 21st century, with dozens of traders selling artisanal cheese and rare-breed meat and seasonal fruit and superlative doughnuts. It’s a democratic forum to introduce visitors to interesting ingredients without snobbery, where chefs can get their foot in the food scene door without the terrifying costs of a sixty seater bricks-and-mortar site. It’s a landmark, which heroically weathered a terrorist attack in 2017, bouncing back busier than ever.
Thus my issue. At Borough Market there are people, everywhere. Everywhere. Just walking in makes me wheeze with misanthropy, rage sweat erupts from my temples. People are milling, people are hovering, people are blocking paths, moving at glacial pace among heritage beetroot and paella pans. People are juggling mulled wine with scotch eggs and wooden sticks dipped in gooseberry elderflower chutney; small handholding people tripwire you as their parents stampede to seize free samples of Stilton. The interminable twin tentacle of people queuing for Monmouth Coffee and Padella tangle. A family of four attempts to wheel six large suitcases through this infernal teeming mass of people standing and looking at things.
It’s all even busier with the new Borough Market Kitchen: a ‘communal dining space’ capitalising on London's insatiable appetite for street food, with twenty new traders and millions more milling for dosas and pinxtos. By the time I forced my way through to Mei Mei, I was not in the mood. I did not want to sit half outside, gently washed by billowing drizzle, shunted back into the baying falafel-munching crowd after ten minutes.
Well bah humbug to me. Because Mei Mei is great. Chef-owner Elizabeth Haigh gained a Michelin star as head chef at Hackney's Pidgin; Mei Mei is her take on the Singaporean hawker market stalls she grew up visiting, serving street food classics like kaya toast, nasi lemak and Hainanese chicken. This last is the cult/hero/*THAT* dish: free-ranging, tip-top quality chicken from The Ginger Pig next door, poached and served cold with rice and chilli sauce for £8.50. For £12.50, you get chicken soup and achar pickles too, and you therefore experience the platonic ideal of invalid food; the most restorative, gentle, wholesome meal you will eat this January. Revelatory soup cockadoodledoos with lemongrass and chilli, ginger and garlic, and the pure saintly goodness of chicken long cooked. The rice is softly savoury with chicken stock, the pickles crunch merrily with sweet and sour goodness. The poached chicken itself is nice; I plebbishly prefer the people-pleasing option of subbing in hot fried chicken. Also extremely palliative is the fried carrot cake, a slab of vegetable omelette, funky with fermented radish and clean citrussy spice. Nasi lemak - coconut rice with brilliant sambal, peanuts, fried anchovies and egg - is texturally pleasing stodge that goes unappetisingly cold in the stiff breeze, but revival comes with a cup of kopi, Singaporean coffee made with condensed milk, which is just a LOT: extremely sweet, extremely creamy and extremely unsubtle, a market trader’s brew to banish the cold.
And then after 15 minutes, I’m done. I wander back through the crowds, a soppy smile hovering on my face. Because isn’t it incredible that Mei Mei and all the dozens and dozens of other stalls are just available to us here? That anyone can wander into the Market, regardless of what they know about food, and try delicious global dishes for a tenner? And isn’t it wonderful that Borough Market is so, so busy?
Meal for 2: £30
Borough Market Kitchen
Jubilee Place SE1 9AG
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You aren’t sure where basic ends and irony begins. You will pussyfoot around this concept for all eternity.