Curiously Culinary From The Get-Go
There’s no way you haven’t heard of Monocle Magazine, the global affairs and lifestyle juggernaut founded by Tyler Brûlé, but did you know that is also has a 24-hour radio station Monocle 24 with the most amazing array of eclectic and buzzy programming?
One such show is The Menu with Finnish-born journalist and culinary inquisitor Markus Hippi whose enthusiasm for everything edible will have you enthralled and ravenous to say the least.
Hippi interviews the movers and shakers of the hospitality world (recently Martha Stewart & April Bloomfield) but perhaps even more fascinating are his conversations with lesser-known artisans like the new generation of Georgian winemakers and Japan’s sake makers.
Here Hippi reflects his Finnish heritage, confronting food experiences, his favorite places to eat in East London, and more.
When and where was your first exotic or worldly food experience?
Growing up in Finland, the country wasn’t exactly a melting pot for food from around the world. That’s why the highlights of my trips abroad have always included visits to great and (at least for us Finns) exotic restaurants. I remember having my first sushi and Thai food in Stockholm, some great Russian food in St Petersburg, and some amazing Lebanese dishes in London.
I also remember on my first trip in London I was determined to try to find the best fish and chips in the city. I don’t remember where I was taken to, but I still remember the anticlimax… I guess fish and chips have never been for me really.
What I gained from these adventures was an increasing curiosity about what the world has to offer in terms of food, how different dishes reflect a country’s culture, how they were born – and most of all, I now days want to make sure I am not missing out on anything!
What are the newly launched Monocle Menu Awards?
We felt that the current, most publicized rundowns of best restaurants keep on applauding the same few restaurants – places that are already well known and can safely expect to maintain their status.
We had a different idea; we wanted to list the places we love, the kind of restaurants that are relaxed, do simple and good food without too much of gimmickry. Honest food from the heart that you want to experience again and again – that’s what we’ve been after.
The restaurants that normally steal the attention tend be mentioned in every tourist guide, and they do active promotion work through pr agencies and the likes. Our favorite places instead are often smaller, less known, but places we enjoy and would take our best friends to.
The whole top 50 is out on our summer magazine The Escapist, and the winners – as well as nominees – are also announced on my radio show, The Menu on July 10 (listen here).
Can you share one of your most confronting food experiences?
I am pretty open minded when it comes to food – my principle is that I taste everything that’s offered to me. I have had fried ants, bear meat and haggis – and I have pretty much enjoyed them all!
However, I was struggling on a recent trip to Reykjavik. In a traditional restaurant I was offered ‘Hákarl’ – fermented, decomposed shark meat – served frozen, probably to play down the strong smell of ammonia.
I was turned off the moment I saw and smelled the small, sugar cube looking pieces. The taste wasn’t as bad as the smell, but I still had to decline any more of these delicacies. I truly hope I wasn’t too abrupt – although I suspect my Icelandic hosts were used to awkward reactions!
Can you describe the Finnish approach to food? How has that influenced your culinary aesthetic?
The virtues of Finnish food are simplicity and local ingredients. My home country’s cuisine has been influenced heavily by Russia and other Nordic countries. So what you get is a lot of fish, root vegetables, mushrooms, berries – plus elk and reindeer meat. Basically the best that the Nordic nature has to offer.
I didn’t realize how much I should have appreciated all this when I was growing up in the countryside. My dad used to catch fish every week, the residents of our village would sometimes share elk meat when hunters shot them nearby, and my mother would get new potatoes, beetroots and berries for pies from the garden behind our house.
How all this has effected me is that I value simplicity – I want to understand how my dish has been prepared and what it consists of. I do also appreciate fresh ingredients over anything else.
Is there a Finnish restaurant in London that you go to when you’re craving food from home?
Sadly I still haven’t been able to find a restaurant that would focus on Finnish cuisine only. There are some pan-Nordic restaurants in London, but they don’t quite feel like the real thing. Sometimes I feel like I should go and launch my own place!
I do find myself going to Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street sometimes – they do sell Finnish rye bread and some Finnish candies, including salty liquorice. Also Nordic Bakery right on the other side of the street from our offices in Marylebone serve sandwiches on Finnish bread. Our own Monocle Café’s ‘kanelbullar’ also do the trick – these cinnamon rolls are the same throughout the Nordic region.
However, I often suggest people a visit to Helsinki for the real thing. The restaurant scene in the Finnish capital has been improving vastly over the last few years.
What’s your favorite neighborhood in London?
I have lived in Hackney, East London for a few years now, and I love the way it’s continually changing in front of my eyes.
London Fields Lido is heated outdoor pool, open throughout the year. It’s great for a morning dip after which you can stay in the London Fields Park for a picnic – hopefully in the sunshine.
Little Georgia is a lovely, simple Georgian restaurant with great food. It’s also handily located close to Broadway Market where we all tend to gather at some point over the weekend.
For drinks I recommend my local pub. The Spurstowe Arms is a friendly, charming gastro pub that does incredible food. The interior is beautiful and this place has become a routine stop for us whenever I’m hosting friends’ visiting London.
What have you learned about people the world over by sharing and experiencing their food?
I have learned that food is a mirror of the culture. It’s so much more than what you would at first think. We all remember what we ate as children, and certain flavors still have the power of bringing back memories. I feel that the more I know the food I am eating, the better I understand the culture in question.
It’s often said that South Europeans are passionate about food – that’s true, but these day I think that food isn’t any less important for people in other parts of the world either. I guess there is just less drama surrounding it. Thanks to food I have made many friends around the world. Forget about TV and football – if I want to strike a discussion with someone I have just met, food works as a talking point as well. Trust me, it’s hard to find people who would not be opinionated about what they like to eat!
And finally, I have learned to trust the local taste. The locals have through history learned how the local ingredients work and taste the best. This is why I pursue eating local dishes when travelling – for me it’s waste of time to go for a pizza when I can experience something new and local. Unless if I am in Italy of course!