Walks of Life

Text: Will Bain, Photos: Orlando Addis

Heading down Leith Walk

Heading down Leith Walk

With the half of the Western world fortifying its walls and raising drawbridges to keep the fear of immigration at a high, it’s time to shine a bit of a spotlight on how it’s shaped our day-to-day lives in Edinburgh. So here’s a snapshot of one of the cities liveliest streets; a stroll down Leith Walk, from the head to the foot, picking up on some of the cultures that inform the way we eat.

All walks of life rub shoulders on Leith Walk. Unlike Stockbridge, Marchmont or Bruntsfield, which seem to recede into their own white middle-class microcosms, the Walk thrums with diversity, expressed by it's local/global mash-up of food businesses. I think of Leith Walk as having its own food culture; dozens of businesses linked to distant histories and traditions from across the globe, all in one place, informing one another to become part of a unique and gloriously dishevelled whole.

We start our walk on Elm Row, and at the flagship of all Edinburgh delis, Valvona and Crolla. Now, whatever you might think of it’s alarming pricing policy and conspicuously high staff turnover, V&C embodies a long relationship that has been opportunistically injecting a bit of Italian vitality into our dinners for more than the eight decades they’ve been open. Even if you daren’t grace the doors for fear of involuntarily swearing when faced with the price of pasta shells, your dinner has been influenced by V&C. Fish and chips, ice cream, pizza; all staples that came with the waves of Italian immigrants escaping drudging peasantry in the late 1800s, and now on more dinner tables than mince and tatties. There’s barely an inch of the Scottish diet, and therefore Scottish food culture, where you can’t discern an Italian influence, and that’s in part thanks to this mothership, this doyenne of delicatessens, which started feeding us parmesan and prosciutto when our grandparents were kids.

Back on the Walk, and after Montgomery street you hit a rich seam of shops along Haddington place. There’s Tattie Shaws with its ostentatious vegetal exoticism, Najaf’s with its halal meats and massive bags of spices that raise serious questions about the economy of the little jars in supermarkets. And then you come to a new Mexican spot, Bodega, which has been riding the crest of a wave of street food not eaten on the street (therefore, in my book, not street food).

There’s not much of a Mexican community in Edinburgh, so our experience of its cuisine mostly ripples from the chain restaurants that spawned from the Mexican migrants to the US. So we end up with the weird Chiquito’s version that’s been corporatised and regurgitated, Americanised then Anglicised into something that’s ideal for centralised kitchens to cook up, package safely and send to just about anywhere. Bodega’s doing stirling work in showing off what Mexican cuisine can really be, with it’s gleaming flavours and appealing tactility. So bravo Bodega for doing it differently, and representing one of the planet’s most important migrant cultures.

One of Edinburgh’s most important current migrant cultures is Polish, so of course there’s a big Polish influence up Leith Walk. The number of skleps has definitely increased in the last decade or so, dealing fixes of home-grown brands of crisps and sweets for the diaspora, and supplying the rest of us with smoky wiesjka and chewy kabanos. A favourite for pierogi is the Yellow Bench, which, as well as serving decent food, daringly challenges the dour public policy of Scotland by hanging a sign which actually encourages strangers to talk to each other, à la almost any other country in the world.

A Taste of Poland right by Pilrig St Paul's Church

A Taste of Poland right by Pilrig St Paul's Church

On the middle stretch of Walk you pass shops, cafes and takeaways that speak of global communities, but there’s a refreshing lack of globalisation. Shopfronts and signs don’t follow the perceived wisdom of Western retail, and there’s an encouraging absence of chains, except, of course, for the insidious presence of ‘local’ supermarkets. But, no matter how busy they get, Tesco and Sainsbury’s can never replicate the intimate relationships with communities which even the smallest, most mysterious of Leith’s immigrant shops are founded on. And how many places have transcended this intimacy to become a functioning part of the community of the city? People traverse the city to stock up at Akdeniz, and Pat’s Chung Ying is now, officially, indispensible.

Speaking of businesses that serve communities, Punjabi Junction, down towards the foot of the Walk, steps it up several gears. Here’s a business that only employs women from migrant communities - the marginalised of the marginalised - and empowers them by utilising something they’re often expert at, having been taught it since childhood - cooking. In giving vulnerable women a safe space to meet, work and eat, they don’t just serve the migrant communities in Leith, they support them, they’re a lynchpin in them. Plus, they make outstanding curries, made all the more remarkable by the fact they don’t write their recipes down, so it all comes straight from the heads and hearts of the women who work there. They’ve been told that their food is more authentic than what you can get in Punjab, as the wisdom they pass down in Leith hasn’t been watered down by a few generations of globalisation in India. 

An Italian pizzeria, a Scottish bakery and a Mexican canteen; all next to one another and none of them out of place on Leith Walk.

An Italian pizzeria, a Scottish bakery and a Mexican canteen; all next to one another and none of them out of place on Leith Walk.

This is, of course, bollocks; there’s no such thing as ‘more authentic’, there’s barely such a thing as authentic. What’s happened is far more special – Punjabi Junction’s curries are neither an ossified ‘authentic’ Indian nor a bastardised Anglo-Indian. They are 100% Leith, and you won’t get their like anywhere else.

And there’s the nub of what immigration does for us - it defines us, all of us, by keeping our cultures in flux, keeping them alive. There are streets like Leith Walk all over the UK. Cultural melting pots that keep our cities, and our food, interesting, and they deserve celebrating. 

So here’s to Leith Walk, for resisting boring chains and watered-down cuisines, and here’s to immigrants, coming over here, enriching our culture and contributing to our economy.