Friday, October 8, 2010

British Food

I've been ill a bit this week, as have half my family, and my appetite has diminished somewhat. It's coming back now and I have that constant, gnawing feel of hunger than can make me quite irritable and prone to being provocative. Which probably explains my next statement: British food is the best in the world.

Now I realise a few of you might have dropped your bacon sandwiches in shock at the statement. British food, like British teeth, has a bit of a bad reputation. I think this dates back a few decades when fresh produce was rare, great plates of stodge were served up, bland vegetables were boiled within an inch of their lives, and tinned food was king. Though even back then there were those, like George Orwell, who were as eager to sing the praises of steak and kidney pudding as the French were of coq au vin or the Italians were of pasta carbonara.

But the stigma still attached to British food - I recently read a blog written by a musician I admire who was touring the UK and described it as a 'gourmet benighted country,' which wound me up no end - is entirely unfair and inaccurate. There is still much bad cooking, but so there is in all countries. I have been to terrible restaurants in France, Spain, the US, Australia and Hong Kong. And yes, there is still a fondness for stodge, albeit glorious stodge, like pies, sausages and mash, Yorkshire Pudding and fish and chips (though not in the south of England where they make the criminal mistake of using beer in their batter. Neigh, lads. As we northerners know, it should always be beef fat.) Yet it isn't singular dishes which make modern British food so good, it's the sheer range.

You see, I can go to France and enjoy eating crepes, coquille st jacques, and all manner of culinary treats. Yet after a week or so of rich, creamy sauces I began to think of the food I could get back in London, and the variety. I begin to crave a curry. Often it's the first thing I order when I get back, sometimes before the bags are unpacked. Or a sinus-clearing, hot and sour Thai. I can enjoy a few days in Spain or Italy, but all that pasta and tapas gets a bit a dull. I want to have some sushi to break the monotony. A spice-laden Moroccan tagine, or some fiery Portuguese chicken. I love meat and potatoes done well in the States - and in the States they do meat and potatoes very well - but finding a decent Indian restaurant can be a real challenge. In London they are everywhere (as well as some rotten ones.) London has all the above, and more - there's Lebanese, Eritrean, Persian, Caribbean and Chinese restaurants as well as Spanish, Italian, Indian, French, Portuguese, Thai and Moroccan within a mile of my flat, available to eat-in or takeaway. I've reached the point where settling for one nation's cuisine seems the height of boredom. The French are rightly very proud of their cooking, but  I do wish they'd embrace a bit of heat and spice in some of their dishes. Worst is Greece. Nice for sure, but their indifference to the food of other cultures means one can get very bored of calamari very quickly.

Of course, I can hear people saying that what I'm describing isn't British food, just the foods of the various ethnic groups that have settled in London. And you'd be right. But we have given it our own twist. The most popular dish in the country is Chicken Tikka Masala, a rich curry. You will not find it on any menu in India. It was made to satisfy a particular British craving for a flavoursome curry with thick gravy and some heat, though not overpowering. It's also the case that the Mediterranean way of eating, based on the seasons and cycles of local produce, cooked freshly and simply, is a wonderful way to live. But I can't believe that a Mediterranean fisherman doesn't think, 'Hang the caprese salad and fresh artichokes mama, I could murder a Thai green curry tonight.' I'm interested in going to India and seeing whether I'll start craving pasta, or a pot au feu.

London has all the produce you might need. There's even a US deli in case I want to pay £7 for a box of Lucky Charms (I'll pass) or a cajun spice rub (which is great). At home I'm able to get the spices and ingredients for any dish I would wish to make, from any country you can mention. Britain today is place of infinite culinary variety. British food is international food. It reminds me of Peter Sellers. No real identity of his own beyond the many characters he played, but brilliant because of that. 'Peter Sellers, there is no such man!' Blake Edwards once said. 'British food, there is no such thing!' I might say, which is why I think it's the best in the world.


  1. Gosh, French and Italian food are so wonderful, as are many other cuisines.

    But to add about the variety of cuisines, many cities in the U.S., including New York, have the widest array of international cuisine as well. And in boroughs with large immigrant populations--from all over the globe--the variety of cuisines and restaurants is even more plentiful.

  2. Mmmm...Making me hungry, I think. I had Chicken Tikka Masala the other day, not knowing I was eating English. Ha!

    Thanks for the cuisine tour. Hope yuou all are feeling better soon.


  3. Dan (Dan will know that this is not a rude question) -- I was at dinner tonight and someone mentioned spotted dick. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't know what it was, beyond the worst name I can imagine for something that's supposed to be edible. Please . . . what is spotted dick?

  4. kathy - you're right. Immigration has broadened our palates as well as our minds.

    Michele, I'm much better thanks.

    Tim - ah, spotted dick. Now THAT's stodge. A rather bland but tasty suet pudding (there's that beef fat again) with currants. You don't see it on many menus any more, but it has kept generations of schoolboys in sniggers.

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