Culinary Misadventures in Britain


Some regular visitors are probably wondering why I have not done my semi-regular “World Food Spot” series for quite a while now. The reason is simple. I am trying to diet and while writing about food is not difficult for me, trying to take beautiful photos about gorgeous food is well,…….mouth watering work. Definately something to avoid while on a diet. Don’t worry. I will start that series up again once I fall off the wagon. As a low calorie alternative, I offer you this little rambling about the U.K. and food.

It was while I was studying in Britain in the early 1980’s that I really learnt how to cook as opposed to my earlier adventures or rather misadventures in this area which I had described before.

Today, the U.K. might be very cosmopolitian and its food scene very vibrant but back in the 1980’s everyone in the European Union were telling jokes about English cooking.

There was this one which says, “Heaven is where the French are the chefs, the Germans are the Engineers, the Italians are the lovers and the British are the police. Hell is when the French are the police, the Germans are the lovers, the Italians are the engineers and the Britiah are the chefs.”

Misadventure 1 Condiment Confusion
When I first arrived, I tried the famous English Fish and Chips and I asked for Tomato Ketchup. “Huh?!” was the reply. “Ketchup for flavoring”, I offered. “We use Vinegar here.” he replied before attending to the next customer.

Hmmmm. For someone raised on Tomato Ketchup or Chiili Sauce and who had never ever thought of using vinegar as a condiment, it was a cultural shock. I tried the vinegar on the fish and chips and found the mixture to be very foul. However, I was starving and could ill afford to throw food away so I ate it up. Over the next four years, the British weather and food must have altered my senses or pickled my brain cause now I love pungent vinegar on my Fish ‘n Chips. I also love soggy chips and mushy peas now though a better part of me remains that shakes his head at my declining food standards.

Misadventure 2 Exotic Foods
Now I also quickly learnt of some very exotic sounding dishes that raised my hopes about British cuisine. I was mesmerized with wonder over dishes with names like “Welsh Rarebit”, “Toad in the Hole”, “Bangers and Mash” and “Bubble and Squeak”. I actively looked for opportunities to try these unique dishes. Needless to say I was soon disappointed when I actually discovered what they were. In retrospect, I now realise that if your cuisine is boring, you try to make up for its inadequacies by creating fanciful names. Spin doctoring, as it were.

For the uninitiated, here is a quick tour of the above;
a) Welsh Rarebit:- Is it a secret welsh recipe for rabbit or perhaps for a “rare bit of meat”? No, it is cheese melted on toast.

b) “Toad in the Hole”:- Is this a special way of cooking a meat like fish steamed in bamboo? Is it really toad? No, it is sausages baked with batter.

c) “Bangers and Mash” :- Is this a special combination of food items? Do “bangers” release a powerful punch of flavors? No, it’s just sausage and mashed potatoes.

d) “Bubble and Squeak” :- How fascinating? Is it an ancient recipe based on the days of witchcraft and druids? (as in bubbling cauldrons?). What’s squeaking? Is it a mouse? No, it is cold cooked vegetables fried together with mash potatoes.

Imagine my disappointment.

Misadventure 3 Vegetarians Beware
After, I had been there in UK for about three years, I felt I had learned most of the idiosyncracies about British cuisine but there was one more surprise waiting to be sprung. Some of my nursing friends, decided to make some mince pies for a Christmas Party. I was present during their discussion and they asked me if I could help by buying the mincemeat. Anxious to enter the spirit of the season, I agreed. I asked how much mincemeat would be needed and they told me that about 2 kg would be enough. The alarm bells started ringing when I asked them if there was a preference for beef or lamb and should it be extra lean.

Apparently, the British with no concern for logic, make mince pies out of mincemeat but mincemeat is a mixture of raisins, apples, spices and vegetable fat. Conversely, they make mincemeat pies out of mince which is made out of meat.

So vegetarians beware and pity the poor squirrel whose little brain had to deal with all this gibberish.

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