In Defense of British CuisineMore than just fish and chips.
Idly flicking through BBC Online videos, I chanced across a video instructing British tour operators how to “tap the Chinese market.” Amongst the anticipated yawn about “improving visa access” and “facilitating non-English speaking visitors,” the BBC journalist, cheery lite-bite Rajan Dasar, interviews a cluster of less-than-articulate Chinese students about the problems they face integrating in the UK. One girl, who suffered from that all-too-common defect of cultural overconfidence, described British food as the cultural trope she found hardest to adapt to, saying that “of course, in China, there’s a lot of delicious food, but here it’s only fish and chips.”
I’ve heard this before. Living in France, the nation that invented culinary tunnel vision about the same time they came up with tarte tatin, my nation’s gastronomic heritage was met with similarly disdainful invocation of “that one British dish.” During a meal of roast capon, petits pois, and pommes dauphinoise, washed down with what, to my primitive taste buds, tasted like the angels in heaven (but something my hosts saw as a notch above brake fluid), the bombshell was dropped: “All you English eat is fish and chips.” It wasn’t open to discussion. My 18-year-old self didn’t object, mainly because I had a serious crush on my dangerously handsome and buff French exchange partner. However, on subsequent holidays to Malawi, Russia, Thailand, and Italy, the same sentiment was repeated, almost verbatim, in a babel of languages. “Oh, British food… you mean fish and chips.” My deference changed to defensiveness, which, when an Australian had the temerity to rubbish my nation’s cooks, transmogrified into bile-spitting bitchiness. “At least we have a national dish, you cork-hatted shark-stroker!”
I am here today to set the record straight about the world’s most maligned and least understood cuisine, which has reached far further afield than most nations are even aware, and is now, I believe, poised to finally take the reins from the garlic-saturated hands of Parisian chefs du cuisine. But, as Britishers, we’ll be dignified about it.
British cooking is one of Europe’s most diverse, dynamic, and consistently innovative cuisines. I’m not talking about the legacy of Empire which made curry and chop suey part of the national storecupboard, or even the more recent attempts to enliven a cuisine left hollow and dead after a postwar flood of processed foods (mostly from America) by simply copying the French, Italians or even in our craziest moments, the Germans. I’m talking about the culinary tradition of a multi-faceted and contradictory melting pot, which had access to not only the finest, freshest produce but also ample fuel, solid trade links, and a consistent lack of foreign invasions from 1066 onward. The French, Saxons, Norse, Danish, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh all made their contributions. The British palate and constitution, refined over centuries of immigration and unimaginable wealth, is one of the world’s most robust. We tuned our tongues to spices such as nutmeg and paprika while the French were still working out which way to point a trebuchet. We were the earliest nation in the world to initiate large-scale pastoral agriculture, giving us high-quality, low-cost meat, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and cream, which offered chefs a chance to experiment. Fishing was a way of life for everyone on the coast; thus it was the British that were among the first peoples to consume oysters, clams, and deep sea fish on a large scale. Our deep forests were rich in game, and our temperate, wet climate ideal for cultivating grains, vegetables, and fruit.
The Tudor accession in the 15th century ushered in relative peace and prosperity which in turn caused an unprecedented flurry of activity in the kitchen. Henry VIII’s banquets were legendary, with several cows, dozens of sheep, and hundreds of fowl consumed per sitting. We perfected the art of cooking game and developed the savory pie, a dish which has thus far even failed to cross the Atlantic. We developed cold storage so that desserts such as syllabubs, sorbets, and ice cream—traditionally flavored with orange water, rose petals, lavender and fennel—could be properly kept. While Catholics and Protestants pulled Europe apart, Elizabeth I’s Act of Uniformity effectively made religious tolerance a law, defusing any chance of an English Wars of Religion. As the English Tudors gave way to the Scottish Stuarts (enter oatmeal, black pepper, and some seriously good home baking), despite political turmoil and a civil war, coffee, chocolate, chili, cinnamon, and ginger from our overseas colonies further enriched the tables of the wealthy. Even the poor got a taste of the exotic, with the non-native potato proving infinitely more adaptable than millet, leading to the invention of myriad spud-based dishes. Oh, and lest we forget that little contribution made to convenience foods by the Earl of Sandwich. We have grown to love our convenience foods. A meal that fits in a hand without burning it was what fueled the Industrial Revolution, and Cornish pasties, pork pies, and savory pastries remain a major part of the British working class diet. Development continued almost uninterrupted into the twentieth century (even the stuffy Victorians, while happy to cover their ankles in public, would be mortified if the fresh Scottish salmon sandwiches and buttered, fluffy scones piled with glistening jam vanished from High Tea, not to mention the spice bread, fat rascals, crumpets, muffins, and pikelets).
Wartime rationing and then the postwar mess of powdered egg and processed, chemically-laden foodstuffs imported in bulk from America did a lot to undo this heritage. In fact, if I were alive in the 1970s and you had said to me, “British food is shit,” I’d have had to agree, at least in view of the lamentable state of restaurant dining at the time. Somerset Maugham wrote in the context of the period, that “one can eat very well in England, provided one has breakfast three times a day.” Indeed, the “Full English” of bacon, egg, sausage, baked beans, fried bread, black pudding, mushrooms, and grilled tomato remains on all hotel menus throughout the British Isles, though these days we prefer good honest Scottish porridge, or slightly less honest, but very neutral, Swiss muesli. However, while good British meals out were a rarity, the satisfying comfort of traditional home cooking survived largely unscathed. Well, apart from microwave dinners and Boil in the Bag (if you don’t know what this is, don’t ask). All this changed with the foodie revolution of the late 1990s. A new wave of TV chefs rejected the trends of Delia Smith (Britain’s Martha Stewart) and began to play around—not with aping foreign cuisines as had been the case in the 70s and 80s (the era which saw the birth of chop suey and tikka masala, both in British restaurant kitchens)—but with British ingredients cooked to British methods. Traditional fare made a comeback, with refinements to classics like bread and butter pudding, pork pie, smoked salmon, apple dumplings, and Scotch broth, but new dishes were created by new chefs, all with their own fields of specialism. Gordon Ramsay handled haute cuisine, Gary Rhodes, heir apparent to the far superior, and more British-minded, if permanently intoxicated Keith Floyd, handled British favorites. Jamie Oliver appealed to the young and families, and Heston Blumenthal developed molecular cuisine, which has caused a greater worldwide impact than any cooking movement since Julia Child decided to pick up a pen. Thirty minutes from my house, Michelin-starred chef Andrew Pern serves up delights such as seared black pudding and foie gras with carmelized apple and cider, and fluffy Eton mess (homemade meringues crushed with fresh berries and vanilla vodka-enriched whipped cream). Sure, we borrow ingredients from our neighbors, but then, we also gave the French not only creme anglaise (custard) and creme brulee (burnt cream, developed at Cambridge university), but also their champagne industry (a beverage originally exported to Britain as substandard white wine, where it became a hit with the nobility). Many of our ingredients are adaptations of foreign imports (rhubarb, grown and ignored throughout China, is still cultivated en masse in England for delicious sweet-sour pie fillings or tenderly steamed and dabbed with thick, creamy custard). Now, there are more British chefs with Michelin stars than there are French chefs. We have more artisan cheeses than the French, more artisan beers than the Dutch, Germans and Czechs put together. The waiting lists for Britain’s most prestigious cooking schools are among the longest in the world. Even Americans, whom, I believe, love to slam British food because their own cuisine is so roundly attacked by others, are forced to acknowledge the British onslaught in the kitchen. If South Park singles you out for satire (see Ramsay and Oliver in Creme Fraiche, season 14), you know you’re big.
Which brings me to my final rebuttal to that ill-informed young Chinese lady, who, I am almost certain, has never sat down to a British meal with British people in her entire life. Lady, don’t comment on what you don’t know, and haven’t tried to understand. My boyfriend, Chinese through and through, who also studied in the UK for over a year, shared this narrow view of British cooking, until he began to spend holidays with my family. Now, our storecupboard in Beijing has, standing alongside Sichuan peppercorns, Shanxi vinegar and umpteen packs of dried mushrooms, are tins of Yorkshire shortbread, jars of stem ginger in syrup, Marmite, English mustard, and, until we began to make our own (in the English style, naturally), Tiptree jam. We alternate cooking, and he has Britishized many of his staple dishes (baking red-cooked pork in the oven, rather than on the stovetop, enriching soups with butter and white onions), while I have updated British staples like boiled cauliflower with garlic and baked field mushrooms on toast with a few Chinese ingredients. My boyfriend was in raptures at our Christmas dinner table, where my parents served up roast goose, crispy roast potatoes and chipped parsnips, creamed carrot and swede with salted butter, parboiled Brussels sprouts with white wine reduction, and a choice of trifle (the proper kind, rich in sherry, red fruit, light sponge cake, and homemade vanilla custard) or plum pudding with brandy sauce (though he found our flambéing the pudding while singing rather macabre, a little like a burning at the stake). My parents brew their own beer, distill liqueurs flavored with sloeberries and elderflower, and bottle their own wine. My dad grows all his own vegetables, from the traditional (cabbage and potatoes) to the more refined (asparagus, artichokes, and Romaine lettuce). My parents’ pantries are stuffed with homemade jellies, jams, and pickles, and my mother bakes all the family’s bread. And no, they live in an ordinary middle class suburb, not on a thousand-acre farm with a paragraph in the Domesday book.
My point is that British cuisine is simply not something we aggressively export, because we don’t feel we have to. By nature British people are at once arrogant and modest—we simply have so much faith in our own superiority we feel attempting to push it on uninformed outsiders is bad form. We’re the Mormons of national culture, without the immaculate dental work. But that doesn’t mean a British family won’t throw open their arms to a foreigner who shows an interest in our cuisine. If you want to enjoy it, it’s there, and in rich, enthralling glory, but you need to want to connect with it. You can travel to the UK and eat Chinese food your entire stay, and most Chinese students do just that, with an occasional McDonalds meal for variety. We’re not like Italy or Spain—even our most remote rural villages have Indian and Chinese restaurants, thanks to the iron constitution and accepting palate of the Britisher. We love choice in food, lodging, and clothing more than any nation I have yet encountered. The eclectic mix of dishes on the average pub menu—ranging from loaded skins and tomato soup to vindaloo and Moroccan couscous—is testament to this. Just as with our government, we see no contradiction in dunking chips (ok, French fries, though the Belgians invented them) in curry sauce.
And, for the record, fish and chips was developed by Jewish immigrant smallholders in London in the late 19th century. I hereby extend an open invitation to all those who continue to sneer at the concept of British cuisine: let me change your mind.