The Rambling Writer on British and American Food

Since Thor and I went rambling through England recently, I thought I’d toss in my tuppence on the current Book View Café series contrasting British and American dishes. I’m nothing like a gourmet, so wasn’t planning on dining as a highlight of our trip, and I’d heard a lot of disparaging remarks about British cooking. Aiming for open-mindedness, I was ready to sample what fare came our way. Two dishes, though, were on my must-try list: authentic British fish & chips, and tea-time scones with clotted cream. Thor had experienced the latter and assured me it was a taste of heaven.

During our whirlwind travels, hiking and visiting museums, castles, Stonehenge, and other historic sites, I kept an eagle eye out for a café offering tea and scones, but we never seemed to be in the right place at the right time for tea and treats. Whining a bit, I swore I would not leave England without a proper Tea.

Meanwhile, more substantial meals were needed to fuel our perambulations. We ran a comparison test of Indian food, since I’d heard that the many Indian restaurants in England were reliably good. In the States, we enjoy Chicken Tikka Masala, so we ordered it at two Indian restaurants, one in Stratford-Upon-Avon and one in Bath. Both times we were cruelly disappointed by the rather bland and overly sweet dish, which came with an even sweeter side sauce. We’d been used to a spicier dish with a hint of curry.

BritFoodChicken_Tikka_MasalaInvestigation yields this history:

(From Wikipedia): A specific version of the British explanation recounts how a Pakistani chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in the west end of Glasgow, invented chicken tikka masala by improvising a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices. In 2013 his son Asif Ali told the story of its invention in 1971 to the BBC’s Hairy BikersTV cookery programme:

On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter, saying it’s dry. At the time Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu. 

In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared that “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”

 So, I suppose we Yanks are just not getting it right….

Undaunted, we pursued our quest of authentic British fish & chips, which ideally would be served wrapped in newspaper, as I’d read in so many of the British novels I adore. Now you must understand that Thor and I hail from the Pacific Northwest and live in a commercial fishing community, where we regularly enjoy fresh fish from our Puget Sound/Salish Sea and Alaska, so our standards are high in this regard. Our favorite fish & chips locally features cod or halibut with a light, crispy batter, served with fries and tartar sauce, along with a side of crunchy coleslaw. Amusingly, it is served from a converted British double-decker bus near our waterfront.

We first ordered Authentic British Fish & Chips at the Blenheim Palace cafeteria, which may not have been the best venue. Bland and soggy, it did not impress. However, we soldiered on, arriving at Lyme Regis, a beachfront destination for Brits on holiday. Surely this would be the perfect place to find the real deal! We had worked up an appetite hiking the long beach and digging for fossils to satisfy Thor’s paleontology urges. Wet and cold (this was, after all, an English day at the beach), we found a homey-looking seafood café and eagerly ordered the specialty, described as being accompanied by “mushy peas.”  Yes, the peas were very mushy, sort of a thick, gloppy, almost tasteless goo. And, we were distressed to find, the fish and chips were also sort of mushy—bland, with soft fish, and very greasy.

BritFoodFish&Chips

“By Jove, this is beyond the pale!” declared Thor, mixing pantheons. “But you shall have your tea and scones, at least!”  Striding down the quaint, cobbled lanes and dragging me along, he spied our Mecca: a half-timbered tea house perched above the harbor.

I took a deep breath, summoning the spirit of past Lyme Regis resident Jane Austen, and inquired as to the availability of scones and clotted cream. “Of course, Love,” I was assured.

They arrived with our perfect pot of tea. I took a deep breath and uttered a little prayer, then realized I was being watched by a bemused local gentleman and his wife at the next table. Thor instructed me on the proper method of slathering the scone with raspberry jam and copious quantities of clotted cream. Heaven at last!  All I had dreamed of, melting in my mouth and off of my plate.

britfoodScones

I must have been (discreetly, I’m certain) moaning, as the gentleman beside us commented, “I guess she likes it.”

I have been searching in vain for such scones and such genuine clotted cream ever since, alas. We Yanks can’t match that ambrosia, as least in our neck of the woods.

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Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a AriadneThumbnailnear-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.

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The Rambling Writer on British and American Food — 15 Comments

  1. I am sorry you had bad luck with the curries – ‘sweet and bland’ is not what a Tikka Massala should be like, though I admit to ordering strategically: because it’s such a common thing (along with the Korma, the curry for people who don’t like curries), I will order it in pubs where it’s the only curry on the basis that it’s rarely terrible, but will always order rarer curry in any restaurant I don’t know. Only when a restaurant has proven itself will I order a Tikka Massala. (In London, I recommend the Punjab, which is opposite Forbidden Planet. Yet to have an even average meal there. YUM.)

  2. It’s getting harder and harder to find a good fish and chips. We have an excellent chippy at the end of our street but we’ve nearly always been disappointed when we go to the seaside and want fish & chips – undercooked, flabby batter, limp chips. Apparently they are still good mostly in the North, where they will be cooked in beef dripping.

    • Phyl, this sounds wonderful! I have thought of making a foray over the border into British Columbia in search of clotted cream, so will see if I can bring some, and we will definitely coordinate at the con. Yum in advance.

  3. British desserts, teas, and sweets are what they do best. Healthy food, not so much. 🙂

    The fish and chips on the pier at Brighton used to be wonderful, though.

  4. Yeah, both of those places you tried seem to be more like places for tourists rather than places for locals. Probably much pricer than a Fish & Chip shop in residential area. Mushy peas is pretty tasteless wherever you get them, unless they are homemade but usually they’ll be these: http://batchelorspeas.co.uk/

    The thing you need to understand about curry is they are adapted for local palates, the curries in the UK are very different to curries in India for example. Similarly curries in the UK can be very different depending on which city/town/part of town etc. you are in. A friend who is Indian once warned me off eating in an Indian resturant where I don’t see someone else eating in there from the Indian sub-continent. I live in an area where there is a very large south asian population, so the only excuse is the food is bad. If you want to eat a good curry you have to go where the diaspora eat.