We’ve always been a generous-hearted nation when it comes to welcoming immigrant foods. You can find bits from almost every culinary culture under the sun embedded in our own if you look with well-informed enough taste buds. Our love of Indian and Chinese food have helped shape our tastes for a couple of hundred years, their restaurants having long colonised high streets up and down the land. They’ve been joined by pizza chains, kebab eateries, burger bars and felafal joints in more recent decades. Tapas turns up to describe almost any miscellaneous assembly of small dishes, and what isn’t tapas is meze. And who would’ve thought we’d mutate into a nation of raw fish eaters? And so on and so on. We seem to value every food culture in the world but our own.
And yet … and yet. I would maintain that in every case we’ve taken the best dishes these countries can offer and given them into traditional English – all right, British – form. It’s a matter of the architecture of the plate.
If you ask for lamb chops in Italy, you get three or four lamb chops on the plate. Nothing else. No gravy, no sauce, no vegetables. Just the chops.
If you have lamb chops in France, you get two or three lamb chops plus sauce, possibly gravy, and a scattering of vegetables for decorative purposes.
In Spain, they’ll come with peppers or in a tomato sauce.
If you have lamb chops in India, they’ll bedded down in some curry.
In the Levant, they’d prefer to send you out some brains or tongues.
But in Britain, you get two fat lamb chops, gravy, mint sauce and/or red currant jelly, potatoes, beans, carrots, the whole veg patch. (See the photo at the top, actually mutton chops with purple sprouting broccoli, green and yellow courgettes, potatoes and lots of gravy at the Woolpack, Slad. Bloody lovely. No mint sauce or red current jelly, though. Not really needed)
More than that, in other countries meals are rectangular; a succession of dishes of more or less equal gastronomic weight.
In Britain, on the other hand, our meals are triangular (or possibly pyramidal) – dainty first course; monster main course, itself a pyramid; petite(ish) pudding. That’s what we like. That’s what we’re used to. It’s in a dietary DNA. So we build the dishes of other countries in the same way.
In my experience, you hardly ever eat an Italian, French, Spanish, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese etc etc dish as you would in its home country because that’s the way we like them.
So the Italian, French, Spanish, Levantine, Indian, Chinese etc dishes we enjoy so much are edible exemplars of integration. All nations, races and religions meet peacefully and equally on the plate.