- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

THE MULTICULTURAL HISTORY OF BRITISH FOOD

By Panikos Panayi

The University of Chicago Press, $40, 288 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

A couple of years ago, there was a certain amount of amusement mixed with some consternation when a poll re-

vealed that Britain’s favorite dish was none other than Chicken Tikka Masala. Not those insular perennials Fish and Chips or the Roast Beef of Olde England or even Spaghetti Bolognese, anglicized and familiarized by generations of children (of all ages) into their beloved Spag Boll. Not the American style hamburger, which swept aside the inferior British beefburger. Not even Curry, that Anglo-Indian dish brought back over two centuries of the Raj by pukka sahibs returning to the old country, but a genuine, authentic, truly Indian classic dish. No wonder Panikos Panayi, a British academic and son of a Greek Cypriot pastry chef, has aptly entitled his comprehensive and enlightening study, “Spicing Up Britain.”

But as Mr. Panayi shows, this process of spicing up the bland British diet began long before immigrants from the onetime jewel in the imperial British crown imported the splendors of their cuisine to the United Kingdom. Indeed, with the possible exception of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, even dishes widely associated with Great Britain are not necessarily native to the British Isles.

The custom of frying fish in vegetable oil comes from southern Spain and was probably brought north by Sephardic Jews expelled from there 500-plus years ago; chips, or potatoes fried in oil, hail from France. And so even that quintessentially British dish of fish and chips is itself an immigrant. In the 19th century, German pork butchers brought their sausage making skills across the North Sea and their compatriot bakers had a big impact there as well. The large Jewish migration from Eastern and parts of Central Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries brought their distinctive cuisine and delicatessen with them. Italians brought ice cream and pasta, twin favorites of even the most conservative childish palates, tastes that followed them into adulthood.

In twin chapters entitled “The Birth of the Foreign Restaurant” and “The Victory of the Foreign Restaurant,” Mr. Panayi shows how the very concept of a restaurant in Britain had to be introduced from abroad, before it could take the place of the inn. And indeed, the survival of the pub shows the resistance to that process until our own age when the gastropub has perhaps fused them. The development of restaurants in Britain was two-pronged, according to this book:

“First-, second-, and third-generation migrants opened up establishments for their own communities, staffed or owned many apparently British restaurants and also ran cosmopolitan institutions which attracted members of the ethnic majority, particularly the London middle classes.”

For it has to be admitted that the bland cuisine of most Britons badly needed spicing up, as the reader can see from the depressing menu choices Mr. Panayi reproduces. By far the saddest are the pathetic dishes urged on the British public during the period of austerity during, and in the years following, World War II. But equally depressing are the dishes people chose to eat in times of plenty: A dreary litany of shepherd’s or cottage pies, watery, overcooked vegetables, bland cooked suet puddings with eggless “custard.” Reading the evocative paeans of Elizabeth David to the dolce far niente glories of the diet to the south in her groundbreaking and influential postwar classic, “Book of Mediterranean Food,” you understand the absolute necessity of what she was preaching to her mostly decidedly unconverted compatriots:

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores, endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pan … .The ever recurring themes in the food throughout … are the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchen; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish.”

And so this proselytizing - written as David admitted decades later, “largely in a spirit of defiance” at a time when, for example, olive oil was only available in pharmacies for medicinal use (!) - brought the revolution which had previously been confined to restaurants into the home kitchen.

Wearing his twin hats of foodie and social historian, Panikos Panayi can appall as well as engender salivation on his tour d’horizon of the multicultural history of British food. His book demonstrates convincingly that whether drawing on its former colonial and imperial possessions (including the United States, with its ever- popular hamburger and other fast foods) or on its European neighbors, the openness of British society has truly enriched its diet and produced its present-day variegated cuisine.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide