And Paul Krugman once asked why British food was so lousy

My brother Phil can’t do anything in the kitchen. I don’t even think he’s been near a kitchen. He takes after our dad. My wife Emma grew up with her dad, who spoiled her and cooked everything. And when I go away he comes round and cooks for her, I think. She does a good spaghetti bolognese. But neither of us are slow-cooking casseroles, or marinading fish for 24 hours like [goalkeeper] Ben Foster, or hanging meat in the garage. When you’re from Lancashire you just stick it in and when it comes out dry you eat it. You don’t bloody marinade. It’s as simple as that.

34 thoughts on “And Paul Krugman once asked why British food was so lousy”

  1. “She does a good spaghetti bolognese.”

    Why do I suspect that means ‘she can brown onions & mince and open a jar of Dolmio’..?

  2. If you wish to judge a nation’s cuisine, it’s not the cooking you need to look at. It’s the eating. And Brits. in general, know FA about the subject. Hence the popularity of several fictional cuisines.

  3. Oi, I object to this stereotyping. My dear old Ma cooked a limited cuisine, but by golly she cooked it well.

  4. @Tim
    Why do you find American criticism odd? I spent a short period with a family in Brooklyn. Home cooking was basically Sicilian/Southern Italian. Out, we ate Russian, Vietnamese with Russians & Vietnamese. Lebanese snacks from a fast food joint run by Lebanese. My Mexican cooking comes courtesy of a Mexican/American girlfriend.
    You wonder they’re less than enthusiastic about roast mystery meat & a selection of boiled vegetables?

  5. I disagree, British cuisine at its best is the second best in the world. And there is nothing unique about the crap, you can find crap food everywhere. And it doesn’t suffer as much of the American regulatoritis that has seen cured meats, various cheeses, Kinder surprise etc. banned, unbanned, re-banned and so on.

    The supposedly traditional British habit of cremating limited ingredients was a hangover from rationing, when the country was locavore by sheer necessity and your weekly half chicken breast probably was more Salmonella than chicken by weight. It wasn’t like that before, except for the poor of course, as a cursory look at Beeton will confirm.

    The best? Hong Kong, where the best is out of this world and even the cheap stuff is good compared to the rest of the world’s cheap stuff.

  6. It’s a northern European thing. Same as the beer/wine divide. Nobody raves about Norwegian dried fish or Hungarian stews. All the interesting food comes from hot countries, for fairly obvious reasons.

  7. @BiG
    I wonder that about the death of Brit cuisine. Don’t know about Beeton but there’s fabulous stuff in cookery books from a century or so earlier. Problem with recreating them is they take for granted technique that’ slipped from common memory.
    But a lot of what Brits call “foreign food” is really peasant cooking. The response to having to compensate for limited, poor quality ingredients bulked up with filler.. Like paella here. Throw everything you’ve in a pan with some rice.& feed twenty. So if the techniques had been still existent, the wartime rationing should have brought out the best in Brit “peasant cuisine”.
    On the table here, last week, was cabbage soup. The recipe’s Polish but there’s variations across E. Europe. The Brits don’t seem to be able to think of doing anything else with the vegetable but boil it grey.

  8. “Nobody raves about Norwegian”
    if you’ve ever been exposed to Swedish fermented fish, achieved by digging a hole & leaving it for six months I gather, you won’t either. Nor anyone catches a whiff of your breath.

  9. bis,

    “Home cooking was basically Sicilian/Southern Italian. Out, we ate Russian, Vietnamese with Russians & Vietnamese. Lebanese snacks from a fast food joint run by Lebanese. My Mexican cooking comes courtesy of a Mexican/American girlfriend.”

    And if I introduced you to an Indian family living in Bow, you’d have a similar experience.

    People in alien locations have less experience than in their own countries. I know the best places to eat around Swindon. You pop me down in Southall, I doubt I will find the best place for a curry. It’s what keeps the Aberdeen Steak Houses in London in business.

  10. Oi, I object to this stereotyping. My dear old Ma cooked a limited cuisine, but by golly she cooked it well.

    Same. Never had a better Sunday roast.

  11. @TimA
    “And if I introduced you to an Indian family living in Bow, you’d have a similar experience.”
    You wouldn’t need to. My introduction to food from the subcontinent was greengrocers in Ladbroke Grove, served meals in the back-room as a sideline. Indian restaurants, in every high street, came along later. Why I have problems with a supposedly non-regional Indian cuisine cooked by a Bangladeshi working for a Pakistani born in Stratford.
    What’s “curry”?.

  12. Mr in Spain, I know a delicious recipe for Savoy cabbage leaves, which are blanched then wrapped around minced beef seasoned with nutmeg. The parcel is tied with narrow strips of leek. Admittedly it’s an Italian recipe, much of what I like about Eyetie nosh is that similar processes are used there as here, albeit often with different ingredients. But I agree with you about *how* to eat food and that, I think, is a Protestant work ethic thing. I mean, I’m a decent cook, but my habits are, shall we say, irregular – and that’s largely due to work.

  13. The country’s obsession with food has been one of the more depressing aspects of the past couple of decades. Is there a more pitiful sight than a grown man in an apron attemptng to cook something on TV on a Saturday morning, when he’d obviously prefer to be outside kicking a ball?

  14. “The Brits don’t seem to be able to think of doing anything else with the vegetable but boil it grey.”

    Excuse me. I am British and any cabbage I cook is ALWAYS beautifully green. Unless it is red.

  15. Mr Lud!
    You’ve just described a variation on gołąbki (gowabk,- near as I can get it, anyway. Without finding I’ve insulted someone’s maternal uncle). Polish basic scoff. And a particular favourite. Thanks. I’ll try that next time Jola’s here.

  16. What Frances said.
    Except I never cook cabbage, but I do cook over a dozen different vegetables (not all at once, of course).

  17. @BiS,

    To be fair the exotic stuff in Beeton is things like macaroni cheese, and stews with curry powder in them. Perhaps unsurprising that anglicised cooking of the Raj was known at Downton’s dinner table, or that the upper crust brought back a few things from the trattorias visited on their grand tour. Technique was limited by the frankly primitive heat application technology and cooking stuff dry reflects the fact that food then was far more likely to carry dangerous quantities of pathogens. I’ve taken visitors to restaurants here to have them send back pork chops for having a bit of pink in the middle – perfectly well-done side of medium. To be fair, personally I find “rare” chicken gross on taste grounds but the serving of dried-out pork is an unnecessary travesty. If you like it well cooked, casserole it until it is falling to pieces, don’t cremate a chop.

    Italian cuisine is mostly peasant, not posh nosh. That’s what annoys me about the elevation of stuff like truffles to some haute-cuisine delicacy, merely because they are now expensive. They’re better used in mashed potato or as an enhancer (where the artificial flavouring in olive oil version is adequate) than slivers for show on steaks or other things with plenty of inherent or added flavour.

  18. BTW, despite having 50% Indian genes, I cook plenty of “Bengali” restaurant-style curries, because doing a huge spread of samosas, bhaji, three dals, chapatis and puris, two rices, a salad, a biryani, vegetables in indigestible millet flour and a roast goat is not compatible with my current lifestyle. I do have a charcoal-fired tandoor in the garden and will happily fire it up to make the world’s most awesome mango chicken, next time Tim has a stopover in Frankfurt.

  19. Bloke in Costa Rica

    What is “British” food? Like the language, we’ve accreted stuff from all over the world. The range of ingredients available in every supermarket is top-notch. Whenever I hear a foreigner criticising UK food I ask them when they were last there. Usually they admit they’ve never set foot there and haven’t a clue. It’s a silly relic of something that used to have a grain of truth in it, like the idea that Brits have bad teeth.

    I’m a pretty good cook, with a fairly varied repertoire, some of which I learnt from my mother and some of which I taught myself. In the last week I’ve had home-made falafel, steak with broccoli, fried chicken, scratch-made lasagne, and so on. None of these might be authentically British, but none of them would cause any consternation if served in a restaurant there.

  20. If you wanted “authentically British” you’d be eating meat combined with fruits & cream. Very common in old recipes. Or steamed chicken breast ground with honey & nuts & served cold as a sweet desert. A much wider range of vegetables. A lot of what grows at the roadside was commonly eaten & not just by necessity Nettles, for instance. Those may even have been imported by the Romans as a food crop.

  21. Dennis The Peasant

    Let’s not blame this all on English cooking.

    A significant part of the problem is that Paul Krugman is used to eating quite well, what with having a chef as part of his household staff. It’s all part of what frees up so much of his time for Thinking Deep Thoughts, and thereby allowing him to prattle on at length about income inequality and whatnot.

    Railing against economic injustice is a bitch without good domestic help, you know.

  22. Part of all this is that the “British” are no longer “British”. Not is the old meaning of the word.

  23. What happened to vegatables? I’m not being nationalistic here. 20 odd years ago I rode a bike through France. Everywhere I stopped to eat (frequently), veg was on the menu. Pretty much didn’t ask. It turned up. Similarly Italy, UK even if a bit mushy and horrible.

    Now you get a chunk of meat or fish. Perfectly pleasant, but that’s all you get. Despite vegans and other misguided peeps.

  24. Luke

    What happened to vegatables? […] Now you get a chunk of meat or fish. Perfectly pleasant, but that’s all you get.

    Seems to be the way of most upmarket places these days, with the exception of Sunday roasts/carveries and one-pot casserole-type things. I guess that it’s a combination of wanting to reduce food waste (lots of actual grown-ups seem to leave their veg, untouched, which I find sad) and extract a bit more revenue by charging extra for veg as sides. I used to balk at paying the ‘extra’, but now I see it as the actual price for the meal is the price for the main plus a one or two dishes of veg and judge accordingly.

  25. Luke,

    Oh, and it was pretty much the same in Bordeaux when we were there a couple of years ago, so it’s not just a British thing.

  26. Food service has moved to almost exclusively plated-dish (American service). And the more care a restaurant takes over the presentation of its food the less likely it is to want to disrupt that by adding some soggy sprouts on the side.

    Of course British food is an accretion, but that accretion, enabled by the seafaring/colonial history and geographical position, along with the current Blumenthalesque wave of innovation and consumers finally focusing on quality as well as cheap is why it is now the second best in the world.

    It really does seem to help being an ex-coloniser than ex-colonised, and I wonder if this is somehow related to the fact that the US accepts far lower quality raw ingredients. That and the agbribusiness lobbying, which has reached its logical conclusion of most US mall food consisting of gallons of unwanted subsidised HFCS with a few other ingredients added for texture and visual stimulation.

    I once looked into Maltese cuisine imagining it to be an exciting blend of Spanish, French, Italian, Middle-Eastern and North-African influences. Turns out the number 1 dish on Malta is fish and chips.

  27. I’m with Bloke In Germany on this one. Particularly the effect that the war and rationing years had on British cuisine.

  28. And I’m with Frances on the cabbage thing.

    The boiled grey seems to come from institutional/school cooking. It took me some years after school to realise what a delicious vegetable cabbage is, when cooked properly. I consider those little pointy cabbages (“pak choi” I think they poshly call them in the supermarkets these days) to be a veritable treat food.

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