Britain loves curry-stir-fry-steak-bacon-bolognese-tortillas
Last week a story in trashy red-top the Daily Mirror reported that Mexican food is Britain’s favourite. According to the Mirror article, research from market analysts Kantar shows that: “Mexican meal kits and tortillas are the biggest sellers in the world food ingredients aisle”. Apparently in the last year we’ve spent £101 million on tortillas and £67.5 million on Mexican meal kits. This, compared with the £90.3 million spent on “ingredients for make-our-own curries”, provokes the Mirror to suggest that curry has been ousted as the national favourite by Mexican food. Is this really true? Does Britain have a favourite, a national dish? And should we make it this week?
The notion of a “national dish” is a vague and nebulous one. While we may look at other countries and say: “hamburgers are the national dish of America” or “goulash is the national dish of Hungary”, it proves harder to apply the same broad notion of a national cuisine when we look at ourselves and all our multi-cultural influences. We may be able to stereotype other countries, but we have a more nuanced view of what we eat here and it means that the stereotypical view that others may have of Britain’s “national dish” (roast beef and yorkshires, or fish and chips) don’t really apply when we get asked for our favourites.
Curry, in particular, has come to be perceived as Britain’s national food, a view that is entirely reasonable given that it is, essentially, a British invention, our own attempt to replicate Indian foods in a manner that appeals to the British palate. As Channel 4 enjoys pointing out: haggis may not be truly Scottish, but Chicken Tikka Massala sure is.
Indeed it is a view often expressed that Chicken Tikka Massala can be called Britain’s “national dish”, an idea supported by then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s 2001 speech in which he praised the dish as a perfect example of cultural fusion, saying: “Chicken Tikka Massala 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. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
In recent times, however, the Tikka Massala’s dominance over the curry world has come into question. A 2011 survey by the British Curry Club interviewed over 1000 people and found Chicken Tikka Massala to be only the 8th choice favourite curry. The much spicier Jalfrezi won the popular vote, with 21% of those surveyed plumping for it as their favourite, followed by the Madras and the Rogan Josh.
If Tikka Massala no longer counts as Britain’s favourite curry, then how can it be the national dish? Certainly that’s the feeling of a number of other “Britain’s favourite food” studies. For example, Tikka Massala saw itself knocked off the top spot of Food Network UK’s study of Britain’s most-loved food in 2012. It was pipped to number 1 by Chinese stir-fry. The Food Network study also had its audience dismiss “traditional British dishes” like sausage and mash or fish and chips as “too boring”. A similar study to the one reported in the Mirror, conducted by consumer analysts Mintel in 2009 also found stir-fry beat curry as the nation’s favourite.
So, is a Chinese stir-fry in actual fact Britain’s national dish? Well, another Food Network study from the same time as the one above reported bacon to be the most popular option from a list of 100 foods, beating chicken, chocolate, steak and beef, which rounded out the top 5. So, perhaps let’s not jump to too many conclusions just yet. In fact, when UKTV did their own study of national tastes in 2009, stir-fry ranked a mere 6th with curry in 10th. According to this survey, pasta is what we really like in this country, with Lasagne in 4th and Spaghetti Bolognese proving the nation’s favourite.
Pasta, it seems, isn’t just one of the favourites for Britain’s top food. It’s a pretty big deal the world over. A 2011 study from Oxfam surveyed 8,000 participants across 17 countries and pasta came out as the overall favourite, followed by rice, pizza and chicken. For the Brits in this study, though, pasta had to settle for 2nd place above chicken in 3rd. Britain’s favourite food according to the Oxfam study? Steak.
So, there we have it, Britain’s national dish is either Mexican tortillas, Chicken Tikka Massala, Chinese stir-fry, Spaghetti Bolognese, bacon or steak. So, I decided to make that. All of it. And see whether putting all of these elements together really would make the ultimate national dish of Britain.
Although I enjoy baking a lot of my own bread, I had never made Mexican tortillas, or indeed any kind of flat bread or unleavened bread, before. It turns out, though, that flour tortillas are incredibly easy to make yourself. Plain flour is mixed with salt and fat, I rubbed in some butter as you would with pastry, and then baking powder gets added in order to give the tortillas their air pockets. After adding water they could be rolled out into flat discs and these are placed on a hot frying pan until air pockets bubble up, about 30 seconds, and then flipped over and cooked on the other side. It’s just that simple and very satisfying.
Tortillas prepared, I then set about thinking about trying to combine the Indian-Chinese-Italian-British elements of all the other national favourites into something to fill the tortillas. Starting with the Tikka Massala, I decided to do without the bland, thin sauce that usually comprises the “Massala” part of the recipe and focused on the “Chicken Tikka”.
Chicken Tikka is chicken grilled after being marinated in natural yoghurt and a mix of spices. I used a mix of cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods, along with fresh ginger, turmeric and chilli. I mixed this up and set my chicken pieces aside to marinade until I had made the rest of my national dish tortilla components.
The bolognese I decided to make with the steak and bacon rather than using mince, in order to put three of the nation’s favourites together. So, I sliced a piece of rump steak into small chunks and browned this along with the bacon before adding onions and garlic, a tin of tomatoes and some fresh ones and a mix of herbs. This I left to cook slowly while I moved on to the final element – the stir-fry.
Already including chicken, steak and bacon I didn’t want to add any more meat with the stir-fry, so I decided to make this the vegetable component of the dish. Considering flavours that I thought would be appropriate to a Chinese style stir-fry, but that would also go with both a Mexican tortilla and a tomato sauce, I chopped up green, yellow and red peppers, carrots, spring onions, ginger and chilli and fried them in oil, before adding coriander leaves, soy sauce and vinegar.
Finally, then, I had the core ingredients of all the so-called “national favourites” of Britain over the past few years: tortilla, Chicken Tikka, bolognese, bacon, steak and stir-fry. Now all I needed to do was to combine them. I spread a spoonful of bolognese, making sure to get a bit of chopped steak and bacon in each spoon, on each tortilla, added a spoonful of stir-fry vegetables and topped this with a couple of chunks of Chicken Tikka before folding the tortilla into a wrap and serving up some of the British national tortilla.
So, how was it? Are our nation’s restaurants and ready meals going to be rushing out some Chicken-Tikka-stir-fry-veg-steak-bacon-bolognese-tortillas? Well, no. Probably not. They weren’t bad, by any means, and the home made tortillas had a good texture and consistency. Each of the individual filling elements were good and would have worked in a tortilla wrap, and even with one of the other filling components. All together, however, it was just a little too much. The bolognese kind of overwhelmed the chicken and other parts, it would probably have been better without.
In the end, what we’ve learnt this week is that British cuisine and the everyday tastes of us as a nation are impressively global and multi-cultural and at least three continents can lay claim to being our favourite. While all these dishes fight it out for the top spot, however, their individual merits may be better taken, well, individually.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I think my favourite part of this was the tortillas. They are definitely worth making yourself. The stir fried veg and the Chicken Tikka worked together (though the Tikka could have been punchier). But the bolgnese? The umami flavour of the tomatoes just didn’t worth with anything else. I mean, it was all perfectly edible, but it’s not something to remake. ConFusion Cuisine, anyone?