The Ringside View

My attempts at writing have always been stacked up in old diaries and scraps of yellowing paper.Time,neglect and phylum insecta however, always ensured that the gibberish i scrawled, never would see the prying gaze of an alien eye.Years later, i still scribble once in a while - this time in word documents stored in some obscure folder somewhere in the innards of my C drive.I am unearthing some of them and opening them up for the interested.To get what i call - The Ringside view.

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Location: Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Food Talk

[Published on Hafta dated 18th July 2007]

‘What is, authentic British food?’, I asked Matt over lunch one day. He pondered pensively like I had asked him the very meaning to life itself. ‘It varies’, he started evasively. But I was not to let him slip out of this one easily. ‘I understand’, I interrupted. ‘But there still must be something that the British would have every day. Something staple. Something they’d die for’, I dramatized. Staring emptily into a distant nothingness, Matt replied, ‘Yorkshire pudding is authentic and every Englishman likes his steak and roast potatoes. And…..’, rubbing his chin gingerly added - ‘Chicken Tikka masala probably’.

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We were at JVK’s leaving do the other day and amidst passionate discussions on women, wine and other vices, we suddenly found ourselves discussing food. I quickly slipped out my million dollar question and asked VK, the ‘What is staple English food’ question. VK on six pints of lager laughed hysterically and told me – ‘Don’t believe the folks who tell you pies and puddings and something else exotic. For all and sundry, a normal English lunch is still the humble sandwich’. ‘Try Logan’s’ he continued in the same breath. ‘I had this jumbo deli today with turkey breast, mayo, lettuce, pickled olives, tomatoes…..’

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Now that, I am afraid is what I very often get from folks when I probe them with questions on English culinary habits. However, not to be put off with Matt’s ignorance or VK’s statement of truth after six pints of lager, I set off this weekend to the Council library to demystify the truth about English food. Now don’t get me wrong people. It’s not that there is no English ware up for grabs in the streets of Norwich or Peterborough or where ever else you are in the Queen’s land. It’s just that for every restaurant serving British food, you will find three others serving non- British. And even by basic probability theory, chances are that you will end up in a restaurant serving Indian or Italian or Mexican and keep pondering ‘What is authentic British food?’

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I walked past the giant racks on the first floor, searching for volumes on my new found interest. Imagine sitting around huge volumes on British food, making notes and looking pensive as summer clouds loomed dangerously outside. I remember watching Mastermind India on TV as a kid and being baffled by how inane the topics of specialization of some of the contestants were: All works of Vladimir Nobokov between 1938 and 1977. Phew; all Nobel prize winners for Chemistry and their works between XXXX and YYYY. Phew. Phew. Painful though it sounded, there seemed a vague sense of purpose to these topics and I was kicked to have eventually found my share of arbidness. And into it I shall pour my heart and soul.

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I walked past World History and Criminology and finally found Health & Food tucked away nice and cozy between Economics and Photography. Four racks of literature on food and food alone. Quick and easy Italian lunches, books by Madhur Jaffrey and even the odd one on Lebanese cuisine. All hard bound and glossy with a ‘pick me please’ earnestness. But undeterred, I turned a blind eye and kept looking for something with point blank titles like –‘All you ever wanted to know about English cuisine’ or even ‘English cuisine for Dummies’. But multiple left to right scans later, the closest I ever got to anything remotely topical was a book titled ‘Fish & Chips’. Wonder who wrote that. Should I cross borders and venture deeper into ‘Health’ territories, I wondered. I’d be damned if steaks, pies and pudding made it to healthy eating.

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I must admit that thanks to my culinary skills, I do eat out quite a bit and scrawling down eating joints of interest seemed like a good beginning. Very good beginning indeed. Out came a scrap of paper. ‘Can I borrow a pen please’ to the good looking girl sitting nearby and I am off. Scribble; scribble; scribble and I have a fairly long list.

The groundwork done, now it was down to analysis. The rain pelted down in a ‘Oh ya, you bet it’s summer’ kinda mockery.

Rocco’s it read. A nice place you come across when you walk down from the rail station. Black leather furniture; waiters in bow ties and bar girls with thick Italian accents. ‘Pasta, Pizza and Salad buffet’, the inviting board outside screams out. And if you took their word seriously and ventured inside, the Chicken Risotto, Meat Lasagne (is it beef? Pork? Do I care) and slivers of Margherita is what I would call food worth killing your neighbour with a fork with. Decorate your food mountain with colourful leafy salads and by Jove you have an endless (it’s a buffet people) gastronomic saga. But then let’s just not get carried away here. The Italians from Caesar’s times always were adept at building roads and colosseums and cheesy tongue twisting delicacies. But we’re studying British food here and I scratched out my Rocco’s with a casual albeit hungry pencil stroke.

Pensively I worked down the list. Nandos, the Mecca of grilled chicken. It’s a Portuguese joint with earthy interiors, very pretty waitresses and spicy Peri-Peri sauces of Mozambique origins. It’s an aphrodisiac they claim as well and I wonder if it’s the reason why whenever the pretty girl at the billing counter asks me ‘How spicy would you like it’ I always end up mumbling ‘Hot…Very Hot’. Ironically, the Nandos at city centre is right below my gym where I labour endlessly on treadmills and recumbent bikes burning calories which anyway are bound to magically resurface in the floor below. Anyways, that’s the ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed’ concept locked, stocked and barreled. Swish goes the pencil stroke.

There are days when you do not cook and do not want to eat out either at places exotic. And walking home like a loser, in the dead of the night you see shining like a beacon – the Turkish Kebab centers. You suddenly feel the urge to eat Sheekh kebab in Pita bread, or Chicken burger with loads of lettuce and onions. You enter the shady joint and the barrage of questions rain down on you.

‘Hello braather’.

‘Hello’, you reply. ‘Can I have a chicken burger and a coke please’.

‘Braather Indian?’. Yes.

‘Braather student?’. No.
‘Braather working then?’. Yes.

‘How much money braather making’. You shift uneasily and ask for mayo and ketchup as well. He gives you more wisdom and asks why all Indians in this town work for the same company as you. Thanks for making me feel unique braather. Burger in hand, I walk out with a ‘I have earned it and it’s not just three quid’ feeling. Swish.

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A couple of Indian restaurants grace my list in loyal allegiance. To be honest, if statistics is to be believed almost 70-80% (don’t quote me on it) of the so called Indian restaurants in the UK are Bangladeshi in origin. But who cares. The fact remains that they serve everything from Chicken Madras to Vindaloo to Mutton Rogan Josh and that’s all a foodie should ever be bothered about. Mop them up with rotis, naan breads or pilau rice all while listening to Bollywood music pelting out in a setting the ambience exercise. Swish. Swish.

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We went to a Japanese place recently and it duly took its place as one of the latest entries on my list. Interesting way of operating, they did have. Your order taken, there was vigorous scribbling of your dish number on your table like it were some covert Japanese formula. You wait and the drinks arrive and nobody ever bothers if it was 46 on your table or 73. ‘Iced tea’, asks the waitress. ‘Here please….46’, I smartly quip. She hands me my drink and looks at me like I were some number freak. Anyways, the straw like rice noodles eventually arrive, and I restrain from quoting numbers. It tastes distinctly of lemon grass and ginger and I get wild visions of Japanese rice fields and farmers in long straw hats( don’t know why). I concentrate and fight through the quietest lunch of my life. Phew!!! Chopsticks.

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The summer clouds outside the library window had finished their sport and drifted further eastwards. The sun faked a ‘I’ve been here all along’ smile. I walked out of the revolving glass door right into the aimless Saturday crowd of shoppers and revellers. I looked around ravenously. All the food talk had whipped up a roaring appetite, you see.

‘Half grilled chicken with coleslaw and garlic bread, please’, I said.

‘And how spicy would you like it?’, the Lateita Casta look alike questions.

‘Hot…..very hot’, I stutter.

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So that’s the crux of it. English food is Portugese; it’s Turkish; it’s Indian; it’s a melting pot of cuisines from wherever the Englishman went. Not quite satisfactory. I fiddled with the pencil in my hand. Anyways until a better answer dawns, let’s consider it proved. Period.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Krishna said...

Incidentally i had the same discussion when i was there as well.. and an Englishman had brought it to my attention that the top rated restaurants in the world were in London !! still doesn't really say much about the British cuisine though does it :D .. He was able to name quite a few dishes like "toad in the hole", pasty , n some others i cant recall rt now :)

July 28, 2007 11:37 AM  
Blogger Pri said...

now you've gone and made me hungry!

July 28, 2007 2:55 PM  
Anonymous Avi said...

Has to be black pudding - though that is probably Welsh/Celtic; and not English enough. Good writing though

January 28, 2008 5:36 AM  

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