British food? From jam rolls to jalfrezi, sushi to spaghetti, burgers to—every variety of cuisine is welcome on Olly Mann’s plate.
Have you chosen your death-row meal? As in, the dish you’d request for your last supper should you find yourself in Texas, guilty of double homicide.
I know mine: grilled baby chicken served with a side of tzatziki, as ordered over three decades by my late father at his favourite restaurant Halepi. It's a Greek-Cypriot joint near Notting Hill where tables buzz with chatter and an open grill fills the air with a salty aroma of citrus, garlic and charred meat.
I guess it would be bad form to suck burnt skin, off-the-bone, as one heads to the electric chair, but there you are: that’s what I’d select as my final meal, and eating it would remind me of home, despite the fact I’m not from Cyprus.
"Imagine, if you can, stag nights without biryani. Football matches without hot dogs. Hipsters without tapas."
I was reminded of this when I heard that the city of Verona has banned the opening of “ethnic” eateries. Their mayor, Flavio Tosi, claims his policy preserves Italian food culture. However, since we all know that Italians require no encouragement whatever to go out and eat pizza, I presume his real intention is to reassure his far-right supporters that migrants are no longer welcome to set up shop.
Consider what would happen if foreign cuisine was similarly restricted in Britain. There would be a few positives perhaps, not least a reduction in litter on our streets: those half-eaten pitas and foil wrappers distributed by drunks in a diaspora of detritus.
Fewer greasy takeaways, I grant you, might make our streets seem more salubrious. The cheap plastic chairs of the peri-peri shacks; the neon signs of the noodle bars—these must all be rather dispiriting if you’re of a generation who remembers such places when they were independent fruiterers, or fishmongers, or, oh I don’t know, curtain-tailors, or moustache barbers, or whatever the hell the UK used to have when we had local stores.
But aesthetic issues are unrelated to the nationality of the restauranteurs. While some entrepreneurial arrivals to our country have taken advantage of Britain’s desire for fast food and supplied us with it accordingly, they have also, literally, spiced up our lives in the process.
Imagine, if you can, stag nights without biryani. Football matches without hot dogs. Hipsters without tapas. In 2016, “foreign” food culture is British food culture. Witness the zombie hordes of office workers lining up for burritos and churros in their lunch break. The slow surrender of the nation’s fridges to ever-expanding ranges of hummus. The middle-class fetish for over-priced burgers.
If the Japanese hadn’t brought us sushi restaurants, the only fish that would ever pass my lips would be dipped in batter, fried within an inch of its life and served with mushy peas. If the Italians hadn’t exported us espresso (which the Americans then satanically repackaged as milkshake) I wouldn’t be sipping on this delicious yet preposterous half-litre of hazelnut latte as I write this. I bought it in a petrol station. A petrol station! Before foreign food came to Britain, all you could buy in petrol stations was Ginsters pasties and petrol.
Even the Queen is a culinary internationalist: coronation chicken, created to commemorate her ascension to the throne, is, essentially, a 1950s showcase for curry powder. The fusion of Indian and French influences in a dish designed to herald the new monarch is as close to a political statement as the Palace ever makes.
"I bet even the English Defence League heads out for a curry after another hateful day of shouting in the rain."
I'm not saying there isn’t a place for a full English breakfast, a toad-in-the-hole, or an Eton Mess—and that place, at almost any opportunity, is my stomach. Pub grub, puddings and fry-ups are all wonderful when well made. But the British appetite has broadened.
Even the most patriotic of pubs may now offer calamari, ribs and sweet-potato fries. Wetherspoons—who model their establishments on the idealised public house described in George Orwell’s essay “The Moon Under Water”—are culinarily synonymous not with Orwell’s suggestions of “a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll”, but with Thursday night Curry Club.
We are now a nation that loves multicultural food, regardless of our views on multiculturalism. I bet even the English Defence League heads out for a curry after another hateful day of shouting in the rain.
So we’d, surely, have no desire to copy Verona and veto new foods from making their way to these islands. But Mayor Tosi might be pleased that my reading up on the Veronese cuisine he’s allegedly protecting has made me want to sample some of the dishes, pronto: where have you been all my life, slowly simmered red-wine risotto, creamy cheese-smothered polenta and slow-cooked duck ragu?
Veronese migrants, you’re most welcome to come to my street and set up shop. And if your food is as good as it sounds, there would soon be a queue. Nothing could be more British.