February 3, 2010

Stirring Up the Melting Pot: Cuisine in London

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London is a culinary tortoise shell — a tough nut to crack!

This winter, before I headed to the city of incomprehensible accents, I had low expectations of the food there. After all, it was a common dictum that the French lived to eat but the British ate to live. You would think that the overnight popularity of foul-mouthed kitchen tyrant Gordon Ramsay would somehow steer this hopelessly identity-less cuisine in some definitive direction. Rather, I saw it as a testament to the need for the British to be told what to eat, no less by one of the most terrifying dictators in culinary history.

Then, I arrived.

Pushing all these pre-conceived notions aside, the only thing I can say about London’s food is that it is definitely colorful — in every sense of the word. Weaving through the crowds at a London market is, in fact, a cultural experience!

Just head to the East End markets or even the slightly more upscale Borough Market — you’d be stunned at the vibrant extravagance of it all. Red rhubarbs fight with navel oranges for your attention, both glistening in England’s (very occasional) bright sunlight. Colorful cheeses lure you in with their pungent smells and myriad of flavors.

Somewhere in the mob, I could hear the familiar accent of a Singaporean, a highly nuanced French conversation, and even the dramatic discourse of an Indian speaker. This is London, one of the best examples of an international city, a city that was born even before the word “cosmopolitan” was invented.

This, I think, is a where London’s cuisine fails. In my opinion, nation that calls itself a melting pot is one that does not know what it really wants to be. In other words, the term “melting pot” is merely a masquerade for an identity crisis. And this shows in England’s food.

People say the French are arrogant, but only because they have the assets to be, no? They were the ones who defined time-tested culinary standards like the sauce classification system and the kitchen brigade structure.

On the contrary, Londoners don’t seem to have much to boast of beyond fish and chips, Indian curry, and marmite spread, some of which even the locals do not embrace fully wholeheartedly. This is no fault of the city’s, of course. We must applaud how London evolved to become the confluence of a huge multitude of cultures, but at the same time, we are also blinded by such a variety that it becomes hard to define what this cuisine is all about.

Despite all of this, there are some fascinating qualities in the foods I have sampled in London. For one thing, Londoners are obsessed with pastries. It is not uncommon to find game, venison, wild boar pies and peach strudels sitting side by side in the same food display. Quite like how I was prying open the gourmet treasure chest of London, the act of slicing through the crust of each pastry — its filling oozing out like a cascading waterfall, the ribbons of steam dancing their way into the air — was a revelation and discovery in itself.

And as many issues as I may have with British food, the aura of mystery that surrounds it is somewhat alluring in its own way. Londoners are also big on homemade comfort foods (cue: Grandma’s secret chicken pot pie recipe), and if you get a fuzzy feeling even from eating frozen English custard, don’t find it strange. It is all part of the British hospitality you are experiencing. And if this is the one angle that the British can capitalize on to define its cuisine, I’m sure it will take off.

Can London and Britain at large break the mold of its uncharacteristic cuisine? I don’t think I have dropped by enough good restaurants to judge. Only time will tell.

Original Author: Brandon Ho