Saturday, September 13, 2014

English Grub

Since my family immigrated to the United States in 1979, I have returned to England five times, meaning I've spent all of about a couple of months there in over 35 years. Each time I've been back, especially as an adult, I've looked forward to different things and explored corners of the country that I've never visited before. In some respects, I bet I've seen more of the country than many people who've spent their entire lives there. But there is one constant about every trip I've taken back there and that is that I always look forward to some awesome English food.

Now I realize for most Americans, the words "English food" conjures up images of singularly bland or offensive dishes; I think most people over here on the left side of the Atlantic think English people eat a mixture of tasteless gruel or a ton of organ meat in the form of kidney pie or blood sausage. I'm telling you right now anybody that thinks that way is dead wrong; you (and you know who you are) have no idea what you are talking about. The last sentence of the previous paragraph is NOT a typo. And to prove it, here are eight essential English foods I absolutely have to have each time I travel to Britain. 

1. Triangular Sandwiches
If there is one food my sister and I missed as soon as we realized what was what over here in the United States, it's triangular sandwiches. Fortunately for the American tourist in London, what started out as motorway rest stop to go fare and then migrated into national supermarket chains is now everywhere. What's the big deal you are wondering right? I mean these are packaged supermarket sandwiches, right? Well, yes. Sort of.

On a most basic level, these things are two pieces of square bread filled with some kind of protein, cut in half diagonally, stuffed into a triangular box and stuck on a shelf waiting for someone to buy them and eat them. But they are so much more than that. They are excellent for breakfast and lunch and probably for dinner as well if you want. They are super cheap and super tasty and the flavors are uniquely English. There's no ham and Swiss here. Try the bacon and egg or egg and cress for an inexpensive breakfast and the ploughman's or prawn mayonnaise (now made with responsibly sourced prawns at Sainsbury's) for lunch. Tuna and sweet corn, turkey and dressing, I could go on and on. These things are absolutely the best to go meals in the world.

There's only one thing that makes a triangular sandwich meal better and that's...

2. Crisps
I know what you are thinking: crisps are just potato chips, right? Well, yes and no. When we moved to the U.S. in 1979, we left behind a land that had crisps in about every flavor under the sun and came to a supposedly just as modern country with three flavors of potato chips: salted, barbeque and sour cream and onion. No beef, smoky bacon, roast chicken, salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, pickled onion or any other sorts of delicious flavors that potato chips should come in. I was devastated. Sure there were Doritos and Fritos and other sorts of corn chips but at 11 years old those all just tasted disgusting to me.

In the last 35 years, this country I now call home has made a lot of progress. Salt and vinegar chips are everywhere, sour cream and cheddar chips are amazing (especially Ruffles') and Utz makes possibly my favorite potato chips ever in their Carolina BBQ chips (my mouth is watering right now thinking about those things). But America still hasn't caught up to 1979 Britain in this regard. There have been some advances in crisps in England but the basic staples in Walker's, Hula Hoops and Monster Munch remain the same. My roast chicken crisps I had on this trip went well with my ploughman's triangular sandwiches in King's Cross Station (although not so well with the Ribena) and my Prawn Cocktail crisps (now with Vale of Evasham tomatoes) complemented my prawn mayonnaise triangular sandwiches on the sidewalk on the way to the Tower Bridge perfectly.

Take my advice here when you land in London. At the first opportunity you have, get yourself into a Tesco or M and S or Sainsbury's and get yourself a snack. You will never have anything better in snack foods.

Pie Minister's Moo & Blue pie with a side of buttery mash.
3. Pies
If the excellence of triangular sandwiches and crisps is a bit of a shock, hopefully you won't recoil when I say that the savory (or savoury if you will) pies in England are an essential meal when you spend any sort of time in the United Kingdom. Think chicken pot pie but way better and with way more choices. I don't know anyone in America that doesn't like chicken pot pie. The KFC pot pie commercial seems to rely solely on some dude repeating "pot pie" over and over again with nothing else of substance so that has to be an indicator of how good chicken pot pie is. My friend Bryan hates every sort of pie except chicken pot pie so there's that too. Now think better.

I spent nine nights in England earlier this month and I ate four whole savory pies and about a third of a fifth pie (don't think about that last one too hard). I can't get enough of these things (clearly) and neither should you if you want some outstanding English food when visiting. I'd recommend pubs as a starting point. You can't really go wrong. I still remember the ham and leek pie I had in some dark pub in Oxford in 2007 as one of the best things I've ever eaten. On this trip, I think the Duke of Wellington pub on London's Portobello Road had the best of the five pies I sampled in their summer chicken pie. Fuller's have a series of Ale and Pie pubs throughout London which are fantastic. The chicken and chorizo pie at the Jack Horner was pretty darned good, especially when paired with a Fuller's Porter.

Outside of pubs, I found Pie Minister's excellent Blue & Moo (steak with Stilton) pie at London's Borough Market on the south bank of the Thames just south of London Bridge. At a cost of only four pounds (with an extra pound for a side of buttery mash), this was probably the best value for money meal I had and it was almost as good as the Duke of Wellington's offering at three times the price. You can't go wrong with pies in England. Eat as many as possible is my advice. See if you can beat my rate next time you are there.

4. Fish and Chips
So this is obviously classic English fare, right? And you can probably find this meal in tons and tons of places over here Stateside. But I think it's worth a trip to a chippie while you are in England to see if what's made over here is the equal to the original. Sure, you can't actually get it wrapped in newspaper any more (someone figured out it was a health hazard or something), the classic cod is now scarce and it's really tempting to get a pie (see number 3 above) or a battered sausage (so good…) but if you can get past all that, go get yourself some fish and chips. 

On this trip, I actually didn't have enough time to get the classic fish and chips takeaway and eat it in the street (likely because I was eating too many pies) but I did manage to sample or eat fish and chips at least three times in the nine days I spent in England. If there was one  fish and chips pilgrimage we had to make in London, it was to Poppie's in Spitalfields, just at the north end of the Brick Lane area. Poppie's is regularly voted by critics and the public alike as one of the best places to get fish and chips in London. I got the cod here (a couple of extra quid over haddock) and it was probably the best fish and chips I've ever had. The flesh of the fish was so meaty and clean tasting and the batter was there to add crunch and a little flavor but not overwhelm the fish while also holding up to the copious amounts of malt vinegar I doused my dish with.

Poppie's is definitely worth a trip, but don't hesitate to go to your local chippie if you are in England. Just watch the bones sometimes (no bones at Poppies).

5. Curry
So I can't honestly say that curry is a childhood favorite that I've missed for years and years and seek out each time I go back to England. In fact, I have to say until last week or so, I had never had curry in England. But I know someone wiser than me (who happened to be with me on my recent trip) who insisted the best curry in the world is in London. So on that endorsement (and I consider her an authority on the subject), we blocked out two nights of curry meals on our packed itinerary.

Our plan was to head to the world famous Tayyab's restaurant the first full day we were in London and then wander down Brick Lane where there are over 40 curry restaurants to find some hole in the wall place by sight and smell for a second meal. Our plan didn't work. The meal we ate at Tayyab's was so good that we didn't go to another place for a second meal; we just went back to Tayyab's. The food was so good, in fact (Karahi Mutton (goat) Tikka Masala and a side of Chana to share) that I got the exact same thing two meals in a row.

It's difficult to express how good this food was. The goat meat was nothing overly special; it was tender sometimes and tough some other times as goat tends to be, but the sauce that came with the goat, a meaty spicy thick gravy was just fantastic. And the chickpeas in the chana were so soft and buttery that they just melted when you pressed them between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. They were honestly the best thing I ate in England in my week plus there (no jokes - remember the premise of this post) so I'm super glad I had them twice. I'm also super glad I had someone in my life to point me in the direction of curry while in London.

Now, just a word or four about Tayyab's based on our two nights there. First, don't expect good service. You will order on their schedule, not yours, even if it means you have to sit for five or ten minutes alone without any service. Second, don't bother making a reservation; in our experience it made no difference. I think the reservation thing there is a ruse. Third, unless you are a popadom freak, decline the popadoms they try to bring you at the beginning of the meal; they are not free and they aren't as good as other stuff on the menu. Fourth, go, relax and enjoy and don't get upset with the service; the food is so worth it.

6. Sticky Toffee Pudding
Just like curry, sticky toffee pudding is not a food of my childhood that I pine for. In fact, I think the first time I had sticky toffee pudding was within the last 10 years or so. In England, it seems to be everywhere. And that's a really good thing because it's freaking amazing.

Pudding in England is not the same thing as pudding in the United States. My friend Bryan (yes, the same one who hates almost all pies) detests pudding; he would not detest sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a piece of sponge cake like stuff saturated in and surrounded by a rich caramel-molasses sauce with, in the best establishments, a touch of cream or scoop of ice cream to cut the richness of the sauce. Yes, that's right, ice cream or heavy cream is used to cut the richness. Think about that.

This stuff is absolutely delicious and I recommend sharing, if only because your cholesterol will have been raised by the end of the eating. It's filling and unctuous (in a good way) and rich and salty and sweet from the sauce. It's absolutely the perfect way to finish an English meal. I'd eat this stuff every day if I thought it was remotely good for me and I knew where to get it in the D.C. metropolitan area.

7. Blackcurrant Flavored Anything
Growing up English, by far one of our favorite flavors of anything was blackcurrant flavor. With my unsophisticated palate it's difficult for me to articulate the flavor of blackcurrant but it's sweet, acidic (which I love) and intensely dark fruit like. Think cherries but way deeper and richer. Just thinking about it is making me crave some Ribena. 

When we moved to the United States, we assumed we would be able to keep eating blackcurrant stuff, whether that be drinks, candy (most mixed fruit candies in England - like Fruit Pastilles or Fruit Gums - featured blackcurrant which always got saved for last), or jams. So imagine our surprise when we got here and realized what we had done by emigrating from England. I'm sure this was not a high priority for my parents who were trying to make ends meet but it was huge for me. It was absolutely devastating. In effect, we had moved to a country where our beloved blackcurrant sweets were swapped out for disgusting grape candy. Ugh!

I know most of the 12 or so people who will ever read this are thinking "I love grape" but you are wrong. You don't love grape. The American fake grape flavor is awful. Find something blackcurrant flavored, even if you have to go all the way across the Atlantic and get some. Any trip to England for me is a chance to get reacquainted with blackcurrants and I'm never disappointed. I have a jar of Farrah's Blackcurrant Preserves with me from this trip that is going to be enjoyed on homemade biscuits a lot of Sundays this fall.

Eating a Milky Bar at Hammersmith Tube station.
8. Milky Bar and Crunchie
My adjustment to American candy bars in 1979 was a little similar to my acclimation to potato chips when we arrived in this country, although honestly there were some real positives to the place we now called home in this department. After we got over the confusing re-naming of candy bars (Three Musketeers is Milky Way in England, Milky Way is Mars and Mars is Topic, if that makes any sense) and then got beyond the deliciousness close to godliness that is the juxtaposition of peanut butter and chocolate, we started to notice what was missing.

Over the last 35 years, the candy situation has largely sorted itself out. There's been some sort of harmonization, more in the direction of U.S. candy bars going to England than the other way around (except in duty free shops at the airport which is the best of both worlds) but the candy perspective is largely the same in both countries. The exceptions worth noting for me are Milky Bar and Crunchie, so the bag of decaffeinated tea I was bringing back for my mom like a cocaine hauling human mule from South America, contained two Milky Bars and three Crunchies (there's one of each left now after five days back here).

Milky Bars are just a bar of white chocolate. Nothing fancier than that. But I've always loved white chocolate and I can't get the same thing here, unless I go gourmet. I appreciate Hershey's intruding the Cookies and Cream candy bars a couple of decades ago but they are not the same thing. Crunchies on the other hand are unique: rich milk chocolate wrapped around a crunchy (duh…) densified honeycomb like center. I could eat these things all day and have loved them just the same since I was a kid. Sure there are other English candy bars unavailable here but Milky Bars and Crunchies are the best for me. Bringing some back from overseas for me will always get you some points in my book.

So that's what I have to say about English food. If you are not convinced by now of the genius of British cuisine then I don't really have any other convincing to do. Just do me a favor and go find out for yourself and then come back and tell me I'm off base. I'm missing this stuff already.

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