As someone who is always searching for the perfect meal, occasionally I come across things that are more like the exact opposite. It’s time to take a look at the other end of the scale. I’m not just talking “disgusting”, like the sort of things they make people eat on those jungle reality shows, I’m talking foods (or aspects of food) that are, for the want of a better word, just “wrong”. So here are my 10 Crimes Against Food… things that are an insult to food and just should not be done, fullstop.
So I put together this little list. It’s not a “Top Ten” list, but it just so happened that there were ten of them. Therefore they are in no particular order. Think of it as a culinary version of “Room 101”. These are the ten things I’d gladly shove in without hesitation.
I’m not certain exactly how long sushi has been popular in the UK, but I do know that in the mid-to-late 90’s there was a sort of “sushi boom”, where it started becoming a hell of a lot more mainstream. It became the most fashionable dining out experience, more and more places were opening up all over central London, and even the most ignorant of people started to warm to the idea of eating ‘raw fish’.
But then high-street food chains and supermarkets heard that the Great British public were mad for sushi, and cottoned on to the idea of serving it as part of their ready-to-eat range. However, they hit a brick wall when they actually did some research into it and found out uncooked fish tends to have a very short shelf life.
Tuna. Straight out of a tin and into an uramaki (Inside-out roll which, by the way, is a completely American invention). There is no other word for this but “abomination”. Now the Japanese eat a lot of tuna, and while they deserve a hefty kick in the kintamas for their part in the ongoing global overfishing crisis, at least they know what to do with the stuff they catch. And one thing they don’t do is put it in a tin and then use it for sushi.
In this incarnation, we see it accompanied by vegetarian maki rolls. Cucumber and red pepper seem like very safe choices. Now I’ve nothing against vegetarians (more on them later), and I fully believe they are as entitled to enjoy sushi as anyone else. But there’s only so much kappamaki I can eat. Real sushi to me is about fish, pure and simple.
The ultimate insult is that this comes packaged in a plastic box with a sell-by date stamped on it. Sushi should be as fresh as possible, and in Japan the best stuff was probably still swimming just an hour or so before you ordered it. If you have to put a sell-by date on sushi then it is not sushi.
Restaurants With Laminated Menus
Pete McCarthy, in his brilliant work “McCarthy’s Bar”, frequently mentions his “Rules Of Travel”. One such rule is “No. 7 – Never Eat in a Restaurant with Laminated Menus”.
“Why the hell not”?? you might say to yourself. But this one actually makes sense. I know the type of place Mr. McCarthy was referring to – we’re talking the sort of joints that have sprung up like chickenpox in places like Majorca, Lanzarote, Benidorm, basically anywhere large numbers of Brits go to holiday abroad. You know the type, usually run by long-time British ex-pats with bad tempers and poorly spelt tattoos (although I’ve seen plenty of imitation Chinese places that also have it, more on those later).
First of all, why would you need to laminate a menu?? How much stuff gets spilled in your place?? Or maybe you’re just too tight to get more menus printed than you need. Either way, it looks tacky.
But also, this is an indication that the content of the menu is never changed. At a good restaurant, the management’s first concern will be serving high quality food. This means fresh, seasonal produce and therefore a need to alter and update the menu on a regular basis (more on that later too). It is the mark of a bad restaurant when their primary concern appears to be that the menus are wipe-clean.
Of course, the fact that a menu is laminated doesn’t automatically mean that the food is bad, but in my experience it is usually an indicator that there’s probably some better grub not too far away. I realise in most cases these places stay in business out of necessity, catering to holidaymakers on a budget and families with small children and there’s no harm in that, but there’s also no harm in forking out a few extra Euros for proper menus.
I know I’m gonna take stick for this one. As I’ve previously stated, I have nothing against vegetarianism or those who practice it. But, if you’re gonna be a vegetarian or, to quote the words of Anthony Bourdain, “a member of their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans”, why would you make a decision not to eat meat then spend the rest of your life trying to find something that resembles meat as closely as possible??
These meat substitutes come under many guises – Quorn. Tempeh. Seitan. I actually have no clue what Seitan is but it sounds like the devil and I bet it tastes like the devil’s butt. And “vegetarian sausage” is an oxymoron. It’s pointless, like alcohol-free beer. Which I also despise.
To anyone who is considering a meat-free diet, I highly recommend visiting South India, where around 90% of the population is vegetarian. Trust me, they know how to get the best out of their ingredients without the addition of meat. You won’t catch these guys cooking with Tempeh.
If that’s a little outside your budget, go to a really good South Indian vegetarian restaurant. I’d recommend Rasa on Stoke Newington Church Street, for example. You can’t miss it, it’s the ridiculously bright pink place. But make sure you go to the right one as they have two branches – practically right opposite each other. One serves meat and the other is 100% vegetarian. If there’s meat on the menu, cross the road and go to the other pink place.
This isn’t an attack on vegetarians, as I know plenty who won’t touch this stuff. But to those who do – you can’t have your cake and eat it (certainly not a beefcake, anyway). You made your decision, so stick with it. I made a decision not to use heroin, yet I don’t feel the need to take “heroin substitutes” either. If you do get a craving for meat, it’s probably your body telling you to go buy a cheeseburger and throw the quorn down the well.
Iceland’s Chicken Tikka Lasagne
Does this one even need any explanation?? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was wandering around Iceland and came across this monstrosity.
Sometimes when walking around Iceland, it feels like somebody at their HQ screwed up. I reckon some guy must have had a heavy night the night before, come to work with a hangover and accidentally ordered 1,000 tonnes of chicken tikka instead of 10 tonnes. I reckon his boss was about to fire him and he said “please, I can find a way to get rid of it”. So for the past few years that guy’s been busy putting chicken tikka in everything Iceland make. Apart from the obvious Indian ready meals, they have it in pasties, in sandwiches, on skewers, even on pizzas. I wouldn’t even be surprised to look in their dessert section and find chicken tikka ice cream. Or in their cosmetics aisle and find chicken tikka shampoo.
But this concoction simply takes things too far. Chicken tikka lasagne. Lasagne should be made with minced beef, pure and simple. Not quorn mince, not chicken, and certainly not chicken fucking tikka. The thing looks and sounds as appealing as shoving your genitals into a blender. All I can say is, if they were aiming for fusion, they missed.
The All-Year-Round Approach
This one isn’t so much a crime against food as an annoyance; but I thought I’d mention it anyway. I can forgive somebody who doesn’t claim to be a chef for not knowing which ingredients are in season at any given point of the year. But the fact that there are a lot of restaurants whose menus do not change all-year-round is quite bad.
Gordon Ramsay once said that restaurants should be fined for serving out-of-season food. I think maybe this is a bit harsh, but I totally agree with his reasoning. If more diners took notice of what was in season, the restaurants guilty of the all-year-round approach would suffer financially anyway because diners would flock to the restaurants that got it right.
Maybe it is a by-product of living in London, a city where you can pretty much get anything on your doorstep all year round. People have come to take that for granted. I’m sure in areas where they actually grow, farm or fish their own food, this is not the case. For example, one of my Swedish friends once told me you should never eat crayfish in a month with an R in it. This basically leaves May, June, July and particularly August when they are at their most delicious.
In the states, this stuff is referred to as “American Cheese”, when in reality it is neither American, nor cheese. US law actually prohibits it from being marketed as cheese, which has led to manufacturers being forced to use phrases such as “cheese-style product”. It’s basically full of chemical preservatives, artificial colours and flavours, and trans-fats, and quite often is almost the same price as actual cheese.
As if the above substance was bad enough, the Yanks also have a spray-on version. Yes, processed cheese in a spray can.
Chef Laurent Tourondel said on No Reservations’ Techniques Special that the cheeseburger cannot be made with anything except for American cheese. Raven Garcia says on RavenGarcia.com that Laurent Tourondel got it wrong.
You could probably spend your whole life travelling around China and never eat the same meal twice. But for most people who’ve never been to China, their experiences of Chinese food will begin and end with their local Chinese takeaway. The sort of place which serves cups of sweet and sour sauce like this:
Many people order this stuff, blissfully unaware that people in China don’t eat this. Or chop suey. Or lemon chicken. And certainly not fortune cookies. But I’m guessing that these people don’t order it for an authentic Chinese dining experience, they order it because, one way or another, it tastes nice. And you can’t really blame the people cooking it, either. They’re just serving something that seems to be popular in Britain. An imitation of Chinese dishes and cuisine designed to suit an English palette.
So I’ve no real problem with the actual food they serve in Chinese takeaways, I’ve been known to order it myself. But I am under no delusion that what I am eating is real Chinese food. But I fear for the day that China hosts the World Cup; when Donghuamen Market will be full of drunken English football fans in search of chicken chow mein and special fried rice, while being offered such delicacies as cane rats, fried crickets, scorpions and insect larvae, things that you won’t find on the menu of your local Chinese takeaway (although you might find them on the kitchen floors of the less hygienic ones).
Probably the worst example of what I mentioned above. Take a revered Asian dish which has been prepared for centuries, dehydrate it, throw in some dried vegetables, textured soya protein (whatever that is), and flavouring powder, stick it in a pot, and sell it.
Some of the flavours that have been released over the years are laughable: Doner kebab, lamb and mint, southern fried chicken and even Christmas dinner have all had their Pot Noodle incarnations, but this one takes the biscuit:
Jamaican Jerk pot noodle. If you went to Jamaica and gave this to someone, they’d probably kill you.
Pot noodle just about gets around the Trades Description Act because it is in a pot. The mess that remains after preparation cannot really be called “noodles”. The average length of the so-called “noodles” is about 2 centimetres. Not all instant noodles are bad, though. Go to a Chinese supermarket and you’ll usually find lots of different authentic brands very cheap. Most of these are okay and there are a few surprisingly good ones.
Pub Snacks In Britain
Now we’ve all heard the stories about bowls of peanuts on the bar being contaminated with traces of urine. They’re true, and you’d never catch me eating them. But that’s not what I’m getting at – although I do see a certain irony in the pub patron who will turn down some free nuts because “they’re full of piss” but will happily drink a pint of Fosters.
No, what I’m getting at is the things we choose to eat in this country as an accompaniment to beer. Crisps and peanuts. Simply open up a packet, empty contents of said packet into a small bowl, and serve. Seriously, we can do better than that.
Take some advice from the Japanese. They have a whole sub-section of their already intricate cuisine centered around which foods to best enjoy with beer. They call it “Izakaya”. And a lot of effort and thought has gone into it. Typical Izakaya dishes include Yakitori (skewers of various different grilled meats), sashimi, karaage (bite-sized fried chicken), and tsukemono (Japanese pickles, below, one of my favourite things on the planet).
Japan isn’t the only place that has got it right when it comes to bar snacks. Anyone who has been to a tapas bar will know the value of small plates of really well-prepared foods. The word Tapas means “to cover”, because sherry drinkers would often be given a small piece of bread to cover their glass to stop flies from getting at it. Some bar owners had the idea of using salted meats such as Serrano ham, chorizo and salami to boost drink sales, and gradually the concept has evolved to what we now know as Tapas (or Pintxos, as the Basque-country equivalent is known). My favourites include Bacalao (Salted cod), calamari, chorizo cooked in cider, and olives stuffed with anchovies.
I mean, seriously – what would you rather eat with a nice cold beer??
Back in the day I remember the Ranelagh Arms in Roman Road on a Sunday used to lay on dishes of roast potatoes, prawns, mussels, cockles and whelks. That seems to have sadly disappeared now. You might occasionally find a pub that does pickled eggs, but other than that we’re stuck, for the time being at least, with crisps and nuts. And don’t get me started on pork scratchings…
Then again, some foods just taste better with alcohol. Which brings me on to…
Doner Kebabs When Sober
If you’re looking at the photo above and feeling hungry, I bet you’ve been drinking. I confess, regardless of how bad for you they are, sometimes there’s nothing like a doner kebab to soak up seven or eight pints after a night out. But there’s something in them that reacts with the alcohol in your system to make them taste better. I cannot eat a doner kebab while sober. Maybe the alcohol distracts me from what might actually go into them, or something. I don’t know, I can’t explain it. Doner kebabs while sober are just WRONG.