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Finding food and drink in London

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
Last updated on: December 26, 2020 13:56 IST
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'London being Tier 2, pubs can serve drinks but only with a 'substantial meal',' sighs Sunanda K Datta-Ray.

IMAGE: A public health warning sign beside a road in London, December 22, 2020. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
 

It was with a sense of deja vu that I heard a publican promise to run his taps as soon as McDonald's could serve hamburgers with every pint of beer.

The insistence on food with drink, a feature of the conundrum in which London finds itself since the all-England lockdown ended*, took me back to my teenage years in the North of England.

Pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 -- the highest level, including Manchester, Hull, Newcastle and Bristol -- can now offer only takeaway meals.

London being Tier 2, pubs can serve drinks but only with a 'substantial meal'.

'Substantial' is a matter of interpretation: What Mahatma Gandhi considered substantial would have been spurned as a snack by most healthy adolescents.

I don't say this only because Richard Symonds, the Quaker historian, told me (and later wrote) of Wardha ashramites surreptitiously supplementing their spartan diet by munching chocolates in the bushes.

I say it with painful memories of the difficulty of getting a drink on Sundays or after 10 pm in 1950s England.

It was only possible in dives that called themselves clubs, charged for entrance, charged for membership for the night or what remained of it, and forced customers to pay for -- but not eat -- mouldy sandwiches.

The same dusty cellophane-wrapped plate was plonked down on the table night after night for weeks, if not months.

As Churchill rightly said, if there are 10 rules, they create a hundred loopholes.

When Britain allowed tax-free expense accounts only for export promotion, foreigners lived in constant peril of being kidnapped by unknown local businessmen who forced lavish hospitality down their throats.

The Scotch eggs controversy is another contradiction. Environment Secretary George Eustice's claim that it qualifies as a 'substantial meal' (inspiring a newspaper cartoon showing a dozen pints of beer and a solitary Scotch egg) was immediately rebutted by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove's 'Only as a starter' intervention.

It should be supported by a salad, argued another colleague. Would tiny quail's eggs suffice, a TV presenter demanded.

Scotch eggs held their own through these exchanges until Iraq-born Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi proposed an 'immunity passport' that would release pubs and customers from any need to bother with food. It was a brief respite.

The English have returned to their appetising argument over the hard-boiled eggs covered in sausage meat and baked in crumbs that so closely resemble the humble Bengali deemer chop that features in Kolkata street food.

Popular variations of Scotch eggs include fish paste instead of sausage meat, batter instead of bread crumbs, and deep frying instead of baking.

Some are flavoured with anchovies, others dipped in lime powder. Similarly, there are many versions of the origins.

Some say they were a favourite with Scots Guards officers; some trace the name to a grocer named William J Scott.

A third group says they were originally called 'scorch' eggs, being cooked over an open flame. A fourth insists that 'scotching' was a well-known cooking process that is now a lost art.

My favourite is Fortnum & Mason's claim to have invented Scotch eggs as a traveller's snack, which gives India a stake in the discussion.

Long before globalisation became a household word or Tata was identified with Jaguar, Fatehsinhrao Gaekwad, the maharaja of Baroda, owned a majority stake in fashionable Fortnum's in Piccadilly, which proudly calls itself 'The Queen's Grocer'. His Highness remained Her Majesty's Grocer until 1952.

A faint echo of that culinary connection may have been audible in the survey that showed that something called 'chicken tikka masala' had beaten fish and chips and the roast beef of old England to become Britain's most popular dish.

The further revelation that it is one in every seven curries sold emboldened Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, to proclaim the concoction was 'a true British national dish'.

With their canny eye on trade, British companies have been trying since then to sell chicken tikka masala to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This looks like turning history on its head, but coals-to-Newcastle accusations are inappropriate.

Although Asian-sounding, the dish doesn't really belong to any recognisable subcontinental cuisine.

No South Asian had ever heard of this tasty triumph of British inventiveness just as no one in China had heard of 'American chopsuey'. Like Napoleon's army, the new imperialism marches on its stomach.

In contrast, Bengal's deemer chop is probably the Scotch egg's distant ancestor. Its social elevation only follows Britain's snobbish transformation of the humdrum khichri into kedgeree, breakfast fare in stately country houses.

Fusion food is not without linguistic pitfalls. Legend has it that a burra memsahib couldn't understand the titters that greeted her admission that she loved chaprasis and had two every night, but they were rather heavy on the stomach. She meant chapatis.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

*This column was written before Prime Minister Boris Johnson's new lockdown to halt the spread of the mutated coronavirus in Britain.

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Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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