In recent years, a regular survey has appeared asking a number of British people what their favorite dish is. Indian food has always been near the top in terms of popularity, and a couple of years ago, Chicken Tikka Masala was declared the nation’s favorite dish. There was a surprise in 2009 when chow mein took over from any Indian dish at the top of the pile; fish and chips coming in fourth or something.
Either way, these “ethnic” dishes are very close to the nation’s heart and a great representation of what we like to eat. I say this with the thought in my head that in the entire history of eating out, no one has ever said, “Ooh, I fancy English tonight.” We need ethnic foods; the English have a historical tendency to want to boil vegetables for hours on end. Of course, we get told, “Revolution in eating habits over the last 20 years, lots of great chefs, eating out more popular than ever,” blah, blah, blah. Yet, none of this means that the English have suddenly developed a great menu of their own. We like our curries and Chinese food—of course, we do; it’s really tasty … boiled cabbage isn’t.
Go to any small- or medium-sized English town, and you will see a number of Indian and Chinese restaurants alongside the regular chippy (fish and chips) and maybe an Italian place.
This is less obvious in France, even in Paris. The traditional French bistro is still the main player on most streets. However, the city has a growing network of Moroccan and Lebanese restaurants to go along with the trend for sushi. Couscous has long been found as a side dish in French homes, but it has taken a starring role of its own, and rightly so. I remember the first time a French tour director I know took me to a couscous place and talked me through what it can be served with and the best way to eat it (balancing the couscous, chili paste, sauce and raisins). The food was terrific, better yet for the education that came with it.
Naturally, all of this links to a colonial past: England with India, France with North Africa. We inherit their food, probably the best part of the deal. It becomes a part of how we are as a country and, eventually, we make it our own without really thinking about it too much.
If you asked me what American food is I would have to say burgers and hot dogs. Traditionally American? Well, the Germans might have something to say, but it is what I might identify on a very basic level. Many years ago, I took my mother to New York. We went to Little Italy (she was born in Big Italy, so it made sense) and because we felt this was a typical local experience, it didn’t seem at all odd to eat Italian food in New York. Neighboring Chinatown also seemed, well, very American.
For sure, in London and Paris, you can find great places serving “traditional” meals with “traditional” local ingredients—but usually at pretty high prices. Even the London pubs are a bit hit and miss. That’s why we happily embrace our Indian and Moroccan restaurants, they rarely let you down, and it feels like home.