Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Food And The City

Last weekend I went down to The City with an old friend of mine I hadn't seen in a very long time (although, to be fair, I haven't see a lot of people in a very long time). The City is, paradoxically, the historical heart of London as well as the financial centre. This makes the area feel rather schizophrenic: small, windy medieval streets and alleyways are home to modern office blocks that try to cope with the haphazard street layout, swanky boutiques and chic bistros. Then tucked in between these large, corporate buildings are small churches with colourful names that betray the Anglo-Saxon origins of the city: St Olave, St Botolph, St Ethelreda - not your everyday names nowadays. Yet despite the fact that this square mile of the country is by far the richest and produces a significant proportion of the UK's GDP, if you go there on a Sunday it feels like the day after Judgement Day - the streets are deserted and people are conspicuously thin on the ground. If a tumbleweed were to tumble across your path it would look like the most natural thing in the world. It may seem strange, but in my three years that I lived here as a student I never actually ventured into this part of the city, confining myself to the north and west.

My friend, Lisbeth, is Mexican and I was telling her how the previous day I had been to a "Mexican" restaurant and had a chimichanga. "A what?" she asked. So I had to explain to her that a chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. In fact most of the menu at the restaurant would have been alien to most Mexicans. She has lived in London for over 7 years and she told me that there is, in fact, only one real Mexican restaurant in the whole city and all the rest are actually Texan. That made me think about how many different ethnic restaurants there are in London alone and yet how many of them bare only a fleeting resemblance to what they are supposed to represent. Not only will you not find chicken tikka masala in India, but you're unlikely to even find chicken in a restaurant that isn't geared towards tourists (the vast majority of eating establishments are vegetarian); I couldn't find a Peshwari nan in Peshawar; and I didn't even catch a glimpse of sweet and sour sauce in my 3 months in China (the cuisine that we generally consider Chinese is Cantonese - the food in the northern heartland is plainer and stodgier, but very tasty nevertheless). It's a shame that even our culinary experiences of other countries are so far removed from reality - especially as the real local food is generally much tastier than our ersatz fare.

No comments: