food / travel

Dearest British Friends: No, The Chinese Don't Like Your Food Either

Steak and ale pie
Steak and ale pie

BEIJING - Before even leaving for the United Kingdom, we had already decided to try out the local cuisine as much as possible.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid Chinese food – even though there are Chinese restaurants in every corner of the world these days. After all, we were only spending a dozen days in Britain.

British food does not enjoy a good reputation, and we were hoping that this trip would break the myth.

The French are probably the ones who spend the most time making fun of British cuisine. How bizarre that a nation that once claimed that the sun never sets on its empire does not possess the same conquering spirit when it comes to food.

No wonder it couldn’t win the respect of its neighbors. Whereas France takes eating very seriously, the British somehow manage to stew every possible ingredient into something grey and unappealing. As long as it’s accompanied with a few potatoes on top, it’s fine for them.

British food culture is quite contradictory. On one hand the British are the world’s best gardeners and London is renowned for its design. And until about 100 years ago, the UK was still the nation that consumed most of the world’s sugar, tea and spices. But on the other hand, British cuisine is like an outdated part stuck to a machine that operates with difficulty. This is not to say that you can’t find exquisite food in Britain. London has more than 50 Michelin-starred restaurants. However, none of them seems to be serving typical British cuisine.

But even though their culinary environment keeps changing and evolving, the British remain nevertheless enthusiastic about their national dish, fish & chips. If this is not the collective unconscious expression of their numb taste buds, only British pride can explain such a phenomenon.

Our “British Cuisine Tour” began in a bed & breakfast near Bath. The cook, who was also the owner, served us a typical English breakfast. In a somewhat over-the-top style, she was wearing rings all over her lips and tongue. A tattoo covered her from the fingertips all the way up to her neck.

Apart from the tea and toast, there were poached or scrambled eggs, lean bacon, fried mushrooms, boiled cauliflower, two sausages and slightly grilled tomato slices with black pepper. On top of this was also a slice of black pudding and fluffy baked beans.

I had never eaten black pudding before. At first sight, it looks like the Chinese black rice cake – lightly browned with an oil slick. The first bite also gives the impression of eating rice cake. Unfortunately, an unexpected meat smell appeared immediately, as an after-taste. I glanced around. The cook was just outside the kitchen staring at us, her only guests, looking bored.

Being watched, I was unable to spit out the food so I asked her what the recipe was.

This pudding is made of pig’s blood, mixed cereals, minced liver and offal, then filled into a chitterling, which is what a pig’s intestine is called in polite company – and there you have your sausage, she said. According to her the treat goes best with Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to contradict her knowing that it is in small towns such as Bath where people are the most fundamentalist about British food. “You couldn’t possibly find a more authentic English breakfast in London!” she proudly announced.

However, from here onward and throughout the whole trip, I had to suppress a generous impulse of offering a dozen bottles of Chinese cooking wine to all British cooks. This is a magical and essential ingredient in Chinese cooking, which helps the texture and taste of meat, poultry and seafood.

Rustic and plain

Apart from the uniformity of British cooking, the other obvious feature is their passion for the potato. You can find as many as four or five different varieties of potato in any supermarket. Black or yellow, they can be long like a pencil case, or weigh a pound each, or be as small as pigeon eggs.

We had arrived in Bath at Christmas time, so all the restaurants in town were closed. After repeatedly begging the owner of the bed & breakfast, she agreed to cook us dinner as well.

We had cauliflower and mushroom soup for starters, and the famous jacket potato – in essence just a baked potato – as a main course. Each buttered potato was wrapped in aluminum foil and baked. Then it was cut open and filled with bacon, lamb, lettuce and peas.

The second day’s menu was even more rustic. Leftover potato from the previous night was mashed to go with the famous British pie with chopped beef and onion stuffing. It was doused with two spoonful’s of dubious green gravy mixed with some kind of wine flavoring. As tasteless as it could be, the pie’s pastry was also hard and thick. After one bite, my mouth was filled with grease instead of meat.

To be fair, British cuisine cannot be described as generally tasteless. It is usually made of fresh and reasonably good-quality ingredients. If you like authentic food, you might even find English cooking very satisfying. Nevertheless, I got the conclusion that British cuisine owes its unpopularity to its unimaginative seasoning. Perhaps because of the way the meat is slaughtered, it smells particularly strong in Britain. I can’t help but wonder what happened to all those spices for which the British Empire went to war?

On our way up to Edinburgh, Scotland, we noticed that all the highway rest stops offer entirely the same food, and the same fast food brands over and over. This is enough to quash anyone’s appetite.

In China, a British friend from Glasgow, Scotland had told us how much he missed the fish & chips from his hometown. In his opinion, fish & chips from a small port city is much better than the fish & chips found in big cities like London.

Photo: Paul Wilkinson

Since we happened to be going to Glasgow, we decided to give this national dish a chance. We chose a small restaurant in an alley just next to the city’s cathedral. It was packed with locals. A few teenagers seemed to be having a good time, eating the fish & chips wrapped in paper.

If the fish is well fried and crisp, sprinkled with a little lemon juice, it can be quite palatable. However, unfortunately for us, the batter was thickly coated and the cod tasted more like flour than fish. Not tasty.

Reading our minds, our friend suggested that we try a nearby French restaurant. When the stewed beef with an overflowing aroma was served, I looked out the window and thought: what a wonderful place Britain is!

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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