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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Formerly beefy Britain revels in its salad days...

As a nation, Britain has been known for stodge. Huge chunks of meat or fish, surrounded by roast or chipped potatoes, mushy peas and perhaps carrots on a good day. That has been changing for a while. Fish n chips are hardly to be seen (and certainly never wrapped in a newspaper, thanks to the Euro health and safety hawks), meat dishes are more European too – read smaller portions albeit artistically arranged and framed by an equally artistic sauce. Junk food like chicken kievs, baked beans, sausages and mash, the evocative toad-inthe-hole and bubble-and-squeak are to be seen more on the menu of tony gastropubs than the wayside cafĂ© .

London on a summer’s day abounds with Parisian-style bistros and Italian trattorias and the average regular visitors such as yours truly is left wondering where Brit food has disappeared. Yes, there are ‘afternoon teas’ complete with thin sandwiches and scones, but the eaters seem to be more earnest Japanese and voluble Americans. Burgers and barbeques are being passed off as British, and the numerous sandwich bars have such a hotch-potch of nationalities that it is impossible to discern who’s eating what.

But a 10 day sojourn showed me the great strides that one particular dish has made in Britain – or London at the very least: salads. No matter where my husband and I went – trendy restaurant or modest department store eatery – huge white platters arrived on tables, loaded up with mountains of herbage, speckled with trendy morsels of goat’s cheese, chicken, anchovies, prosciutto, olives, cherry tomatoes , dusted with shavings of parmesan and pecorino cheese. While I have nothing against these vegetarian delights, the sight of beefy British executives with necks straining their 17-inch collars digging into mounds of ghaas-phoos was scary, not side-splittingly funny.

In fact, more men seemed to be downing these plates of shrubbery than women, though the latter looked more the part, in their in-season sleeveless shift dresses. The men resolutely pitchforked a variety of leaves into their mouths with incredible composure , I thought, even as they exchanged stock market news or sifted through content on their laptops. Ten years ago, the average redblooded Brit male would have thought twice before doing this. The ladies who lunched at San Lorenzo did it with panache, not the lads who lunched at John Lewis.

At supermarkets, I was amazed at the sheer range of greens now available to the Brit hoi-polloi , not just the poncy Notting Hill types. For us – a country with a huge repertoire and preference for veggies – salads are still a side dish, an addon . But Britain has ‘apnaoed’ this appendage as a mainstream food source! Maybe it’s the easiest veg option for them since they don’t have much in that department, but still, an entire meal that is cold and crunchy militates against even my not-too-Indian inclinations . I can do with a great quail’s egg and asparagus ‘salad’ for instance, but not something that arrives looking like a cabbage patch.

I pondered over this fact as my Londonbased colleague Sudeshna Sen sagely warned me against rare steaks or ‘pink’ lamb chops, telling me that our Indian constitutions cannot handle that underdone meat overload. That’s traditionally the preserve of hardy, agrressive Caucasians, not mild, philosophical Asians, after all... By that same logic, could this sudden preference for green leaves of kinds, from rocket (arugula to those more US-inclined ) to radicchio, endives to chicory, dandelion to god-knows-what be a consequence or a cause of a Britain gone soft? The nation that once conquered continents with meat on the hoof or encased in intestines, now talks of welfare benefits and lives on handouts.

I noted with interest that the Pakistani taxi driver on the airport beat dines frugally on kebabs and naan and works 18 hour days including Sundays , and his white Brit counterpart nibbles Caesar salad – and perhaps hummous, falafel and tabbouleh – has four day weekends funded by unemployment benefits! Could this be an indication of where the future of that nation lies?