Food: The world in your hands

22 June 2006
Food: The world in your hands

Roast beef may still be Britain's favourite dish but the survey carried out by contract caterer Avenance last year which came to that conclusion also revealed that the second and third favourites were chicken tikka masala and sweet and sour chicken.

And while fish and chips, stew and dumplings, and bangers and mash are still firmly lodged in the affections of British diners, this traditional fare rubs shoulders with lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and chilli con carne, which ranked fifth, sixth and seventh in the Avenance survey.

In fact, it's difficult to say what is British and what is world cuisine these days. Walk around any supermarket and you will see ingredients that would have been found only in a specialist delicatessen two decades ago. Almost every pub that serves food will have curry and pasta on the menu. The British diet really has become international.

The reason for this is that Britons started to go places. Long-haul holiday destinations have become the norm, and people are exposed to cuisines from Mexican to Thai that would have been unthinkably exotic in 1976.

Satisfying such wide tastes and expectations can seem quite daunting, so how do you serve up different tastes from across the globe every day? The short answer is by using common proteins with varying sauces, accompaniments and methods of serving.

Most proteins are found in more or less similar forms all over the world. A chicken is a chicken wherever you go, and you can serve it with a different international twist every day of the week.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Antony Worrall Thompson rattles off five chicken dishes at the drop of a hat when asked. "There's coq au vin - a nice stew with plenty of red wine," he says. "Then there's a Moroccan tagine-style using sweet spices like cinnamon, turmeric and saffron; and Mexican-style with a mole sauce, using cumin, coriander and chilli with chocolate added towards the end."

His other two suggestions are Indian butter chicken, which uses a spiced tomato sauce, and a Thai chicken salad, in which the chicken is served with lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Chicken is common to most meat-eating cuisines, so it's a good place to start if you're looking for a common element from which to create a number of dishes, says Jason Danc iger, catering director with the Laurel Pub Company.

"Chicken is the most flexible of all the proteins," says Danciger. "To make Thai chicken, you slice it thinly, cook it in a wok, add sauce and noodles and then serve. Take the same chicken, add yogurt and curry powder, and all of a sudden you have chicken tikka. Marinate it with hickory and grill it, and you have US-style barbecue flavours."

Donald Marshall, development chef with food service provider Elior, suggests a simple twist on the traditional oven-cooked bird.

"Roast chicken can be done British-style or, with the addition of herbs and lemon, it becomes Mediterranean-style chicken," he says. "A similar principle can be applied whenever you want to create a Mediterranean dish - grilled proteins with salads, olives, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes."

In fact, most proteins can be given a twist by changing the method of cooking, sauces and other accompaniments. Beef can be used in European dishes, for example in a rich red wine-based boeuf bourgignon or Swedish beef stew, or kalops, which is a real winter warmer flavoured heavily with allspice and bay leaves.

Beef also lends itself to US-style dishes: as a steak with a honey mustard sauce, for example, or minced with generous amounts of salt and pepper and formed into hamburger patties. Thai cuisine also uses beef. In red or green curry it is a perennial favourite served with aromatic rice, or sliced thinly as a starter with a garnish of garlic, coriander, chilli, lime juice and fish sauce in a Thai beef salad.

Lamb is especially suited to southern European and north African-style dishes. You can simply spear cubed lamb to create shish kebabs, or mince it with parsley, onion and Turkish spices - typically, allspice, pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cloves - to create kofte kebabs on skewers. Alternatively, braise the lamb with aubergines and Turkish or Moroccan spices.

Fish and seafood can also be adapted to a variety of styles. "Firm-fleshed fish - cod or sole - can be wrapped in vine leaves for a Greek-style dish," says Punch Taverns‘ Steve Schaffer, "or you can cook it quickly and serve with a mild curry sauce." Fish doesn't take much cooking, so lends itself to cuisines that are lighter in quality - for example, Thai or Mediterranean.

So, the principle is pretty simple. Most proteins can be used to create dishes based on world cuisines that are popular in the UK. It's really a case of cooking in a style that is appropriate and serving with the right garnishes and accompaniments. "Risotto or couscous may be better suited to some Mediterranean dishes, while fragrant or wild rice best complements Asian cuisine," suggests Dave Howarth, trading director of Woodward Foodservice.

Keep it authentic
Diners are now used to a wide variety of rice on supermarket shelves, so you should keep it authentic, says Tony O'Connor, sales and marketing director of Veetee Foodservice.

"The Middle East consumes the greatest amount of basmati rice anywhere in the world," he says, "but in North America and Mexico, American Long Grain is the most popular variety, especially served with steak. Mexican dishes typically use a lot of rice to make paellas, along with chillies, jalapeños, bell peppers and saffron."

He adds: "American Long Grain is also the preferred rice accompaniment for Portuguese dishes, especially when it comes to their traditional chargrilled and spicy chicken dish. Whereas Italian cooking uses Arborio rice to make its celebrated risottos. French cuisine tends to use more speciality rices, such as Camargue Red, which is used in leafy and crunchy salads."

On the point of authenticity, Marshall agrees. "We have a large multicultural population," he says, "and if you put a dish on the menu and someone from that area comes in, they'll soon let you know if it's not right. It really comes down to doing your homework and knowing how to use the ingredients."

As Ray Lorimer, executive chef of Unilever Foodsolutions, explains, with some cuisines the style will vary from region to region. "With Chinese food, for example, there's no one single national cuisine - it's divided into four regions," he says.

As a guideline on authenticity, it's worth bearing in mind the popular chicken tikka masala. It's not authentic, in that it is a dish that was created in the UK. No such thing exists in the Indian subcontinent, although Punjabi-style butter chicken is believed to be the inspiration behind it.

But, while it may not be an authentic Indian dish, it was created by Asian restaurateurs in the UK who drew on many generations of knowledge of authentic ingredients and cooking methods.

In other words, if you're going to create a "world" dish, make sure you research the ingredients and methods thoroughly.


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