Friday, May 04, 2007

Great British Menu of the South-East

So Atul Kotchhar beat Stuart Gillies in the South East heat of Great British Menu. And I'm not at all surprised! From watching Atul on various programmes I am sure he is a lovely man, he has almost convinced me to enter an Indian restaurant again (which is no mean feat and I really don't like any Indian food) and some of his food sounds really interesting, when it's not too hot that is. I just truly believe that his style of cooking is a very modern British-Indian hybrid and therefore shouldn't have a place in a competition where we're banging on about the locality and seasonality and legacy of Great British food. He claims that the food is British because he gets his John Dory from Billingsgate and he asked the trader if it was caught in the South-East of England, but then he applies his very Indian spices and Indian techniques. And yes I know we have a legacy of using spices in England and British mainly to disguise some pretty horrible ingredients in days gone by - but our provenance is hugely superior now so we don't have a tendency to smother everything in every spice and flavouring we can think of, we let damn fine ingredients sing for themselves. I just adore scallops, their meaty sweetness, maybe offset with some thin pan-sautéed slices of black pudding or some lardons of bacon or even some crushed peas, but pure and simple. I can't see how drowning scallops with their delicate flavour with sesame seeds, cumin, ground coriander, chilli and garlic flakes and then interleaved with shards of spicy garam masala caramel is such a good idea. If you like all those flavours, I bet it tasted wonderful. But could you actually taste the scallops? What about Atul's lamb? Again a sweet meat, maybe enhanced by rosemary, a little garlic, slivers of anchovy or a mustard and fresh herb crust but raw papaya, chopped garlic, green chillies, fennel seeds, sweet paprika, mustard oil, single cream, double cream, gram (chickpea) and pastis seems to me to a few ingredients too far. How could the lamb rise above all that?
I don't dislike the idea of Atul's food, I am positive it is amazing and if not too extravagantly spiced I would enjoy it, but is it really British. If these top chefs and dignitaries in France were presented with a plate of lamb and rose petal patties with their heavy spiced racks of lamb accompaniment are they going to think for one minute that this is top British cuisine? No, they are going to think Indian or maybe Morocco with all the yoghurt and mint or Turkey with the rose petals. I think they'll be confused, well-fed I'm sure but they are not going to believe that this is remotely typical of British cooking.
I think the judges all go a little ga-ga when Atul's heavily perfumed, spicy food is presented to them. Out of the window goes the discussion whether it is appropriate to take a soufflé to France and all the goalposts get moved. They think everything else is a little dull and pedestrian in comparison. I think they are totally forgetting the whole remit of the competition and their own rules, it is not British - Indian British maybe, but you can't leave out the Indian bit and therefore this is not the correct forum. Clearly I am in the wrong and missing out on the excitement and exotic flavours of Indian food and should eschew my delicate perfect unadulterated scallops for a cacophony of flavours - but no, I'd rather not!

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