The No Recipe Man: Give me strength

Posted by in November's Magazine

If at any point over the past few months you’ve found yourself burying your head in your hands and bellowing, “Give me strength!”, be assured that you’re not alone. Like millions of others, you’re perplexed and exasperated by the issue that has polarised the UK, divided families and threatened our quality of life. I’m talking, of course, about the debate around insipid food.. 

Spices of the world in an Italian market

Opinions on both sides are utterly entrenched. The Insipideers argue, until they’re even redder in the face than usual, that if tinned pilchards and gruel were good enough for our boys in the trenches, they’re good enough for us. (Whether our boys in the trenches ever actually ate tinned pilchards and gruel is, of course, irrelevant.) New laws should be passed without delay to ensure that all cabbages are sold in Imperial measures, boiled for a minimum of a week, served on tin plates and seasoned only with our own tears. Flavourful food won’t be banned as such; it’s just that everyone who knows how to make it will be summarily deported to wherever it was they got their star anise from.



On the opposite side of the debate are the Flavourists. They would argue that our lives have been enhanced immeasurably by the bold and diverse range of powerful flavours that have arrived on these shores from all parts of the world. (Not “all four corners” of the world, incidentally: only true Insipideers still believe that planets have corners.) Flavourists struggle to understand what exactly was so wrong with the previous arrangements that we should actively choose to reverse generations of culinary integration. Having tasted Tom Kha Gai, they have little desire to go back to Heinz Cream of Tomato.

Flavourful food won’t be banned as such; but everyone who knows how to make it will be deported to wherever they got their star anise from

I might as well lay my cards on the table: I am, and always will be, a Flavourist. Or at least, I think I am. The reason I hesitate is that it’s all too easy to be a Flavourist in principle but an Insipideer in practice. When presented with an unfamiliar ingredient or cooking method, our fear of otherness tends to creep in. We might fully appreciate its virtues and its potential contribution to our cooking, but our instincts tell us to treat it with extreme caution. This is a logical extension of our instinct for self-preservation; but it’s also a significant missed opportunity.

By way of example, I was once given a cookbook from the 1960s which ostensibly explored the cuisines and flavours of the world, but did so from a distinctly British perspective. A recipe for “Chinese-inspired” sweet and sour pork was particularly notable, in that it contained precisely no ingredients that were even vaguely sweet or sour. The most aromatic thing in there was a quarter clove of garlic. The second most aromatic was cornflour. I imagine thousands of ‘60s Brits dutifully following this recipe, only to be left wondering what all the fuss was about this Chinese food everyone kept talking about. (Insipideers, on the other hand, would probably have been surprised, and somewhat conflicted, at how agreeable they found it.)

These days, our knowledge of world food is much greater; but our instinct towards the insipid still holds us back. We never quite understand why the curry we make is a feeble imitation of our favourite takeaway; yet the simplest solution to this problem – adding spices by the mound instead of the thimbleful – seems just too extreme for us to contemplate. (I suspect, incidentally, that this comes in part from our inexplicable tendency to buy our spices in tiny expensive jars rather than in the huge cheap packets available in the very next supermarket aisle. 

Using half a jar of cumin in a curry feels indulgent and ridiculous, whereas the same quantity sprinkled from a large packet looks perfectly reasonable – as indeed it is.) Similarly, we’ll never come close to the intense garlicky hit of a proper pesto or the concentrated meaty oomph of a well-reduced jus if we don’t allow ourselves use of the same raw materials. Having gone to the trouble of peeling a few garlic cloves, it’s no great hardship to peel a few more; and if we’ve already spent hours making a stock, why skip the ten minutes required to reduce it to a more lip-smacking consistency?

As with anything in life, it’s possible to go too far. Nobody wants every meal to be the savoury equivalent of eating a whole bag of Skittles in one mouthful. And in fairness, some apparently insipid foods can have a magic all of their own; but as a counterpoint to flavour, not as an alternative. Think of a fragrant, steaming pile of jasmine rice, plain and unseasoned, alongside a fiery and vibrant Thai curry – the combination is way better than either part in isolation. But in the main, we’d all be better off confronting our fears, embracing the true potential of flavour and finding ourselves on the right side of food history. Just don’t do anything so daft as to put the issue to a destructive and completely unnecessary public vote. God only knows where that sort of thing might lead us.

Tom Wheeler 

Twitter: @norecipeman

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