My first taste of unfamiliar food, something out of my culinary comfort zone, was when my brother took me, aged eight, to an Indian restaurant in Wolverhampton. It was the mid 1960s, he had his hair Brylcreemed and wore the latest pointed winklepicker shoes, and wanted me to experience something a world away from the meat and two veg my mother cooked at home.
The restaurant was dark and a little forbidding; the smell intriguing, warm and quite unlike anything I’d ever come across before. The food, hot, generously spiced and faintly mysterious, came as a shock. Until that moment, my everyday eating had been of food with gentle flavours, boiled vegetables, calming stews – even Dairylea and Ritz Crackers were considered exciting.
To have a mouthful of spice-soaked rice, red-brown gravy and meat that prickled my tongue was so extraordinary, I didn’t know whether to like it or not. Cut to a hotel dining room in Goa, India, 15 years later, the first meal of an adolescent beach holiday. While my father and brothers had taken to the new craze of Indian meals from a cardboard box, the famous instant Vesta Curry, I had not eaten anything “foreign” since that night in the Kohinoor with my brother.
Here, I had no option but to eat the food in front of me or live on biscuits for the entire holiday. It sounds like a cliché, that moment on the route to Damascus, but it is true when I say that first mouthful of Indian food on its home territory changed everything. Grilled prawns, laughably hot with turmeric and chilli, straight from the tandoori oven, blew my safe little culinary world apart.
Those prawns were to be the start of a love of spicy tastes that took me back to India time and time again. It seems extraordinary, looking at how I eat now, that I could have been so reluctant and unadventurous as a nine- or ten-year-old, but I suspect I was typical of the British public at the time. The late 1960s and early 70s heralded a large change in what we eat in Britain. So what happened? How did we end up with supermarkets and restaurants offering food from every country on the planet? How did we become a nation with a collective palate so adventurous, so keen to taste what the rest of the world eats?
There are many factors that have made the British more welcoming to non-indigenous food than arguably any other country, and our penchant for foreign travel is high on the list. But for the most part it has been the arrival of the real thing on our doorsteps. Food as different from those packet curries as anyone could imagine. The home cooking that has come here with those who have emigrated to Britain and set up shops and restaurants or have simply allowed others to share their food with them at home.
As I discovered during the filming of Eating Together, people come to our shores for a host of different reasons. They may make Britain their home because they want to continue their education here; they might come to train for a specific career; or they may treat us as a place of safety after escaping a dangerous or threatening life in the place of their birth. Others come here for employment, or perhaps simply because they fell in love. The reasons are varied and the stories behind them make fascinating viewing.
But one thing is for sure, many of them bring their recipes and cooking with them. Britain’s indigenous food, the gorgeous produce from our own back yard, has seen a healthy renaissance in recent years. We arguably have better access to the country’s finest ingredients than at any other time in our history. Our heritage of producing good ingredients and cooking them simply has never been in such good stead and yet, how many times a week do we eat non-native food at home? The pasta suppers and cheese-laden pizzas, the curries from India, Vietnam and Thailand and the noodle and rice dishes from China and Japan.
In the course of a week it seems that most of us eat more ethnic food than food from our own shores. The intriguing thing to this cook is just how similar many of the world’s favourite foods are. We think of each country having a very different diet and yet when we compare them there are more similarities than you might think. A noodle is something we generally think of as being Chinese, but then realise it is only a short jump to the Japanese ramen, the Italian spaghetti or the short vermicelli used by South Asian cooks in kheer, one of their favourite milk puddings.