It’s no secret– television and food go together better than spaghetti and bolognese sauce. From how-to tutorials from cooing chefs to culinary expeditions in far-off lands, there are more than enough food related on-air food genres to feast your eyes on. What’s more, the selection is increasing all the time. This week alone, six new shows have emerged about food on UK television. There’s the irrepressible Nigel Slater’s Life is Sweets, in which the food writer casts a sentimental eye toward the old trade of sweets and confectionary. There’s the Apprentice-like challenge Masterchef: The Professionals, and its bright-eyed offspring Junior Masterchef. Over on Channel 4′s More4 we’ll be seeing Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall in Hugh’s 3 Good Things, who promises to whip up outrageously good meals using just three ingredients. For the more intellectually hungry, BBC4 is at hand and by the stove with Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, a programme exploring the origins of our three daily meals. And, finally, there’s the charismatic Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation on the Good Food channel. Of course, I couldn’t go without mentioning the famous scientific chef Heston Blumenthal’s Heston’s Fantastical Food, which began last week on Channel 4.
On a personal level, Madhur Jaffrey’s show struck me most when scanning through the listings. With the broadcast of her show coinciding with the much anticipated launch of her new cookbook of the same name, Curry Nation explores the ongoing and fragrant love affair between an island in the north Atlantic and the spicy fare of the Indian subcontinent. Jaffrey sets on a mission to explore the culture behind this culinary staple.
In order to understand why curry is so important to British food culture – it was voted Britain’s favourite dish as far back as 1997 – you of course have to delve into the people behind the food. As it always has done, immigration has a huge impact on what and how we eat. Roman soldiers brought recipes for meat pies to Britain (which were probably borrowed from the Egyptians), while chillies were imported to India by the Portuguese as far back as the 16th century. The more you look into it, the more you realize that food is a global matter. In Curry Nation, Jaffrey focuses on the restaurants and take-away joints that have flourished around the British Indian community. “So many Indian restaurants in this country are run by Bangladeshis, yet so few of them cook Bengali food,” she told the Radio Times, “They didn’t trust that their own dishes would be liked” . So what we think of when considering Indian food in the UK is in fact Anglo-Indian food prepared by Bangladeshis.
The message behind Curry Nation is that food and identity swirl around in an endless mixture, like two ingredients tha are almost impossible to separate– and that both of these are tied together by history. In Leicester, Jaffrey reveals how restaurants that are run by the large Gudjarati community use ingredients such as cassava and tamarind, which were picked up from the Gudjaratis’ time in Uganda before their expulsion by Idi Amin in the 1970s.
Relocation to Britain has also unsurprisingly had its effects on the taste and texture of Indian food. Jaffrey points out the bastardisation of the bhaji, a popular snack of vegetables wrapped in deep friend batter. “It’s only here in Britain that bhajia wear this thick overcoat of batter,” she notes, explaining that in India they are usually coated with a “very light film” so that the vegetables inside remain visible. It’s little anecdotes like this that keep the programme well-oiled. Hearing facts like this makes you question the food you eat and think about how it could possibly look and taste very different.
In quite a different light, Heston Blumenthal hammers this point home in his newest show Heston’s Fantastical Food. Blumenthal has always shown a healthy disregard for practicality, using things like liquid nitrogen in the kitchen as often as you or I might use salt, and his penchant for the peculiar is proudly portrayed in this programme. Each week, Heston visits a town that has links to an iconic British brand and looks back at the experiences that were forged by food and the childhood memories that they created. Of course, being Heston, he rounds it all off by creating gigantic versions of his own childhood favourites, and we’re invited to kick back and watch as he slowly converts his kitchen into an atomic bunker of gastronomy. It is entertainment at its best, with some chance that you’ll gain insights into how chocolates, sweets and treats are created by chefs.
The focus on childhood memory also seems to be a relevant theme to the celebrity chef. At his Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck, Blumenthal focuses on making the eating a meal into a multi-sensory experience. Taste is accompanied by smell, sight, sound and touch in order to create the ultimate culinary adventure. That same attention to the senses is blatantly present in Heston’s Fantastical Food – there’s plenty of talk about the smells of childhood, for instance, and the way in which food changed the very landscape of towns and cities around the country. Much like the other food culture programmes that are dominating television air time, the programme sets food at the center of a fun-filled extravaganza – just don’t expect to be able to recreate it for dinner the day after.