50 shades of beige: a lesson in national cuisines

What I find interesting about Khmer people is that they tend not to like Western food. Given the choice, they would much rather stick to Cambodian cuisine. I asked one Khmer person why this is. He replied that, to him, all foreign dishes taste the same. I was a bit perplexed. Surely not, I thought. Then I began to think about it a bit more. Perhaps there was something to his comment.

Of course, there are huge variations across the world and in the west. But I discovered you could reduce national cuisines to certain key components. All their food was just a combination of those three things, with, perhaps some added extras.

Take Italy for example: carbohydrate, tomato, cheese. Pizza and lasagna: all three; spaghetti bolognaise: carb and tomato (and if you feel you’re missing the cheese portion, sprinkle on some Parmesan); spaghetti carbonara: carb and cheese.

France is a combination of garlic, butter and cream. To be fair, all three are pretty delicious. Moules marinièr is a combination of all three. Profiteroles: butter and cream. Croissants: a lot of butter.

So, it got me thinking about what the essentials for British cuisine was. Now, British cuisine has a bad reputation abroad, and perhaps this partly explains why. If you were to boil British food down (which we are renowned for, as it is), you’d be left with just two key parts, both of which are not particularly inspiring. They are crisp ‘n’ dry and something beige.

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Bangers and mash. Greasy fried sausages with beige potato. Fish and chips. Two of the most beige things you can find drowned in the stuff. Where would our beige roasties and beige yorkies be without the spitting, hot cooking oil? The fry up. Greasy and beige. Even our desserts abide by the colour palette. Victoria sponge? Beige. Cream tea? Beige. Apple crumble? Beige. Spotted dick? Beige. Treacle sponge and custard. Beige. And let’s not forget the good old cuppa that our Empire was built on (or for- I’m not too sure which). Beige.

Beige, beige, beige.

Great British Menu
“Great British Menu” colour chart

Then we must consider our national dish, which is probably the most beige food of them all. “What is our national dish?” you may think. You may wonder if it is one of the ones I’ve mentioned above. But I don’t think it is. It’s something that keeps the nation going. It’s the thing that when you’re stressed or peckish you automatically go for. Yes, that’s right. Our national dish is toast.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all come in from work, worn out and stressed and decided to treat ourselves. So we think, “I’m going to have some toast.” We put two slices of bread in the toaster (we’re British after all, we’re not going to go crazy about it). We slather it in butter and happily munch away, especially if accompanied by our beige national beverage. When we’re finished, we lick the salty taste from our lips (maybe dip our wet finger into the crumbs). Then we think, “That was nice. I think I’ll have another slice.” And you know what, we jolly well do.

To be fair, as far as national dishes go, toast is fairly versatile. Butter, jam, marmite, marmalade are all potential condiments on toast. Beans on toast. Cheese on toast. Cheese on beans on toast. (I like to call that one English pizza.) Scrambled egg on toast. If we’re feeling extravagant, we might have eggy bread, which is where the egg is added before it’s toasted. But, as before, we’re very British about our toast. It can’t get too fancy, otherwise we can’t consider it ours. If we decide to add some sugar, and perhaps some vanilla, to our eggy bread, it’s a step too far. It’s no longer simple enough to be ours. So, we have to say it’s French. It’s French toast.

As an aside, do you know what the French call French toast? They call it pain perdu. It means lost bread. Which I find a bit odd, as it’s clearly not been lost, it’s just been made into something else. It makes me think that French people suddenly go, after you mix the bread with egg, milk and sugar, “Où est le pain? I cannot see the bread. We have lost the bread.” It’s right there. “Où? I cannot see it!” It’s there. It’s in your eggy bread.

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