The food enemy is our reluctance to try authentic cuisine
- Credit: PA
The Chinese takeaway is the latest food to meet the wrath of food lobbyists - but they are missing the point, says Andy Newman.
Given that food is meant to be one of the visceral pleasures of life, it is amazing how willing we are to be suckered into shock, disgust and disapproval when it comes to things which should be helping us forget the pretty miserable world in which we live. How have we got to the stage where we are bullied into feeling guilty for taking pleasure in something which we have to do simply to survive?
It is a peculiarly British thing to think that regarding food as something other than simple fuel to help us exist is somehow wrong. It is still viewed by many as vulgar to talk about the pleasures of the table, as though considering eating as one of the great sensual pleasures will somehow cause a total moral collapse.
This week the puritans' crosshairs were focused on the Chinese takeaway, which, we learn, is not the healthiest meal we could eat. Well, hold the front page, who would have thought that the largely deep-fried, sometimes garishly orange treats from our local oriental pleasure palace is not the gluten-free, fat-free, hedonism-free experience that the food police would have us suffer every time we dare to be hungry?
The latest killjoy message comes from our old friends Action on Salt, a pressure group which has taken a sensible message about cutting down on excess salt in our diet, and – as these self-serving special interest groups so often do – seized the moral high ground as its God-given right.
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Telling us that we should only eat bland, flavour-free food is not going to help the nation's nutritional health. Seeking headlines through imparting the shock-horror news that soy sauce is 'saltier than seawater' is unbelievably crass. We know soy sauce is salty – it's a umami-base condiment.What next – news that the contents of our salt pot contains sodium?
Most of our Chinese takeaways, like many of our ethnic restaurants, serve us a strangely anglicised version of foreign food which bears little resemblance to the national diets they claim to represent.
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The unhealthy dishes analysed by Action on Salt for its latest publicity-seeking exercise are about as representative of Chinese cuisine as the Scottish-invented chicken tikka masala is of the amazing food of India. Sweet and sour pork, spring rolls and egg-fried rice are not Chinese cuisine, they are a rather odd British idea of what a Chinese meal should look like. And unsurprisingly, they include many of the Western junk food nutritional nightmares that are a particular feature of our own modern cuisine.
It's deeply unfair to lay the blame for this on Chinese culinary culture, where meals are far more likely to be eaten with simple steamed rice and vegetables than the deep-fried, highly-salted dishes that we demand when we send out for an oriental treat.
On a radio debate about this very subject this week, I heard the word 'Chindian', to describe a horrendous one-size-fits-all food experience drawing on the very worst of our British pastiche of Asian cuisine.
I've mentioned before my friend who enthused about a pan-cultural all-you-can-eat restaurant with the phrase (used entirely positively) 'it's the first time I have belched Indian and Chinese all in one go'.
How much healthier, and how much more gastronomically satisfying, if we took the time and effort to discover the 'real' ethnic cuisines, rather than the lowest-common-denominator, ersatz versions we put up with in the interests of instant gratification – meals which, as Action on Salt has shown, are hugely unhealthy.
There is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a less-than-healthy treat, and I would be the last person to deny you something which gives you gastronomic pleasure. But it's time we broke free of this salt-laden, deep-fried pap and discovered the infinitely greater pleasures available from truly authentic food from non-European cultures.
All it requires is an open mind and a willingness to put aside that cheap-as-chips takeaway menu and make a little effort to make some new food discoveries.