Man-on-pan action: Big flavours, slabs of meat, rib-sticking stews - is some food unarguably blokeish?

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Men love to be reminded that eating food is all about toughness, testosterone and survival, argues John Walsh. Plus, Simon Cave suggests six mouthwatering dishes to try, if you're man enough...

It's best embodied by the image of Henry VIII, in full regalia at a banquet, taking a snarly bite out of a vast turkey drumstick and hurling the remains over his shoulder, to be devoured by slavering hounds. Other incarnations of this quintessential gesture include the sight of the Korean actor Choi Min-sik chewing his way through a live octopus in the film Oldboy, as its tendrils frantically clutch at his face; and the image of Mr T, the bling-drenched enforcer from The A-Team, seen in a TV commercial standing up in a tank turret, biting off the end of a Snickers bar and growling, "Ggggnnnnah! Get some nuts!".

Men and food, eh? However sophisticated we become about the business of ingesting protein, fats and carbohydrates into our system, men love to be reminded that, au fond, eating food is all about toughness, testosterone, survival. That, beneath the brouhaha and folderol of MasterChef and table etiquette, it's fundamentally the realm of the hunter-gatherer and family-protector, returning home with the carcass of a clubbed ox to eviscerate and grill over a rudimentary barbecue. That lunch and dinner are more than fuelling stops for the human body. They're battlefields, where blokes face down the ravaging enemy that is hunger and kick the shit out of it.

And of course, what they eat must be basic, gutsy, unpretentious. The most significant trend of the 2010s is for foodies – both male and female – to play at being cavemen, college kids and cowboys. As if in sweaty response to the rise of Yotam Ottolenghi, with his wholesome veggie cuisine of quinoa and falafel, of Heston Blumenthal's chemistry-lab wizardry and the now-dwindling ubiquity of meals served with a top-dressing of froth and spume, diners are being offered the opposite of haute cuisine – bas cuisine? Bloke cuisine – in the form of plain, frontiersman food, seared, roasted, whacked with garlic, chillies, and anchovies, carpet-bombed with gutsy flavours. It's the equivalent of punk's stripped-down, three-chord aggression and drive, coming after too much progressive rock from Yes and Genesis. It's not subtle, but by God it hits the spot.

Steak restaurants have become huge business despite the fact that a) they're ruinously expensive and b) they present few opportunities for chefs to display much creative skill at all. At Wolfgang Puck's Park Lane establishment, Cut, the USDA ribeye steak will cost you £60 while the Australian Wagyu won't leave much change out of £100; it's always packed out. The four Hawksmoor restaurants (Spitalfields, Air Street, Guildhall and Seven Dials) whose steaks used to be 600g monsters and are now a more manageable size, are similarly busy every night.

The Gaucho eateries (formerly Gaucho Grill – they're now part of an Israeli-owned chain) offer huge lumps of Argentinian Aberdeen Angus beef of impeccable pedigree and quality. The Goodman steak-houses specialise in dry-ageing the steaks on site, and diners with a taste for drama can watch the process in a glass-walled dry-ageing room. There and at the Gauchos, carnivores are invited to inspect the raw meat: steaks of different cuts and sizes are presented at your table wrapped in swaddling cloths like a family of new-born babies. And the main event of any meal is the steak itself – an enormous, glistening, "char-broiled" masterpiece, its umami scent wafting into your nostrils in a sacramental fume of rapture.

Mark Hix rode in on the trend with his Tramshed – a restaurant in which you can have anything you want provided it's steak or chicken. Its centrepiece is a Damien Hirst work; a vitrine in which a large hen stands on the back of a cow preserved in formaldehyde – the raw material for the two (and only two) dishes served at every setting. As if to emphasise the plainness of the cuisine, the chickens are served whole and upright, impaled on metal poles, with the diners invited to carve for themselves. And if you choose to eat with your fingers, nobody will try to stop you.

"Dude food" outlets have cropped up all over London in the past two years, offering "quality burgers" to credulous young punters who think nothing of queuing for 45 minutes outside MeatLiquor. The place started life as a pop-up, street-food truck called the Meatwagon. MeatLiquor's tough-guy credentials can be guessed from the names of its burgers (such as the "Dead Hippie") and cocktails (the "Moneyshot.") Its co-founders, Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis, caught a super-trendy wave and currently turn over £10m a year. Three sister restaurants with MEAT in the name have opened since New Year's Day 2011. Collins recently opened a fried-chicken operation in Brixton. It's called Wishbone.

But wait a minute. Isn't it ridiculous to pretend that there's such a thing as either "bloke food" or "lady food"? This is the 21st century. We no longer expect women to order mildly flavoured (and virginally white) dishes like blanquette de veau, or sole meunière. Women f don't invariably order a side salad any more, if vegetables are available. There are no more dedicated carnivores on the planet than my young daughters. They and their girlfriends would sooner expire than order a quail's egg or tomato salad starter if there's some really rough pâté or onion soup around.

It's hard to make generalisations about the food preferred by men, but here are a few:

1. Men will eat offal more readily than women. They're less fastidious about devouring liver, kidneys, tongue, brains, brawn.

2. Men like food which has a DIY element to it – food that can be pimped with sauces, "toppings" and extras. Men fuss about adding precise amounts of extra bits to their oyster/ Peking duck/ploughmans's lunch, whether it's chopped egg, spring onion or piccalilli respectively. Men are even drawn to those branded yoghurt "corners" because, what with all the spooning of jam into yoghurt, they think they're doing something creative.

3. Men like a bit of mess – the stew with hard-to-determine ingredients, the cassoulet full of sausage and breadcrumbs, the incredibly filling pork-with- lentils cotechino, the Brazilian feijoada with unspeakable guts in its murky depths.

4. Almost anything that's smoked is manly – bacon, brisket, haddock – except for smoked salmon, which is hopelessly asexual.

5. Manly food often comes wrapped inside other food. Pies with a savoury crust, battered haddock, Weiner schnitzel, Scotch egg, beef Wellington, Cornish pasty, and doner kebab in pita bread. Women seem to prefer having the key ingredients of their meal lying unadorned on a plate, anointed with jus.

6. Size. Men are much keener than women on ordering the whole suckling pig in Chinatown, eating the whole oxtail, going the whole hog.

Where we can speak of manliness, however, is in the preparation. The poet Craig Raine spotted the connection between lumps of meat and debonair heroism. In "The Butcher," his butcher is more than a geezer who dismembers livestock and chops up cows and sheep for a living. He's a dashing charmer:

"He duels with himself and woos his women customers,

Offering thin coiled coral necklaces of mince,

Heart lame-d from the fridge, a leg of pork

Like a nasty bouquet…"

The home cook would like to see himself the same way – as a non-nonsense kinda guy with a rack of spices and a block of knives, as tooled-up as a car mechanic or a professional torturer. He wants to seem effortlessly f efficient, whistling up hearty dishes to cries of rapture and (crucially) surprise that he's capable of such things. All he needs is the right cookbook, one that doesn't demand too much specialist equipment or burden him with too much messing around.

Recipe books directed at such a cook began in the 1960s with Len Deighton, the thriller writer. He spent student vacations working in restaurants, and began to perfect his skills at home, at a time when few men would dream of opening a recipe book. Because he didn't want his collection of classic cookbooks to be besmirched by flying ratatouille, Deighton wrote out the recipes on paper strips, added little drawings and diagrams, and pinned them up over his cooker. One day The Observer's graphics expert Ray Hawkey walked in, saw them and suggested they should run in the Observer Magazine, as "Cookstrips," to encourage male readers to try their hands at exotic stuff like spaghetti Bolognese. The strips were published as Len Deighton's Action Cook Book in 1965. (The film of Deighton's thriller The Ipcress File came out in the same year, with Michael Caine playing Harry Palmer. In the film, Palmer shows off his manly cooking prowess – and if you look closely, you can see one of the Deighton strips pinned to his kitchen wall.)

"Action cooking" – it's a nice concept, suggestive of an action film, hinting that preparing a meal could be an enterprise filled with drama, thrills, even sex appeal. A supposedly female-only chore was suddenly recast as a male socio-sexual accomplishment. And Deighton's recipes tended to lean towards the butch rather than the subtle: Chicken Kiev, Baked Alaska. There was much emphasis on chilli, and on offal, such as "Brains in Black Butter".

The most recent avatar of the aggressively masculine cookbook is Manly Food, written by Simon Cave, a London-dwelling "food writer and blogger." The book is nicely designed, as though the pages have been sprayed with testosterone. The cover picture isn't of food at all: it shows a butcher's cleaver, much used until its edge is ragged. Each dish is presented in the typeface associated with a WANTED poster in a Western. In his introduction, Mr Cave (good name for a macho guy) lays out his principles: "This book is all about full-on food: the meaty, hearty, bold, adventurous and downright greedy side of food. It is about no-holds-barred, all-guns-blazing, all-action cooking." The concept of "all-action" cooking is back from the Deighton era, as if preparing a meal were roughly comparable to taking part in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. But Mr Cave plunges on gamely, and offers his Rules.

Rule One is Flavour First. Rule Two is Flavour First. Rule 3 is Cook with Attitude. Rule 4 is Respect Your Tools. The first two rules boil down, so to speak, to advice about not skimping on flavour, "taking a stand against the modern tyranny of bland," admitting that things taste better when salt and fat are involved, and that if a dish calls for garlic or chilli or spicy fish sauce, you'll get them here in spades.

Cave bracingly avers that you need to start with non-supermarket fare, with free-range chicken, well-hung beef, wild salmon and good wine in your dishes and sauces. He contradicts himself in saying one should "respect the dish" and not "cut corners", while simultaneously recommending you don't follow recipes slavishly but take a "playful" approach to ingredients. His sage advice to "cook with attitude" means believing there's nothing you can't cook if you get organised, take your time, pay attention, get all the ingredients and equipment in front of you, and prep the vegetables, before you start.

He recommends channelling the spirit of Keith Floyd, the flamboyant wine-swilling TV chef, but the approach he recommends sounds pure Delia Smith. His matey advice, however, has a pleasingly martial tone, as if he were a kindly RSM addressing a platoon of squaddies, no more so than when telling readers to "love" and "respect" their knives and, later, taking them through the finer points of chicken-jointing and beef butchery.

Does he convince us there's such a thing as Manly Food? He kicks off with spicy dishes (Mozambican king prawn piri-piri with lethal bird's-eye chillies) and virile advice: "Additional equipment needed for the night includes towels to wipe off your sweat and an ample supply of cold beer." His lamb shank recipe isn't the usual comfort food with mash; it's a vindaloo with basmati rice. His Argentinian mixed grill, cooked on a barbecue, is basically an asado, the national dish of Argentina; you can imagine a backyard full of gauchos prodding the meat approvingly. His lamb shoulder cooked on a barbacoa (or Mexican fire pit) takes two days and is not for the impatient.

There's a nice blokey, watching-the-footie feel about his TV dinners: this is perhaps the only recipe book that includes pork scratchings, sweaty tacos, homemade nachos with cheese, and what sounds a delicious recipe for spicy nuts. By the time you've read his recipes for suckling pig (with an apple in its mouth,) for bobotie meatloaf, mussels in beer, French onion soup and coq au vin, you'll believe there is a bloke way of doing food – gutsy, full-throated, a little crude but wholly memorable.

British beef carpaccio

Serves 4

This is my butch version of the classic Italian dish. The original was created in Harry's Bar in Venice from what they had available. Happily, they had gorgeous raw beef to hand – but unfortunately they also had mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce. To me, it's far better to place the beef centre stage. In this recipe, the beef is charred briefly but remains essentially, deliciously raw. The watercress and mustard give it a bit of pep.

500g beef fillet
1tbsp olive oil, plus extra for cooking
1tsp red wine vinegar
½tsp English mustard
200g watercress
1 shallot, finely sliced
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Try to get fillet cut from the thinner tail end; it will have a better shape. Trim any fat, nerves or gristle off the fillet.

Make an iced-water bath in a bowl large enough to hold your fillet comfortably. Heat a ridged grill pan until it is very hot.

Brush the meat all over with olive oil and rub with salt and pepper. Place the fillet on the grill pan and char it for 1 minute on each side (4 in total). Put the meat in the iced water briefly to stop it cooking. Pat the meat dry with kitchen paper and set aside.

When ready to serve, combine the olive oil, vinegar and mustard in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and toss the watercress and shallot in the mixture.

Carve the beef into thin slices with a very sharp knife at an angle of about 30 degrees. Arrange the sliced beef on top of the salad and serve.

Lobster on the half shell

Serves 4

4 x 500g live lobsters, placed in the freezer for 30 minutes
3tbsp lemon juice
80g butter
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 fresh red chillies, chopped
15g fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped
Salt and black pepper

Prepare the barbecue for medium direct heat. Split the lobsters in half lengthways. Remove the little sac in the head. Crack the claw shells but don't break them open completely. Season the flesh side of the lobster with salt, pepper and half the lemon juice.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the garlic and chillies. Cook for 1 minute, then remove from the heat.

Brush the lobsters with some of the garlic butter on both sides. Place flesh-side down on the grill for 4-5 minutes. Turn and cook for a further 4-5 minutes. While this is happening, mix together the remaining garlic butter with the parsley and remaining lemon juice.

Put the lobsters flesh-side up on a serving plate and drizzle each half with sauce. Serve immediately.

Hot and spicy duck ramen

Serves 4

1.5 litres chicken or pork stock, or a combination
3 star anise seeds
4 duck breasts
1tbsp groundnut oil
400g ramen noodles, fresh or dried
2tsp shichimi togarashi
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
4 large red chillies, sliced
4 handfuls baby spinach
4 handfuls bean sprouts
20g fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 lime, cut into wedges
Salt

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and heat the chicken or pork stock in another pan with the star anise. Season the duck breasts with salt on both sides. Heat a frying pan with the oil and fry the duck breasts, skin-side down, for 5 minutes on each side. Remove from the pan, cover with foil and set aside to rest.

Cook the ramen noodles in the boiling water for 3 minutes if fresh, if dried, check the instructions on the packet. Drain and place in 4 large soup bowls with ¼ teaspoon shichimi at the bottom of each one. Ladle the hot stock over. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary.

Thinly slice the duck breasts and place on top of the noodles. Add the sliced onion, chillies, spinach, bean sprouts and coriander. Serve with lime wedges.

Lamb shank vindaloo

Serves 4

Vindaloo is genuine, wonderful fusion food, having begun in Portugal, travelled to India, and then back again across the world over 500 years. My version combines the vinegar from the original with the heat of a modern curry, and puts the meat centre stage, where it should be.

For the marinade

1 cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods
5 cloves
1tsp mustard seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp cumin seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
4tsp Indian hot chilli powder (or other hot chilli powder)
6 dried Kashmiri chillies (or other large, mild variety)
6 garlic cloves
2cm fresh root ginger
½tsp sugar
50ml white wine vinegar
50ml white wine (can also be replaced by coconut milk or fenny)

For the vindaloo:

4 lamb shanks
2 star anise pods
50ml vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
Salt

Combine the spices, garlic, ginger and sugar with vinegar and wine and let the ingredients soak for 30 minutes before puréeing them in a blender to a fine paste.

Put the lamb shanks, star anise and the marinade in a large bowl and leave to marinate for at least 4 hours in the fridge. After marinating, heat the oil in a large casserole, add the onion and fry until soft.

Add the lamb along with the marinade paste and let the spices soften and the vinegar evaporate over a high heat for 5 minutes. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat and season with salt. Add a little water if necessary to just cover the meat, and let it simmer for about 90 minutes, or until tender. Serve with basmati rice.

Ranch-style eggs

Serves 2

Olive oil, for frying
½ large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 x 400g tin whole tomatoes
1 mild green chilli, finely diced
2tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped (optional)
4 corn tortillas
Butter, for frying
4 eggs
Salt and black pepper
Refried beans and queso fresco, or other soft white
Cheese, to serve (optional)

Place a large frying pan over a medium heat, add a little olive oil and cook the onion until softened. When the onion is soft, add the garlic. When the garlic has softened, break the tomatoes up with your fingers and add them to the pan. Add the green chilli.

Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for 10 minutes. Just before serving, stir in half the coriander, if using.

Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high heat, coating the pan with the oil. One by one (or more if your pan is big enough) heat the tortillas in the pan for a minute or two on each side, until they are heated through and softened, and pockets of air bubble up inside them. Transfer the cooked tortillas to a dish and keep warm. Using the same pan, add a little butter and fry the eggs sunny side-up.

To serve, place an egg on top of each tortilla, allowing 2 per serving, and spoon the sauce around the eggs.

Top with more sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining coriander, if using. Serve with refried beans and a little queso fresco on the side, if you can lay your hands on it.

Beachcombers' shellfish

Serves 4

1kg small live mussels
500g fresh palourde clams
8 razor clams
2 shallots, finely chopped
200ml dry white wine
Bouquet garni (3 fresh thyme sprigs, 5 fresh parsley sprigs and 2 bay leaves tied together)
60g butter
3tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper

Put all your shellfish in a clean sink full of cold water. Discard anything that still floats after it has had a tap with the back of your knife. Scrape off any large barnacles and pull off and discard the beards (the stringy bits hanging out of the shell).

Put the shallots, wine, bouquet garni and 20g of the butter in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil over a high heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the shellfish, season with pepper and stir vigorously.

Cover the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Shake the pan. Turn off the heat, and leave to stand, covered, for 3 more minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the mussels and clams to a deep serving dish and cover.

Strain the cooking juices through a fine strainer into a clean pan; bring to the boil. Reduce for 2 minutes, then whisk in the remaining butter. Stir in the parsley, season and pour the sauce over the shellfish. Serve with crusty bread.

'Manly Food' by Simon Cave is published by Quadrille (£25)

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