We know that "foreign" food swept into these isles in the Elizabethan age of exploration. Walter Raleigh and others who went forth brought back tomatoes from Mexico (love apples as they were then called), sugar, spices like paprika and chilli, almonds and other exotic ingredients used for ever-more-thrilling, outrageous feasts for the rich. In truth, many favourites thought to be quintessentially British – tea, potatoes – were brought in from elsewhere and naturalised. As Rose Prince writes in her book, The New English Kitchen (2005): "This is a country ... with a five-hundred-year-old history of food piracy, borrowing ideas from other shores, importing their raw materials and learning to cultivate them on our soils." Brits were suckers for wild and new tastes, continuing an irrepressible national characteristic.
Many an intrepid Empire builder went native in spite of a great deal of self-discipline and denial. Surrounded in many of the colonies by spicy aromas and strong tastes, their palates would not accept the dull, grey neutrality of their homeland food. Belief in racial superiority was a bulwark of sorts, but Brits abroad were homesick, often ill, depressed and feeling threatened by the hordes. How hard they tried to stay loyal to Kraft cheese and tinned pilchards. Sticky English puds and cakes kept their sweet appeal but in hot climes, plain pies, roasts and boiled-to-death vegetables tasted like undeserved punishment. HP and LP sauces and tomato ketchup were sent for from the old land, but were no match for curry powder and tamarind. The most committed purist settler in Kenya was soon eating groundnut sauce and local breads made with banana yeast and in India, spiced rice (kedgeree) and of course Anglicised curries.
Immigration to Britain carried on the British propensity for culinary adventure and expansiveness. Europeans, Asians, Caribbeans, Africans, Jews, now Poles add their bit into the endlessly-changing national cuisine. That story is told often enough. However, much less known (and acknowledged) is the influence of old and new British cooking on colonial subjects and migrants to Britain. Indians and Africans took to cooking trademark English dishes, adapting them with flair to make them more edible. In Uganda, where I was born under the Union Jack, myths had grown around plucky little Blighty and its incredible power spread across the world. My mother and her mates believed something potent in their food gave the rulers legendary strength and determination. In the Fifties, the leader of our worldwide Shia sect, our Imam, issued an edict instructing parents to give their young children bland English grub as it was healthier than their traditional Asian African cooking.
They followed the order, yet subverted it, perhaps because they couldn't bear the idea of force-feeding kids used to strong flavours. In my recently-published food memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, I describe the tricks. They fed us fishcakes – only livened up with chilli – and turned English Shepherd's pie, which we were taught in school, into a spiced delight. "Now beti, wait till I make it," said Jena, my mum, as she threw the pie into the bin. "Next time. This will be my Indian shepherd's pie. With bit of garam masala and magic we can repair this dish." HP and LP sauces went into meat marinades for barbeques on simple aluminium grills called sigris and exotic touches transformed sweets and cakes. Lime and saffron were mixed into cakes; cardamom and semolina were added to special shortbread, renamed nankatai, served to wedding guests. Nestle's Carnation milk and condensed milk were appropriated for an innovative array of puddings. There is a lovely, sweet vermicelli in milk we make, with saffron and pistachios, which I am sure is based on rice pudding.
The same two-way traffic of ideas took place after post-war immigration. Again only one side of the story is told, how we came, we saw, and led this austere, tasteless land to chicken tikka masala, the nation's favourite dish and thereon to infinite variety. Today Thai food is served in the most English of pubs and even the nationalistic Gary Rhodes fails to cook within what he calls the true British repertoire. But once again the influence goes the other way, too. Migrants past and present have picked up native eating habits, good and bad. Did you know that during Ramadan, one of the favourite the pre-dawn breakfasts these days is an "English" with halal beef sausages, beef bacon, chilli baked beans and cheap white bread or parathas?
Just this month, our mosque leaders, echoing our old Imam, have set up a website to warn people of the health hazards of an over-rich and fatty diets with suggestions on using British methods – baking, roasting and steaming – to make modern Asian food. Quite right, too. Diabetes and heart disease afflict a disproportionate number of black and Asian Britons and we need to learn to eat better from those Britons who eat and cook with care and knowledge. Jena bought herself a casserole dish in the Seventies and invented a wonderful, totally fat-free lamb curry which is slow cooked in the oven. Masala fish and potatoes, which used to be fried deep in oil, are now roasted and English vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts are used for delectable, nouveau Indian vegetarian dishes.
As Asian women get more conscious of body image (a terrible western anxiety we have picked up) we are getting the recipe books to help those on perpetual diets, books such as Indian Cooking Without Fat by Mridula Baljekar (Metro, 2000). Conversely, never before has so much fresh cream been consumed by Asians – we add it to everything from coffee to sweetmeats. Increasingly popular too is new wave Asian microwave cooking. Some of my Asian friends now use only olive oil and one recently told me she marinades halibut in pesto mixed with turmeric, crushed green chillies, olive oil, lime juice and sugar, and grills it – her version of "green fish" back home, which was marinaded in coriander and chillies, dipped in batter and deep fried. Trade is never one way. If we transformed Britannia, she too transfigured our way of thinking about food and we have both gained from the exchange.
Jena's Shepherd's Pie
1lb very lean mince
¾ tsp crushed ginger
¾ tsp crushed garlic
¾ tsp garam masala
6 spring onions
1 bunch fresh coriander
2 green chillies
1 small lime
¾ tsp mint sauce
5 chopped tomatoes
8 medium-sized potatoes
¼ tsp crushed garlic
2 tbsp milk
Salt to taste
¾ tsp paprika powder
Peel and halve potatoes and put them to boil in salty water. Using a non-stick frying pan, dry-fry the mince with salt, ginger and garlic. Add garam masala and cook for two more minutes until dry and aromatic. Cool.
Stir in finely chopped onions, coriander, green chillies, lime juice as well as the mint sauce. Transfer into a pie dish and layer tomatoes over the top.
Melt 40 grams of butter and add garlic, frying over gentle heat for a minute. Mash potatoes with this butter-and-garlic mixture and all the other mash ingredients. Spread over the meat and tomato mixture. Melt the rest of the butter and brush over the top.
Bake for twenty-five minutes in the oven at medium temperature (180C/gas mark 4/ 350F) until nicely brown at the top.
Lamb curry in the oven
2lb leg of lamb cut into small bits – buy this with the top fat taken off.
500gm full-fat yoghurt
2 cans chopped tomatoes
5 tbsp fried onions – you can buy these in Asian food stores, brown and crisp. If you can't get them, fry 2 finely sliced onions in sunflower oil until brown, than drain on kitchen paper
2 tsp crushed ginger, garlic and chilli mix or just ginger and garlic mix (you can use chilli powder to taste instead)
1 tbsp cumin/coriander powder mix
2 tsp turmeric
1 mug water
1 tbsp garam masala
Preheat the oven to 200F.
Put all the ingredients into a solid covered pot that can go into the oven. Cook in oven for 45 minutes. Take out, stir, check how the meat is cooking.
Add salt to taste and the garam masala. Return to cook for another 30 minutes.
Check again – if too thick add a cup of water. The meat should be melting soft. Cook until it is. Sprinkle with coriander and serve with vegetable rice or fresh baguettes.
Microwave date halva
(Our people are getting worried about sugar and fat, and this a "healthy" sweetmeat, made in England.)
Ingredients, serves 6
1lb dried, stoned dates (not the block)
pt whipping cream
Peeled unsalted cashews or pistachios
Dessicated coconut to taste
In a glass bowl combine dates with the cream and cover, then zap the mixture for five minutes. Stir and zap again for three minutes. Do this twice more.
Add the nuts and zap for three more minutes. Press into a greased tray, cover and freeze for three hours.
Defrost and cut into diamond shapes. Sprinkle with desiccated coconut. Store in a sealed box in the fridge.
This is the "shortcake" served with tea after wedding ceremonies.
4oz caster sugar
6oz melted butter
1 very large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
7oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
tsp cardamom powder
Some strands of best saffron infused in a small amount of hot water
Beat the sugar into the melted butter then add the egg and vanilla. Beat in the flour, semolina, baking powder and cardamom then, using your hands, knead the dough. It should be soft but not sticky.
Grease a flat baking tray. Break off small pieces and roll into a ball. Flatten the top, then indent it with a finger like a dimple Place them on the tray, not too close together.
Now colour the indentation with the saffron water, an orange spot in the middle, like a tikka on a married Hindu woman's forehead (I am sure that is what inspired this strange ritual).
Bake at a medium temperature 180C/Gas Mark 4/350F until they are still pale but cooked, the colour of shortbread.