Help is at hand for the lazy: fast food need no longer be depressing, writes Caroline Singer
It's no secret that, while our appetite for cookery programmes and glossy recipe books is at an all-time high, as a nation we are cooking less and less. TV chefs entertain more than they inform, and the inevitable books-of-the-series end up as coffee table decor. Part of the fascination of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV Dinners is that he's managed to find real people who take time to concoct complicated gourmet meals in their own homes. But for the vast majority, where cooking's concerned, it's often less hassle just to watch.

Food companies know this only too well. Even if we do like to cook "proper" meals, there's not always time. Arriving home exhausted and hungry rarely induces a burning desire to spend the evening slicing, dicing and marinading, so convenience food is a fact of life. But the "ping" of a microwave is a depressing sound. Few would say, hand on heart, that scalding hot, oversalted sludge sliding out of a plastic tub is their idea of a treat, and there is that slightly sheepish feeling that comes with eating something so far removed from the hands-on experience - are all those lovely Le Creuset pots just for decoration?

This is where CIY - "cook it yourself" makes its grand entrance. It takes away the hassle of preparation and planning without removing the sense of cooking a proper, balanced meal from scratch. Bigham's Global Gastronomy, which is pioneering the concept, seems to be carving a new niche in the packaged food market. The idea is simple. You are given the raw ingredients in separate sachets, all chopped, marinaded and ready to use. By following theinstructions you can have a plate of gourmet food in 20 minutes flat.

Breast of chicken in a spicy Cajun marinade with a mango and coriander salsa, and sauteed Scottish venison with mustard, honey and juniper in a cranberry and fresh thyme sauce, are just two of the meals that can be whipped up. Nothing is pre-cooked, defrosted from frozen or pumped with preservatives. There's no waste, no shopping around for cranberries and creamed coconut, and emphatically no white plastic tubs with "pierce here" on their lids. This is real food, made easy.

Charlie Bigham, an ex-art consultant and self-confessed foodie, is the brains behind Bigham's Global Gastronomy. He is enthusiastic about the concept, which, he says "came to me as I negotiated the Iran/Pakistan border". The "global" element is inspired by his expeditions to far-flung regions of the world. "I saw simple, delicious food being cooked up with the minimum of fuss on the streets," he recalls, "and I wanted to try to capture some of the convenience and freshness of this type of cooking, and remove some of the mystique that surrounds, say, a Caribbean dish."

Charlie believes that the great strength of English cuisine is its eclecticism. "Unlike countries with a country culinary tradition, such as France or Italy, we have no sacred cows here any more, which is very refreshing. An Italian chef would never think of using Thai spices and coconut, whereas over here, people like Alastair Little never stop experimenting and combining the flavours of other cultures."

It all sounds wonderful, but how does it taste? I decided to invite a few carnivorous friends for Bangkok chicken in south-east Asian spices with coconut and cashew sauce, and sauteed Scottish venison and zesty Caribbean lamb in a lime and ginger marinade (vegetarian options are in the pipeline). It certainly seemed to be food I would happily serve to guests at a dinner party, as well as being something I could treat myself to on a Monday night in front of the telly. And maybe, for once, I wouldn't emerge from the kitchen hot, irritable and bothered, trailing the faint smell of singed martyr.

Practicalities first. The stylish brown cardboard packs come in single or double portions, and meals work out at around pounds 5 a head. They keep for up to a week in the fridge, and I noticed - eco-skinflint that I am - that the little plastic sauce pots are just about strong enough to re- use. There are four separate components to each of the gastronomic self- assembly kits: a bag of rice or new potatoes; a bag of carrots; peeled and batoned leeks, chopped, or green beans topped and tailed; a pot of sauce; and a pouch of marinaded chunks of meat. Plus a page of instructions.

I began cooking about an hour before my guests were due to arrive. As we would be trying out three different dishes, a little planning was required, but next time I'll serve just one variety, giving me time to make a creme brulee, wax my legs, watch EastEnders and greet my guests with a serene smile.

Timing is crucial element to cooking, and Global Gastronomy takes all the guesswork out of it. The instructions that come with each pack are so easy to follow that I almost felt lost when I had to put the cheese and biscuits out without friendly advice. They tell you exactly when to put the rice on for it to be ready just as the meat has cooked through and the carrots are at their peak of al dente perfection. The smells are quite wonderful.

And the flavours are even better. The meat was uniformly tender and beautifully marinaded. I have never bitten into a piece of British lamb and tasted lime and ginger before, but it was an inspired and inspiring combination, which I plan to do again. The coconut and cashew sauce was aromatic, sweet and creamy, while the chicken itself had a hint of spice that balanced the flavours perfectly. The mustardy venison was, again, extremely tender, although some felt the marinade was a little too peppery.

Opinions were divided as to which was the best dish. I think the Bangkok Chicken won, but only just; the other two meals had strong support, too, and we all felt we had eaten inventive, interesting, high-quality food that was light years away from anything we'd had out of a packet before. Global Gastronomy meals are outstanding value, and a welcome addition to the otherwise gloomy world of instant grub. I look forward to the vegetarian options, and to seeing the distribution go nationwide, which it is set to do in the near future.

Finally, a last word for those purists who like to feel they've worked hard for their dinner party: with "cook it yourself" there's still the washing up to do. Global Gastronomy may be short-cut cooking, but what a wonderful way to cheat.

Bighams Global Gastronomy is available from quality delis, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum and Mason, Partridges and Cullens. It is also available (from April) from Waitrose supermarkets and the home delivery supermarket The Food Ferry (0171-498 0827). The cost of a meal for one varies between pounds 4.95 at Cullens and pounds 5.50 at Harvey Nichols. A meal for two costs between pounds 7.95 in Cullens and pounds 8.95 in Harvey Nichols. Further information: call or fax Charlie Bigham (0181-357 2530) or Caroline Singer (0181-579 1082).