Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why Americans call British food bland... #2014BloggerChallenge

Hey y'all!

Today I'd like to talk about food.  Not just any food, but mostly the foods that I miss terribly, because as much as I love England and its people, the food just ain't the same!  This week Gaby has challenged us with the topic of food, and I thought it was high time that I highlighted some of the things I wish I could get over here across the pond.

Texas "Southern" Staples

I cannot think of a better way to introduce the typical Texas meal than chicken-fried steak.  Mr. Faff doesn't understand why it's called chicken-fried, but he's also kind of impossible and it's quite simple, really.  It's a tenderized cube steak that you fry up using the same method you would use to make fried chicken.  That is, dredged in flour, then an egg wash, then flour again, and deep fried.  Think of it as the American version of a wiener schnitzel.  Top that sucker with cream gravy (or what Brits might call "white sauce") and side it with mashed potatoes, green beans, and Texas toast (thick-sliced white toast, preferably toasted on a griddle with plenty of butter), and you've got a king's meal down south. 

Cheater picture - Mr. Faff's chicken-fried chicken breast with waffle fries.  Not as good as chicken-fried steak served as described above.
While we're talking about fried stuff, let's just get this out of the way - down South, it's almost all fried.  This is why we're fat.  #sorrynotsorry

Moving on... let's talk about catfish.  Southerners love us a good catfish fry.  Essentially, we coat the fish cutlets in seasoned cornmeal and... wait for it... deep fry it.  And it's delicious.  Some of my fondest memories as a child go back to catching catfish and then watching my dad fry it up for a mess of people, because he loved to do that.  Also, he made the best catfish ever.

Fried catfish with fried gulf shrimp (prawns), pinto beans, cole slaw, fried okra, and french fries (chips).
So, imagine that you're frying up some catfish, and you've got a couple of hound dogs that keep sniffing around your fryer, then barking their heads off because they want some of that delicious fish, too!  You need to find a way to satisfy those dogs without actually giving up any of your precious catfish.  You look around at what you have available, and you spot the cornmeal that you used to dredge your fish.  Mix up that cornmeal with a some beaten egg, and fry it up to hush those puppies!  Yeah, that's a long explanation to get to catfish's most common bedmate - the hushpuppy.  I dunno if they were really created to feed the dogs or if that's just an old wives' tale, but I do know they're fairly tasty.

Hushpuppies with two types of tartar sauce.
There are a handful of side dishes that are bound to let you know you're in the South.  They're not exclusive to Texas, but they're definitely found in abundance there.

Pinto beans and coleslaw are two staples of a good Texan diet.  Personally, I like my coleslaw crunchy and not dripping wet, with a good vinegar bite and no stinkin carrots!  As for pinto beans... well, I'll eat em, but they aren't my favorite.  I'd prefer black beans, but don't tell the folks back home!

Let's talk about okra for a minute.  Supposedly, you can find okra in the UK, but I've been looking and I can't find it.  Also, it's kind of a pain to prepare.  My two favorite ways are cornmeal-fried and pickled.  Do not judge me.

Another true southern dish is hominy.  A lot of people make fun of hominy because it's the main ingredient for grits, which is okay but not one of my favorite dishes.  I prefer hominy served whole in a butter sauce.  Don't know what hominy is?  It comes from the Native Americans, who took field corn (or maize) and processed it with an alkali to make it corn swell up and get a... texture.  Okay, no description is going to make it sound yummy, but I think it's delicious.

Delicious, especially served up on the side of baked chicken and pan-fried potatoes.

TexMex Mouth Fiestas

Nothing says you're eating at a Texas restaurant quite like seeing a bowl of warm tortilla chips and fresh made - if you're in a good place - salsa (made from cooked tomatoes, garlic, onions, jalapenos, and cilantro, which is the leaves of the coriander plant) or pico de gallo (literally, "beak of the rooster", a chopped, uncooked version of the same ingredients found in traditional salsas).  Some places still put out bread, but frankly I can get bread on the table anywhere in the world.  Chips 'n salsa let me know I'm home.  As a bonus, my bestie will almost ALWAYS order a bowl of queso to go with.

A natural expansion from chips n salsa is a plate of nachos.  Personally, I like them loaded up with ground beef (taco meat, see below), beans, cheese, and jalapenos, with a side of sour cream and salsa, and maybe guacamole if I'm feeling really PMS-y.  As an aside, the stuff that Brits call guac is not guac.  It's more like green gluepaste with some tomato flakes thrown in.  Blech.

This meal was low on PMS.
Speaking of taco meat, let's talk about the perfect taco.  Crispy corn tortilla shell, loaded with seasoned ground ("minced") beef that smells of comino (ground cumin seeds) and love.  Add on lettuce, tomato, and plenty of cheese, and you'll have a true Texan turning her head sideways to gobble it down.  Incidentally, that is the correct way to eat a crispy taco - sideways.

Not comfortable eating a taco with your fingers?  Fine, grab a fork and dig into a taco salad.  This older, more shapely cousin of the taco is loaded up in a crispy tortilla bowl and filled with the same ingredients, usually with a lot more veg.  Personally, I like it dressed with sour cream, guac, and ranch dressing (we'll come back to ranch dressing later, TRUST ME), but some people opt out of the ranch.

Another favorite quick-fix TexMex meal for me is the quesadilla, which was probably made most world-famous in Napoleon Dynamite - "Make yourself a dang quesadilla!"  Essentially a flour tortilla filled with toppings and folded in half before grilling, my personal favorite is loaded up with cheese, pico de gallo, and grilled chicken breast, but I've been known to deviate for an interesting creation.

This one had cajun blackened chicken - soooo good.
When soup is on my menu, 9 times out of 10 I will pick tortilla soup if it's available.  I've had a lot of good tortilla soup, and a lot of bland tortilla soup, but even though my odds of success are no better than 50-50, I always feel compelled to try to find the elusive perfect bowl.  Recipes vary, but typically you'll find some common Tex-Mex flavors - onion, garlic, tomato, peppers, and cilantro - in a spicy chicken broth (either with or without the actual chicken pieces) and possibly loaded up with corn and beans as well, and topped with fried tortilla strips, or in my kitchen, crushed tortilla chips, and of course, cheese.  It is so soothing and lovely when you've a sore throat or maybe need a little help opening up your sinuses.

Soup is hard to make sexy in photos.  Sorry.
I couldn't do a post about TexMex food without including the dish I've been craving practically since I moved to England, good enchiladas.  I've attempted to make them at home several times, but they're never as good as when you don't have to make them yourself.  An enchilada is essentially a corn tortilla filled with beef, chicken, or cheese, and then covered in a spicy sauce and cheese before baking.  In restaurants, they'll almost always be paired with refried pinto beans and Mexican rice (Spanish rice that uses cumin instead of saffron).

There are two beef enchiladas under all that melty cheese.
Other notable TexMex dishes that deserve some recognition here are the burrito and the chimichanga - both flour tortillas, filled with meat and cheese and sometimes beans, then rolled up and fried - but frankly I think you guys get the point about TexMex food - it's a lot of tortillas with meat and cheese and seasonings and it's all completely yummy!

The "real" meaning of BBQing

Make no mistake about it, Texas is beef country.  While we do have uses for the pig (uhm, hello, bacon??), when it comes to barbeque, we like our red meat to moo.  A point of order here... what you Brits call BBQ is NOT barbeque.  It's grilling.  That big standing pit you put in the garden and drink beers around is a grill.  That attachment at the top of your oven is called a broiler, and it's best saved for making cheese on toast, and browning the tops of your casseroles.  Under no circumstances should you ever think that using these devices make your food barbequed.  You don't BBQ burgers and hotdogs.  That's GRILLING.  It's totally different, even if you use an outdoor grill.

Sorry, got carried away there.  But f'real.  Texans take that shiz for serious.

Barbeque as a word comes from the Caribbean word barbacoa, which refers to a fire pit in which meat was cooked, slow and low.  Anyone who has been to a Hawaiian bbq or attended a southern tradition known as the pig roast knows that it takes hours to cook meat in a pit.  It is this method of slow and low roasting from which the word barbeque derives, which is why you cannot barbeque ANYTHING in 20 minutes.  Sorry.  I'm sure it's tasty, but it AIN'T BBQ!  The only caveat here is if you use your outdoor grill as a slow smoker, or your put that meat on the lowest heat possible for many many hours.  Then it could be barbeque.

Chopped brisket sandwich
Texas BBQ generally involves a dry rub on the meat before it goes in the pit or the smoker, and it will be served with a barbeque sauce as an afterward - true Texas bbq does not baste the meat while it's roasting.  This is a key difference between Texas BBQ and BBQ from other parts of the States. 

When you think Texas BBQ, your first thought should be the pinnacle of roasted beef, the brisket.  This is a cut of meat from the pectoral muscles of the cow, which has a lot of connective tissue and therefore has to be cooked slowly or heavily tenderized with a mallet to make it chewable.  Successfully smoking a brisket basically melts all the connective tissue, so that you are left with a tender, juicy piece of meat that practically melts in your mouth.

Clockwise from top left: creamed corn, wheat bread (my preference - usually it's white bread), dill pickle and white onion slices, smoked beef brisket, smoked turkey.  Not shown: All the droolz.

Alongside the brisket in a Texas smoker, you can usually also find sausage.  Sausage is a HUGELY different affair in the States than in the UK - mostly because in the States we use the Polish and German style of sausages, and the kielbasa is king in Texas BBQ.  UK sausages tend to be pure pork and typically uncooked.  Our frontier-settling roots in Texas left us with a taste for smoked sausages that keep well without refrigeration (until cut open, of course - we're not savages!).

Also found on our fire pits are beef ribs - which are the bigger, nummier versions of pork ribs.  Typically they'll be spare ribs rather than short ribs, and these are the only acceptable meats for basting during cooking.  Sure, we do baby back pork ribs as well, but they're more common in steak houses than barbeque joints.  Go figure.

Baby back ribs with baked (jacket) sweet potato topped in cinnamon butter, and coconut-crusted gulf shrimp (prawns), served with a coconut chutney sauce.  Yes, it was delicious.
In a fancy place, you may also find roasting turkey breasts and chickens - probably the best way ever to eat a bird, and that's about all that needs to be said about that.

The subject of barbeque sauce in Texas can definitely lead to some heated debates about who makes the best, but what makes it a Texas sauce, as opposed to say, North Carolina, is the lack of two major flavors: vinegar and sugar.  Of course, every pit master has his own special recipe and some may include both vinegar and sugar, but in Texas they'll almost always be background dancers, letting the tomato and chilies and seasonings take center stage.  Also a good homemade sauce will probably contain meat drippings.  I drool. 

Grocery Trolley-fillers

I would be greatly remiss if I didn't take this chance to talk about the differences between shopping in the US vs UK.  Yes, in the UK you sometimes have to rent your shopping cart (or trolley, as they call em here) by inserting a pound coin into a slot that releases the chain lock which connects the row of carts together.  You get your pound back when you return the cart and securely lock the chain back in place.  That's odd enough, but it was only the least of my problems when it came to the differences in shopping between the two countries. 

Let me start with a few of the things I can only get in Texas.

Because Texas was largely settled by Germans, Czechs, and other Slovak settlers, our food is greatly influenced by the meals they brought over.  The kolache is a prime example of this, and it's rare to find them in many other states.  Though the soft dough can be filled with any number of sweet jams and custards, my favorite by far is sausage filled.  The closest I can get to this in the UK is a sausage roll, and while delicious in its own right, it just isn't the same.

Breakfast?  Yes please!
The subject of kolaches brings me around to bread doughs in general.  In most grocery stores in America, it is quite easy to find ALL MANNER of different types of pastry and bread dough in convenient frozen rolls or refrigerated cannisters.  I'm sure everyone already knows that "biscuit" means something completely different across the pond, so for the purposes of this post, I'm going to use American terminology.

In this refrigerated case, American home bakers can find pre-made cookie dough, pie crusts, puff pastry, cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, biscuits, pizza dough, and crescent rolls.  I have found nothing similar in the UK.
I miss canned biscuit dough.  I used it as a shortcut for a lot of different recipes because it's so versatile.  I just can't seem to force myself to make chicken and dumplings completely from scratch, and Sunday breakfast just isn't the same without a buttermilk biscuit smothered in butter... or made into a sandwich with some bacon.

Also since giving up my big stand mixer in the move (along with all my corded appliances), I just haven't been motivated to make cookie dough.  It's a shame too, because I can't get prepared dough here either.

Also suspiciously missing is the FROZEN section of bread doughs.  I mean, seriously... how inconvenient to have to proof your own yeast dough?  In the States, I can get frozen dough that is either ready-to-proof, pre-proofed, or par-baked.  Either way, it eliminates a lot of time and mess in the kitchen and I CANNOT GET IT ANYMORE!

That's FIVE cases of frozen bread dough products.  Five.
Seriously.  Super convenient.  Look into it, Britain.

Aside from convenience foods, there are just some things that England doesn't do, like every good Texan's favorite ice cream, the best ice cream in the country, Blue Bell.  You can ask any Texan and they'll tell you, Blue Bell just tastes better.  It's creamier than most of the big brands, and the flavors call to our discerning taste buds.

These are just the pint cartons.  There's way more flavors, and what freak snuck that B&J in there???
It's starting to get easier to find some Mexican food staples in the UK, but almost always it'll be Old El Paso brand.  Granted, it's a good brand, but I can't even bring myself to read where those tortilla chips were made and how far they got shipped from that bakery, and how long ago they were made, when I'm used to knowing that I can get tortilla chips in the store that were made in the same state sometime in the last week.

Now... I talked about ranch dressing earlier, but I'm sure most of my UK readers won't really have any idea what I'm talking about.  It's basically the life blood of Texas.  Originally conceived as a salad dressing, ranch or "house" dressing is a blend of buttermilk and sour cream or mayonnaise, and herbs and seasonings that can vary between kitchens.  It's delicious, and it goes with everything.  Brits... think of it as the brown sauce of Texas, only it's white and actually tastes nice.  I put together my own jar of ranch seasonings, but I think maybe English buttermilk is different than what we get back home, so I've yet to perfect a British ranch dressing.  You can buy pre-bottled stuff in the States, but I prefer making my own at home because the bottled stuff is maybe a bit too thick and gloopy for my tastes.

I'm going to close out this section with just an example of how even though sometimes we get the same brands in the UK, we definitely don't get the same product.  British friends, take a look at what the Americans can get now:

Oh. My. Dot.  Can this even be serious??  And those aren't the only flavors.  There's also marshmallow crispy, peanut butter, lemon, and banana split flavored Oreos, and probably more.  I can't even find a double-stuffed at Tesco, and that makes me sad panda. 

In conclusion, food makes me homesick.

I apologize if any of this comes off sounding like eating in England is a horrible experience - it isn't.  A lot of the food is very much the same.  It's hard to find a new and different way to bake a chicken, or scramble an egg, or even cook a nice steak.  Also, I've become a big fan of Yorkshire tea, sausage rolls, and crumpets (both the kind you eat and the infamous nail blogger).  However, all those things not withstanding, sometimes a girl just gets a hankering for a taste of home.  For me, "home" is a treasure trove of good eats, so my cravings can range all over the food spectrum, as you can clearly see from this post.

I hope you're all having a great week.  If I've whet your appetite with anything I've talked about today, I'd love to hear about it!

Also if you'd like to see the other Food-based posts from the #2014BloggerChallenge, they're all linked up at the bottom of Gaby's post.


  1. Yum! That's made me hungry!
    But in defence of British food - I do think that the reputation for bland British food was true for some years ago maybe - these days, I do think you can get really delicious food here! :-)
    Having said that, I lived in the States for a bit and I agree that nothing compares to the great Tex-Mex and BBQ food that you get there! I do miss that! :-)

    1. I agree - I've had some really yummy food in Britain, but it still isn't comparable!

  2. Some of this food looks good! Some British food is good.
    I'm sure you can find an American style restaurant. I know it's not the same but it might help!

    x x

    1. I suppose it's easier to find comparable "American style" than suitable "Texas style"... I'll have to settle for making it myself or waiting til I visit home to scratch my culinary itches!

  3. A lot more food than I expected you to be able to find! Looking at all these pictures of food sure has made me hungry lol xD

    1. Well... it was all the food I could identify and photograph during a two-week trip. Tex-Mex and BBQ could probably dictate entire posts of their own! :) Glad you enjoyed it though!


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