My husband loves Mexican food and took me out for a Mexican meal recently. It struck me that, even when it comes to exotic cuisine, palates differ greatly between the two nations I love: Britain and the good ol’ USA.
I have also developed a love for cooking in recent years and have been experimenting with trepidation but some success in preparing more spicy foods. So let’s talk about hot foods…..and I don’t mean temperature-wise.
In the UK, Indian migration and its style of cuisine has been grafting itself into the essence of Britishness since 1809 when the UK’s first curry restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in London. The close relationship between England and India began in the 18th century with the growth and domination of the British-owned East India Company, one of the world’s first and greatest trading companies.
In 1858 the British took control of India through “Crown Rule” - known as “The Raj” - until India achieved independence in 1947. In the 1950’s there was a huge influx of immigrants into Britain from post-partition India and Pakistan. According to the latest UK Census, in 2011 over 5 percent of the UK population have Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds.
As a result, Chicken Tikka Masala is now one of the most popular British dishes and even became the basis of a parliamentary campaign to establish within the European Union a “Protected Designation of Origin” status for the dish….similar to Champagne has from the Champagne region of France. According a major London newspaper (www.telegraph.co.uk), Brits are consuming 25 million portions (2.5 billion pounds) of chicken tikka masala per year, and 65,000 people are employed cooking and serving it…and that is just one-seventh of all the curries served in the nation!
The fusion of English and Indian food apparently stems from homesick British government employees and their families in pre-refrigeration days, struggling to develop dishes reminiscent of home with the challenges of Indian ingredients and food storage. For instance, Kedgeree is a traditional British breakfast dish made from curried rice, smoked fish, boiled eggs, parsley and lemon juice. According to www.britishfood.about.com its roots are Indian, having started its life as khichari, a humble dish of rice and lentils. The smoked fish in kedgeree, which are oiled, salted, and strongly smoked herring, are ‘enjoyed’ as a stand-alone breakfast dish and have been putting hair on the chest of any Englishman who dares to eat them for decades.
Back in the USA, spicy food often means Mexican cuisine and the extensive migration of Mexicans who have made their home over the border has led to huge popularity in this style of cooking.
According to www.aztec-history.com there is a close relationship between the pre-Hispanic cuisine and traditional Aztec diet. When the Spanish began to arrive in South America in the 15th and 16th centuries, they added many different meats to the traditional Aztec staples of corn, beans, avocado, squash, chillis and tomatoes. And of course chocolate was enjoyed by the Aztecs long before it was taken to Europe and later back to North America!
A common ingredient in both Indian and Mexican cuisine is hot peppers. The main chemical in hot peppers is capsaicin, which is an irritant that nature devised to chase away mammals from eating the plant’s fruits. Rarely has nature done such a poor job since mammals of the human variety sometimes love it. Taste buds don’t play a part, but instead a neurotransmitter takes the message of chili’s presence to the brain, interpreting it as pain….but positive pain, such as the endorphin rush that athletes get. The effect of the neurotransmitter depletes fast, and one can quickly build a tolerance, and even a liking, to the irritant….hence the extra Jalapenos in my husband’s fajitas.
I will leave you with a quote from famous American newspaper columnist Harriet van Horne: “Cooking is like love – it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”
God Bless America!