LONDON — While Britannia may have ruled the waves, its dominance definitely did not extend to the kitchen.
Derided for centuries because of its often bland, overcooked, or simple table fare, London now boasts a delicious array of choices.
England's colonial history accounts for the diversity of restaurants in London. Culinary echoes of the empire where the sun never set appear on menus here, giving them the international flavor that exists in every other aspect of the city's life.
Visitors may think they've "tasted" England through the two best-known meal experiences: breakfast and tea. The classic "full English breakfast" features a dizzying array of items including bacon, sausage, eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, kidneys, fried bread, fried potatoes, kippers, porridge, fruit juice, toast with marmalade, and tea or coffee.
The serene ritual of afternoon tea is made resplendent with a silver tray bearing cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and a selection of dark and mild infusions.
One of the more prevalent influences from the colonies can be sampled at any of the dozens of "take away" shops throughout the city, from the upscale heart of London to the working-class West End.
Ackee and saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica, is a legacy of Oliver Cromwell's decision to send the British Navy to the West Indies in 1655. Ackee is the pale flesh of the seed from the tree of the same name, grown throughout the tropics. Pieces of saltfish are cooked with it, along with onion and tomatoes, and slivers of scallion, flavored with black pepper and thyme.
Other Jamaican possibilities, which usually come with a side helping of rice and peas, include curry goat, oxtail and butterbeans, and jerk chicken. A slice of creata cake, made from coconut and sugar, adds a sweet touch.
For a formal dining experience, several restaurants list starters, main courses, and desserts that have their origins in British history. The sleek, airy Bank restaurant, located steps away from the British Portrait Museum, allows diners the luxury of space to enjoy their dinner. Bank's menu includes several Scottish entries, such as Rib Eye in Bearnaise Sauce, but Egyptian dishes are prominent as well.
From 1882 to 1922, England ruled Egypt, and has remained a strong presence in the region ever since. That presence is maintained here by a traditional Spiced Lentil Soup. This dish mixes yellow split peas, lentils, root vegetables and stock, resulting in a smooth, hearty concoction. It features the addition of tomato puree, which lends another color to the array, giving the finished product a bright orange hue. Cumin, coriander, red chilis, and garlic boost the spice level.
England's Western Hemisphere heritage dates back to the British occupation of much of North America. American independence came more than two centuries ago, but Canada is still part of the British Commonwealth. The hemisphere's influence continues at Christopher's, fashioned from a converted town house that some say was once a bordello. Drinks are served before dinner in the cellular tavern that seems to have used Chicago speak-easies as its model. And the American and Canadian inspiration appears in every category. Maryland Crab Cakes, Maine lobster, and New York style "Gorgonzola" rib eye tempt the palate while Mint Julep Chocolate Brownies and New York Cheesecake wait for dessert.
One of the most rewarding selections is the Maple Roast Ham Hock entree. The ham hock is marinated in maple syrup from New England or southeastern Canada before slow baking, which renders the meat tender and juicy, allowing the maple flavor to permeate. The extended cooking period permits the dish to be eaten without a knife, since the meat flakes easily from the bone.
Game dishes show up in most London restaurants. Hunting parties have long been a pastime at weekend country retreats in northern England, Wales, and Scotland. One of the city's newest restaurants, Leith's Soho, offers many traditional game-meat entrees, including Roast Guinea Fowl with Black Pudding and Sage Gravy, matched with Bitter Leaf Salad with Grain Mustard and Mashed Potatoes. A Red Pepper Soup opener, and a selection of traditional British cheeses with tea complete its re-creation of the substantial tweeds-and-ascots dinner.
Fishing rivals hunting as a popular recreation in all parts of the British Isles, and the sea coasts of Scotland and Wales contribute several choices at the People's Palace. Located on the top floor of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, the restaurant overlooks the Thames. Included on the menus are a roast sea bass and pan-fried scallops, and an especially tasty roast cod entree accompanied by steamed local peas and cauliflower.
Back in the 1760s, the British began visits to India, as trading companies established commercial partnerships that evolved into political domination. When India gained its independence in 1947, it was more than tea that the British kept. Indian restaurants are commonplace throughout London. The oldest is Veeraswarmy, overlooking busy Oxford Street, known as the best place to sample authentic Indian cooking. Mustard and Chili-Marinated Monkfish, Coriander-Spiced Tomato Soup, Kingfish with Coconut and Ginger, and the most popular dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, served with nan, are daily offerings. One dish not available elsewhere, Pineapple Curry, can be traced to a time-honored Indian wedding custom. The dish combines coconut, turmeric, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and coriander, which challenge the tart and sweet pineapple.
If this tasting trip through British history leaves you with an appetite for something less exotic, drop in at a neighborhood pub and relax with a large helping of fish and chips.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society