30 years ago, London was a joke. The whole of the UK was, seen as nothing more than an outdated place filled with fusty old men and a slavish obedience to tradition. Many on the continent despaired, wondering if it would ever break free of this brutish nationalism. We could be speaking about many topics here. Thatcher was in power, and there were still many who insisted on adding the Great before every utterance of Britain. What you might not expect us to be referring to however, is the isle’s culinary prowess.
Pies, boiled meat and similar such dishes were all that were associated with us. To most, we were a nation of bad teeth and even worse food. Eating an Englishman’s dinner required a numbing of the taste buds and a penchant for the meat and gravy.
Nowadays, London is one of the top capitals in the restaurant world. It’s arguably the best, though that does largely depend on what criteria you’re judging. Regardless, it’s an immense step up from the laughing stock that was once the city’s reputation. The secret, many will tell you, was a serious adaption of continental methods, importing their techniques and top chefs then adapting their style to suit our own. A convenient story, especially for Francophiles, but one that is far removed from the truth. It’s at this point that many nationalists will gladly jump in, proudly declaring Heston and Gordon and Marco as our real champions, men who refined our existing foods and brought them into the modern day.
They would also be wrong, at least in part. It’s true that both our increased respect for European method and our celebration of our own food played a major part in the revival of the city’s culinary creativity. What has really made it stand above all others however, is the superb cultural diversity and acceptance that has come from the British people. In no other city in the world, is it as easy to find so many different foods from so many different regions. French, Spanish, Polish, Scandinavian, Russian, Chinese, North American, South America, Canadian, North, South and Central Indian, Pakistani, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Mongolian, German, Swiss, Italian, Portuguese, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Greek, Turkish, Australian, Malaysian, South African. If you can think of a nation’s cuisine, there’s probably someone doign a pretty good job of making it in London.
It’s this diversity that makes our culinary scene so wonderful. Just as we have promoted our own food and stripped it of stigma, so too have we embraced the culinary craft of a hundred other nations. We are a city of cultural magpies, as fond of curries, phở gà Portuguese custard tarts as much as we are of our own dishes.