Friday, 10 April 2009

Banquet Night

I had dinner with a good friend at an Indian restaurant last night. The menu ran to about five dense pages. It was the night of the ‘Special Banquet’, when you pay half what you would pay any other night of the week, and our order turned out to comprise enough food to choke a rock python. Loraine and I managed to put away about half of what was brought to us. It was mostly lousy. What we did not eat would surely be recycled, and much of what we were presented with had probably been recycled already. Certainly the limp, stringy cauliflower bhaji must have been trotted out and ignored earlier in the day, then reheated for us so as not to go to waste. We left it anyway, and someone else is probably digesting it right now. Or perhaps it is sitting in the fridge waiting for another chance tomorrow.

‘Was everything alright, madam?’ the head waiter asked as we were leaving.

‘Lovely, darling, thank you,’ Loraine said, because she is much nicer to people that I am. And because, as Brits will, we had simply left stuff we thought was crap rather than asking for it to be replaced. No point in complaining after we had paid. But I’m going to anyway, and to the wrong people.

I do a fair bit of moaning about British restaurant and supermarket food, and making unfavourable comparisons between Britain and Greece in these areas. Greece is certainly no gastronomic paradise, but predictable as taverna food usually is, it is at least fresh and simple and honest. What you see is what you get, and the English half of the menus, for squeamish Brits, are often too brutally honest. There was a restaurant in Piraeus that offered ‘spleen bowels’, which was exactly what it said. I don’t imagine they got many British tourists in there. (I remember I once bought a spleen for my pernickety cat. It was a large, flat, greyish affair which you were supposed to boil. I boiled it for ages. I pricked it with a knife and it bled like a shaving nick. It stank of abattoirs and dissections and dead things. The cat wouldn’t touch it and I don’t blame him.) Other English from Greek menus, while I’m at it: ‘head cheese’ is a direct translation of ‘kefalotyri’. It is delicious served fried, but for a Brit the mistranslation might possibly call to mind foreskin cheddar and that’s something of a turn-off. How do you fancy ‘boiled nonsense’? This is in fact steamed courgettes, and misuse of a pocket dictionary.

In provincial Indian restaurants in Britain you get the impression that every evening they must brew up a vat each of red, yellow and brown gloop, then chuck in odds and sods of this and that and serve them under a variety of aliases. Last night I had a dhansak, here red gloop with some lentils and a tinned pineapple ring. Loraine had a lamb something or other, lumps of chewy meat rolled in brown gloop and grilled. She had me try some. I imagine a roughly diced, grilled loofah would taste very similar. Years ago I shared a house with a Pakistani bloke who was doing a PhD. He went with friends to the ‘Curry House’ in Cambridge (which is no more) and asked the waiter, in Urdu, if the food was good or merely trash for whiteys. The waiter assured him of its quality, so Bobby persisted: the food here, was it good stuff, or just spiced-up carbs for slooed lager louts? ‘Yeah, OK,’ said the waiter, ‘it’s trash for whiteys’. I think this is still the case with many restaurants where the clientele is predominantly non-Asian. The place last night was stylish of décor but the food was just… trash for whiteys, like the pissed-up hen party at the adjacent table. (Who? Me, a snob?) I don’t imagine any of the Asian lads who serve there is used to eating this sort of slop at home.

Greek taverna food is fresh and simple and honest, I said. Well, usually. I once worked for ten days on Crete, doing oral tests for the British Council. In the evenings our small group of examiners would go out to eat. In Rethymnon, handsome young waiters in immaculate white shirts and pressed black trousers stood at the gates of outdoor tavernas to lure you in. ‘Good evening. Engliss? Deutss? Come in!’ If we accepted, they would show us to our table and hand out menus, and their ingratiating manner would change immediately when we started asking about the food in Greek. ‘Don’t order the moussaka, it’s yesterday’s. The koukouvaya [meaning ‘owl’, rusk re-hydrated with olive oil and chopped tomato] is lousy, been sitting there ages. The barrelled wine is iffy, go for a bottle.’ At one place, a member of our party offered to peel the potatoes herself if the owner would agree not to serve us frozen chips. We learned that the staff of local eateries divided food into two categories: ‘Ε’ for ‘Elliniko’, meaning Greek, and ‘Ξ’ (ksou) for ‘Xeno’, meaning foreign. Those foreigners in the know specify ‘a moussaka E’ if they want something ‘tis prokopis’, meaning ‘of acceptable standard’. Those foreigners not so fortunate eat sub-standard stuff, which they often do not recognise as sub-standard because its novelty value overrides their critical faculties. The perceived quality of food is, after all, often dependent on suggestion, and in an open-air taverna by the Aegean on a balmy evening you can easily overlook and forgive all sorts of rip-offs. Given the right location, environment and piquant dipping sauce, you could probably make a mint selling extortionately priced Tesco fish fingers as an appetiser.

I think for a while I might just live on bread, cheese, olives, fruit and wine, because I am so tired of being ripped off in restaurants here. I’d be happy with a menu that had only four or five starters, main and side dishes, but I’m out of touch, obviously. Quantity trumps quality every time.


Bo said...

All too true, alas. I'm no expert but even I can make a curry that's better than the slop you get served down the Ghandhi.

Vilges Suola said...

Pity, isn't it? Unless you live in London and have loads of spare cash, it's what you are stuck with.

Anonymous said...

Vilges, what a bummer.

I was rather amused, "Everything alright?" "Lovely darling..." This reminded me of a thing I teach my students, lie, lie through your teeth. The book as all manner of responses to the question "How are you?" I teach only one, because everybody lies... "I'm fine," regardless that you have a hang-over, the power company cut the power, the dog bit the neighbour, the response is always "I'm fine."


Fionnchú said...

Great post! So, is the problem that the restaurants in Britain as in Greece themselves work on a double standard of reference for you vs. them the same as that in Britain? The locals know somehow the authentic places, while the visitors cannot suss this out?

Or, is it that the eateries in Britain have one stash of crap to haul out on Special Night Half-Price for whitey, while another stash not-crap simmers away in back reserved for their fellow ethnics? My point is that in multicultural and heavily immigrant America, many "ethnic" eateries to survive the competition appear to have to cater to two different diners. There's the "real" clientele used to such food from their homeland vs. the "tourists" like us, haplessly drifting away from one's own native cuisine for the night.

This reminds me too of a prejudice. Some Asians, for example, will not patronize an Asian restaurant if too many non-Asians frequent it. Once the word gets out to "foodies" in the non-ethnic group that a formerly "insider" place is good, this may sour its appeal for the "natives."

Can you find similar splits in your British or Greek examples? Speaking of the problem of the language keeping one from the goodies: I may add a common linguistic barrier. Speaking of specials-- how about going into a Chinese restaurant whose walls are festooned with ideograms and prices? Presumably for far, far better grub than what's on the vinyl-padded, plastic-covered menu shoved at you, in woeful English.

Happy Easter however you reckon it!

Anonymous said...

Having recently transported myself just one hour away from a modern totally Greek town to a 'supposedly' Greek village I was horrified to find myself served in every Greek taverna that I went to with sideplates - not to mention - starters - main meal and dessert.Since fucking when !!!!!- I said. I ordered in greek - which threw them immediately - I asked if the squid was fresh or frozen - waiter nearly had a heart attack - someone who looked foreign obviously knew the difference !!!Then I asked - what's not on the menu that a Greek would eat - stutter stutter stutter and then came the answer - freskia barboynia - fresh red mullet - xorta - agria....... wild fresh greens, skordalia me fresko skordia, potato and garlic puree made with this seasons new garlic................. say no more........
Exhausting but worth it.
This village when I first visited it 23 years ago was plain greek food. Then came the package holiday tourist industry and suddenly Greeks have forgotten what it was that attracted foreigners in the first place !!! Greeks do not need to specify starters - main meal and desserts. The way that you order dishes immediately tells the kitchen staff what way you want to eat. Forget dessert - it's on the house in a good taverna in greece, that's if you have any room left to eat it, or, like me, you prefer to dip a piece of freshly cut apple in your next glass of wine......................

Vilges Suola said...

@Mac - was this Stoupa, by any chance?

@Fionnchu - I think it depends here on the city. I work in Leicester which has a very large immigrant population and everyone says the Indian and Pakistani food there is excellent. Here in tiny Stamford we have hardly any Asians, so there's nobody to be demanding and whack up the restaurants' quality.


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