The empty basket

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In 1986, I left my native South Korea and came to Britain to study economics as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge.

Things were difficult. My spoken English was poor. Racism and cultural prejudices were rampant. And the weather was rubbish. But the most difficult thing was the food. Before coming to Britain, I had not realized how bad food can be. Meat was overcooked and under-seasoned. It was difficult to eat unless accompanied by gravy, which could be very good but also very bad. English mustard, which I fell in love with, became a vital weapon in my struggle to eat dinners. Vegetables were boiled long beyond the point of death to become textureless, and there was only salt around to make them edible. Some British friends would argue valiantly that their food was under-seasoned (err… tasteless?) because the ingredients were so good that you oughtn’t ruin them with fussy things like sauces, which those devious French used because they needed to hide bad meat and old vegetables. Any shred of plausibility of that argument quickly vanished when I visited France at the end of my first year in Cambridge and first tasted real French food.

British food culture of the 1980s was – in a word – conservative; deeply so. The British ate nothing unfamiliar. Food considered foreign was viewed with near-religious scepticism and visceral aversion. Other than completely Anglicised – and generally dire-quality – Chinese, Indian, and Italian, you could not get any other national cuisine, unless you traveled to Soho or another sophisticated district in London. British food conservatism was for me epitomized by the now defunct but then-rampant chain, Pizzaland. Realizing that pizza could be traumatically ‘foreign’, the menu lured customers with an option to have their pizza served with a baked potato – the culinary equivalent of a security blanket for British people.

As with all discussions of foreignness, of course, this attitude gets pretty absurd when you scrutinize it. The UK’s beloved Christmas dinner consists of turkey (North America), potatoes (Peru or Chile), carrots (Afghanistan), and Brussels sprouts (from, yep, Belgium). But never mind that. Brits then simply didn’t ‘do foreign’.


Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty



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