In late July 1986, aged 22, I boarded a Korean Air flight to start my graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. It was the start of my career in the UK as an economist and my first time ever leaving South Korea. In those days no South Korean was allowed to travel abroad for leisure purposes.
The travel from Korea to Britain in those days took an unbelievably long time. But it wasn’t simply the distance that made me feel alien. The language barrier, the racial differences and the cultural prejudices I was prepared for – at least to an extent. The trauma was the food.
In Korea, I had been warned that British food was not the best. But I hadn’t realised how bad it actually was. OK, I found a few items in Cambridge I liked – steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, Cornish pasties – but most things were, to put it mildly, terrible.
Meat was overcooked and underseasoned. 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.
British food culture in the 80s 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 alternative cuisine, unless you travelled down to Soho or another sophisticated district in London.
British food conservatism was for me epitomised by the now-defunct/then-rampant chain Pizzaland. Realising that pizza could be traumatically “foreign”, the menu lured customers with an option to have their pizza topped with a baked potato.
My cooking skills were, however, rather limited at the time. As a result, in the first several years of my life in Cambridge – first as a graduate student and then as a young faculty – I cooked only occasionally, and my cooking repertoire and skills grew only very slowly.
But I had arrived in Britain on the cusp of a culinary revolution. Cracks were appearing on the mighty edifice of British resistance to “foreign” food, and culinary traditions from outside were starting to trickle in. In the meantime, British cuisine was slowly starting to be upgraded, reinvented and fused with the new influences. Chefs, restaurant reviewers and food critics were becoming celebrities.
With these changes (and my foreign travel), I increasingly encountered cuisines I had known nothing of. I was fascinated. I started trying different foods. I read cookbooks in bookshops and bought quite a few of them. I read avidly the food reviews and features in newspapers. I was starting my own culinary revolution as well.
The truth of the matter is that Korea then was even more of a culinary island than Britain, albeit one with much tastier food. In Korea in that era, aside from Chinese and Japanese places, we had little foreign food other than what was known as “light Western”, essentially “Japanised” European food.
Before coming to Britain and travelling for work or holiday to the continent, I had never tasted real French or Italian food. Asian food beyond Japanese or Chinese (no Thai, no Vietnamese, no Indian) was just as mysterious, not to speak of dishes from more remote places such as Greece, Turkey, Mexico or Lebanon.
The gap between my food theory and practice started narrowing when I began to cook in earnest once I got married in 1993. Hee-Jeong, my wife, moved from Korea to join me in Cambridge. She couldn’t believe that I had more than a dozen cookbooks in my home but had never cooked from them.
I started cooking with Claudia Roden’s classic, The Food of Italy. Italian food, especially southern Italian food, has key ingredients (garlic, chilli, anchovy, aubergine, courgette) that Koreans love, so it came naturally.
Antonio Carluccio’s books taught me lots about pastas and risottos. Italian is my main arsenal, but I also love to create, in no particular order: French, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, American, North African and Middle Eastern dishes.
And – as proof of the new era we were living in – I learned many great British recipes, especially from Delia Smith, Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson. I rarely cook Korean dishes, as Hee-Jeong cooks mean Korean food, and I cannily avoid competing with her talent.
While I was learning to cook, Britain’s culinary revolution was entering a new, and decisive, phase. One could imagine one magical midsummer-night’s-dream evening in the mid-90s, when the British people finally awoke to realise that their food was actually terrible. Once you acknowledge that your own food sucks, as the Britons then did, you are free to embrace all the cuisines in the world.
There is no reason to insist on Indian over Thai or favour Turkish over Mexican. Everything tasty is fine. What a glorious freedom that brings. The British freedom to consider equally all the choices available has led to it developing perhaps one of the most sophisticated food cultures anywhere.
Britain became a great place to eat. London offers everything – cheap yet excellent Turkish doner kebab, eaten at 1am from a van on the street; eye-wateringly expensive Japanese kaiseki dinner; whatever. Flavours span from vibrant, in-your-face Korean levels to understated but heart-warming Polish. You get to choose between the complexity of Peruvian dishes – with Iberian, Asian and Inca roots – and the simple succulence of Argentinian steak.
Most supermarkets and food stores sell ingredients for Italian, Mexican, French, Chinese, Caribbean, Jewish, Greek, Indian, Thai, North African, Japanese, Turkish, Polish, and perhaps even Korean, cuisines. If you want a more specialist condiment or ingredient, it is highly likely it can be found.
This in a country where, in the late 70s, according to an American friend who was then an exchange student, the only place you could score olive oil in Oxford was a pharmacy (for softening ear wax, if you’re wondering).
It’s a global trend of course. With increase in international trade, international migration and international travel, people everywhere have become more curious about and open to foreign foods. Yet Britain is different – perhaps unique – in that, since its moment of honest self-awareness (foodwise), the country has become entirely relaxed about the food it eats.
In Italy and France, where strong culinary traditions are entrenched, the locals are defensive and twitchy about change. You can find their great national food, but little else beyond American fast-food joints, cheap Chinese restaurants and a couple of shops selling falafels or kebabs (those could be very good, but not necessarily) plus maybe a hugely overpriced Japanese restaurant.
I like to share the food that I love with my friends – by cooking for them, by taking them to my favourite restaurants or even by just talking about certain dishes and salivating together. I’d like my readers, my intellectual friends, to share some of the satisfaction I get from digesting, mixing and fusing different economic theories that help me understand how our world is being run and that give me the tools to think about and build a better world.
An extract from Edible Economics: A Hungry Economist Explains The World by Ha-joon Chang, published by Allen Lane at £20