Sunday, January 28, 2007

Take away the chips

It's true that many US folk know English folk call French fries chips. Now I'm here to tell you that isn't quite true. The English call French fries, get this, French fries! Maybe occasionally they're called pommes frites. What the English call chips is what Americans call steak fries. That is, they're big and fat and soggy, not thin and crispy like French fries. And French fries do exist here, just check out any golden arches and you'll get the same French fries that you get in the States. Whenever we get an order of chips (usually while at MIL's), I'm always picking out the scrumps, the little crunchy bits and pieces at the bottom of the paper container. Because I like my fried potatoes crunchy, otherwise, what's the point of frying them?

It's also true that fish and chips come wrapped in newspaper, but only sort of. It's paper like newspaper might be printed on, but nothing has been printed on it. Pretty much everything you can buy at a fish and chip shop comes wrapped in this sort of paper. And that can mean meat pies, deep fried sausages, deep fried patties (meat and veggie), deep fried mushrooms, deep fried Mars(Milky Way) bars, and Chinese food.

Chinese food?

Yes, Chinese food. Many fish and chip places are run by Chinese, so they sell Chinese food as well as traditional English take-away(take-out) food. And, just like in the US, there are Chinese dishes specific to England. In general, I find the Chinese take-away in the Bristol area pales in comparison to that of the San Francisco Bay Area (which isn't surprising). And with every Chinese food dish, they give you a choice of rice or chips. Yep, get your Chop Suey with chips. I find the combination a bit weird. But then, people here eat their chips with all sorts of weird condiments, most commonly malt vinegar, and not uncommonly mild curry sauce. Curry? In a Chinese fish and chip shop? Yes, Chinese style curry. It's milder than Indian curry, and I expect there's some soy sauce in it somewhere, but I don't know for sure. They do also use ketchup(tomato sauce) with their chips here. Oh yes, and salt. If you ever go into a fish and chip shop and they ask if you want salt on your chips, just say no. It winds up being more like chips with your salt. You can feel your blood pressure rise with each bite.

All sorts of main dishes come with chips - take the kebab houses. The primary dish at a kebab house is doner kebab(gyro in the US - I believe doner kebab is the Turkish name and gyro is the Greek name, but Greek and Turkish readers are welcome to correct me here). But loads of other dishes are served at kebab houses: shish kebab, hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza. And all can come with a side of chips. That is, you can get pizza and chips and nobody would bat an eye. Carbo-loading is de rigeur, I guess.

So basically, you can get chips with anything. And late into the night, too. Most of these sorts of take-away places are open until 11PM, or midnight at the weekend. In some places they're open even later. Pubs traditionally stop serving at 11PM, and the thing to do is to go from the pub to the take-away and get some serious munchies. I'm afraid I have fallen victim to the hot Indian curry at midnight shenanigans. And believe me you live to regret that. Indian curry here is very hot. I can eat some hot stuff, but I cannot eat a vindaloo, not even with loads of pilau rice and lager(fizzy beer). I can barely eat a small amount of madras. These are spice heat levels, that is, mild, medium, madras, and vindaloo. They're probably regional designations, but I think vindaloo is vindaloo all over England. When Richard and I went for a curry (you can also "go for an Indian" here, in fact there's a spoof skit that an Indian comedy troupe did called "Going for an English") in California, he would tell the waiter, "I want it hot, really hot, as hot as you can make it" and he'd still get something that I could eat - the gringo vindaloo.

But back to chips, so the question is, what are chips here? They are crisps, and potato crisps come in the most unusual flavors, too. Like cheese and onion, or roast chicken, or prawn cocktail (incidentally, actual prawn cocktails are served with a sort of French or Russian dressing here, not red sauce, which is a huge disappointment. And the prawns, that is, shrimp, are small. What they call king prawns here would probably be thrown back in the Gulf [of Mexico]), or Thai sweet chilli (yes they spell chili with 2 l's, and I find it most disturbing). At first I appreciated the flavors, but now I find them too artificial tasting, so I just stick to ready salted (why not just salted, why the ready? Are there salted ones that aren't ready?)

The way they've taken to the potato here, you'd never know it was a native American food. But there are lots of things that cross borders successfully. The most popular dish in England used to be chicken tikka masala a couple of years ago. It is now Thai green curry.

Another thought to leave you with: one night when we were getting Chinese at one of these Chinese food and fish and chip places, Richard was thinking back to his childhood, remarking that there was one Chinese family in the area, and they ran the local Chinese fish and chip take-away. He turned to me and said, "Imagine going to Beijing and opening a fish and chip shop with no other English or American or foreign families for miles around." Just imagine.