Eating Out

How Britain really eats

Lisa Hilton enjoys a Thai feast that shows that fiery and exotic has now become mainstream

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Boris Johnson’s “Build Back Batter” video was met with the predictable passing furore; the Prime Minister’s stock of crass behaviours is considerably more varied than his slogans. Admittedly, only a southern prat eats fish and chips with a fork, but it’s not as though the Tories have the exclusive on attempts to politicise certain foodstuffs to prove that they are down with the average voter.

Since the hagiographic status of fish and chips is not remotely related to what the majority of British people regularly eat (Tesco’s top twenty bestselling ready meals include Chicken Tikka Masala, Spaghetti Carbonara, Chicken Korma, Spaghetti Bolognese, Lasagne, Beef Stroganoff and King Prawn Chilli Noodles), could it be that Mr Johnson is signalling something more subtle with his choice of a poll-friendly dinner?

Historically, fish and chips combines a multitude of ethnic and congregational elements. Potatoes were introduced in the sixteenth century from the Americas and the technique of frying them as chips perfected in Mr Johnson’s childhood home, Belgium.

Fried fish meanwhile has been traced to the polycultural Moorish kingdom of al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula, where Muslims and Christians lived alongside a significant Sephardic Jewish population. Since cooking was prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath, the technique of frying fish in matzo batter preserved it to be eaten cold, and the method was popularized throughout Europe by the Jewish diaspora which followed the Alhambra Edict of 1492.

By the eighteenth century The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Simple was referring to “the Jewish manner of preserving all sorts of fish”, and the recipe was appreciated by Thomas Jefferson, as well as Victorian England’s most influential chef, the French-born Alexis Soyer.

On a mean day I’d say it’s like having dinner in the Instagram booth at a provincial wedding, but Giggling Squid is too nice to provoke meanness

London’s first fish and chip shop was supposedly opened by an Eastern European immigrant, Joseph Malin, in 1860. Given that none of this information is novel, perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that Build Back Batter is a tone-deaf attempt to arrogate an outdated national dish to a flagging political cause? Might not Mr Johnson’s choice of cod and chips actually be an indication of his hopes that Britain’s complex traditions of immigrant innovation will continue to flourish?

It’s not the first time that fish and chips have been yoked to the back of the Brexit bus. In 2019 Steve Pickering of Brunel University produced a fascinating study which indicated that the proportion of fish and chip shops in a given constituency was a strong indicator of pro-Brexit votes.

Whilst not as robust a variable as tertiary education, a greater proportion of chippies did produce a higher Brexit share. I’d be intrigued to know what Dr Pickering could do with the demographic implications of Thai food, particularly the roaring success that is the 38-branches-and-counting Giggling Squid chain.

Giggling Squid was founded in 2002 by Pranee Laurillard back when lime leaves were exotic and Thai cooking on the high street basically meant red or green curry. The franchise has spread its tasteful tentacles over much of England, in towns which can be described as — well — nice. Bath is nice, and Guildford, Farnham and Windsor and Kingston-upon-Thames are nice, as are Henley and Hove.

The décor is also very nice, neither faux-industrial nor faux-rustic, rather whimsical, feminine and charming with lots of silk flowers, fresh bright colours and the pistachio-leather banquettes that looked so modern and daring when Rowley Leigh did them at Le Café Anglais in 2008. On a mean day I’d say it’s like having dinner in the Instagram booth at a provincial wedding, but Giggling Squid is too nice to provoke meanness.

The food is considerably better than nice. My daughter is obsessed with the sticky chicken, so we had that along with another top seller, the salt and pepper squid. Golden money bags stuffed with chicken, herbs and fresh chilli sauce were as crispy and fragrant as I’ve ever tasted, while the moo ping pork skewers were charred outside, daringly pink and juicy within, set off with a mouth-puckering tamarind sauce.

Betel beef with sweet chilli and peanut comes on sugar cane skewers to bite down and release a shock of sweetness over the heat, and mushroom larb introduced a denser note of rich spicing, ginger and mint setting off its bosky base.

Giggling Squid will spice your curry to order, so I tried a suitably steamy jungle curry with beef, with chewy Thai roti to scoop up the fiery sauce. Pak choi and tenderstem broccoli tasted like greens, but people only ever order them to feel virtuous anyway, whilst coconut rice was sweetly soothing without being overly unctuous.

Drinks are as pretty and fragrant as the food and décor — spins on Cosmopolitan and Bellini cocktails, a short list of nicely chosen reds and plenty of sprightly whites — German-style wines are particularly good with Thai spicing so we opted for Kung Fu Girl Riesling (Rhine via Washington State).

Apart from its niceness, Giggling Squid might well have something to say about how contemporary Britain eats or aspires to eat that has nothing to do with the hackneyed symbolism that currently passes for the politics of food.

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