Saturday 19 September 2020

The Saturday List #280 - Ten foods that seemed really exotic in the 1970's

On Wednesday I published a blog which received the best reaction of any blog for many a moon. It was entitled "How the 70's was the decade where the British discovered food". I detailed how the culinary habits of the British underwent a step change in flavours and experimentation in the decade and things such as garlic suddenly became part of the British array of cooking ingredients (previously it was salt, pepper, brown sauce and mustard). 

Some of the comments left on Facebook mentioned exotic dishes that we embraced in the 1970's. I thought I'd list my ten favourites. When I say my ten favourites, this is favourites as in, ones it seems amazing that they seemed exotic now!

1. Spaghetti Bolognese.

It seems bizarre now that a Spag Bol was ever seen as 'exotic', but I well remember the first time my mum cooked it. My Dad's RAF squadron had been stationed in Foggia in Italy in 1944, and he'd developed a love of Italian food and drink (far better than the flat rations the RAF had in North Africa). He told me a story of how when the RAF took over an Italian air base in North Africa, they kept all the Italian cooks etc on the staff and were the best fed airmen in the RAF for a couple of months. He taught us how to wrap the Spaghetti around the fork and advised me never to eat Spaghetti on the first date. I was about ten at the time. It was a bit of a revelation.

2. McDonalds.

This is another one that probably seems insane to anyone born after 1985 that anyone could see a Big Mac as exotic, but that is exactly what it was. When McDonalds opened its  restaurant in Golders Green there were mile long queues to by Big Mac and chips. It was seen as proper American burgers. We sort of felt that we'd become Starsky and Hutch if we ate McDonalds. I always thought the Golders Green branch was the first in the UK, but it was actually in Woolwich

3. Rum and Raisin Ice Cream.

For those of us born and raised around Mill Hill, Edgware and Burnt Oak, Ice Cream was a 99 whip from Tonibell. I loved the Raspberry sauce version with a flake. But over the road from us, lived a Jewish family, the Lewis's who were great friends. Their Dad, an accountant and man of great tastes, acquired a new Citroen and was incredibly proud of his motor, so he decided to take his two boys Johnny and Frank and me, for a special treat. We drove down to Camden Town to Marine Ices for a special Ice cream. Mr Lewis said "You'll never have tasted anything this good in your life". He recommended that we got a couple of different tastes. I think I got Strawberry and Rum and Raisin. The Rum and Raisin was out of this world. Mr Lewis also took us up for the opening of Dayvilles 32 flavours in Edgware as I recall. He pronounced that it wasn't as good as Marine Ices, and I trusted his judgement. What was even better was when we arrived back from Marine Ices and I told my family about it, my Dad bundled us all in the car and I got a second helping. I can remember telling my sister that it was the best day of my life.  I always had a soft spot for Citroen cars after that day! (Pic Courtesy of Marine Ices).

4. Vesta Packet Chow Mein.

As we discovered exotic foods, the supermarkets jumped on the bandwagon. The leaders in the field of making food seem exotic were packet food specialists Vesta. The idea was that you got a pound of mince, chucked in some Vesta sauce and hey presto, you got a plate of food that tasted as good as the local Chinese takeaway. I guess there was  two year period in the early to mid seventies, when we actually fell for it and didn't realise that it simply made the mince taste a bit less bland. I sort of liked the Vesta sauces. My mum and Dad would always have a bottle of wine over dinner with them, to feel as if they were on holiday. Often we'd have them on the day the Whickers World Travel show was on. It sort of made us feel like we'd been on holiday somewhere.

5. Arctic roll.

Anyone who is my age will have fond memories of Arctic Roll. The highlight of the Primary School day was pudding. If it was Tapioca, the day was a disaster. Then some time around 1970, one day we were given Arctic Roll. It was unlike anything we'd had before. It was ice cream and cake all in one. It seemed impossible to make something so good and have it served at school. I imagined that it was what polar bears ate for breakfast (not realising they'd rather eat me!). 

6. Chicken in a basket.

Around 1973, there was a craze for 'chicken in a basket' in pubs. I've no idea where it came from or why it was served in a basket, but it seemed rather exotic. A plain old bit of grilled chicken down the cafe seemed rather dull. The chips had to be the thin, crispy type rather than the chip shop fatties. 

7. Mushroom Vol-au-Vents. 

Sometime around 1971, my parents attended a party where Vol-au-Vents were served. These were fluffy pastry with a mushroom gloop in the middle. They were delicious. My mother immediately decided that we needed a party. She spent the week practising, which meant we got a welcomed change from the usual boiled potatoes and tripe and onions, that she'd inflict on us when she was too bored to cook anything tasty. For some reason, in around 1990, Vol-Au-Vents became inedible gunge. I cannot fathom quite what happened. 

8. Coq au_vin.

Chicken in wine, to give it its Anglicised name. My Mum loved this, my Dad (I suspect he was being polite) also lived it. I hated it. I've never been a fan of meat in gungy sauces. But my mum was incredibly proud of her efforts. I've not really thought about this dish since the 1970's, but researching this I see that the recipes recommend using red wine. Mum always did it with white wine. It was one of the dishes that made me understand the British wariness of 'foreign muck'.

9. Lamb Kebabs. 

After the war, my Dad had spent four years working as a commercial pilot, based in Beirut. He loved kebabs. I can well recall a trip down the Edgware Road with him when I was about ten, for a kebab. We went to a Lebanese restaurant, my mum was away with  my sisters. He soon got into a discussion with the owner, who was amazed by his knowledge of Beirut and Lebanese politics. We got VIP treatment and more meat than I'd ever imagined. I believed that kebabs were the food of the Gods. The next Kebab I had was in Alki's in Colindale in around 1981. It wasn't quite the same, tasty though it was. 

10. Sweet and Sour Pork.

Our family treats in the 60's and 70's would usually be a trip to Burnt Oak, to the Chinese Restaurant on the High Street. We'd have pancake rolls, sweet and sour pork, beanshoots, crispy king prawns, special fried rice and finish off with lychees. The best bit was the sweet and sour pork. In our house, Pork would be a Sunday joint or a chop. To have it batter with a bright red sauce that burned your tongue with its acidity and sweetness was simply exotic beyond belief. The restaurant was painted blue, had Chinese murals and paper lanterns. It's what I imagine turn of the last century opium dens and brothels were like. It was full of cigarette smoke and working class families on a night out. I loved it. I love chinese food but the restaurants simply don't have that vibe. These days they have clean lines and no mystique. 

I almost feel sorry for the kids of today, who's idea of food is to order sushi on line. There really is no voyage of discovery for them!


Matt said...

Vesta Chow Mein really made me laugh. Spaghetti Bolonogse also so true.

Fraser said...

Oh dear ! Tears of nostalgia and the realisation I'm getting old have resulted from your blog !!
Vesta Chow Mein was a staple with us as it was so simple to prepare. And why we can't get Arctic Roll now I really do wonder; I loved it, in fact apart from Big Macs I loved everything on your list.

Can you do a blog on 70s wine tastes, please !!!!1