Takeaway Blues

I had a Chinese takeaway the other night. It seems like a sound idea at the time. When you’ve been busy all evening – go to the pub, have a pint, nip next door and put the order in, let them cook it while you have your second pint, take it home, get the bowls and chop sticks out, open a bottle of wine and eat. But the experience is invariably disappointing.

The complementary “prawn” crackers (I doubt they’ve been anywhere near a prawn or any other kind of crustacean for that matter) usually go straight in the bin. OK, I can’t usually fault the crispy duck with pancakes and the egg fried rice is serviceable if unexciting, but the rest of it…

Take beef with ginger and spring onion. That could be really good if they took strips of prime, well-hung beef and stir-fried them to a tender pink with slivers of ginger, a hint of chilli and a few other spices, adding a handful of chopped spring onions and a dash of soy sauce towards the end. But what do you get? The beef has a strange bubbly texture; I can only assume it’s a cheap cut that has been treated in some way to tenderise it. There are a few token bits of spring onion and rather a lot of ordinary white onion and it all comes in a vaguely gingery gloopy sauce.

I sometimes go for pork with black beans but the pork is hard, obviously pre-cooked, and it comes in another gloopy sauce with more onions and sparsely populated with black beans. Squid usually consists of rubbery chunks of some unidentifiable cephalopod in – you got it – gloopy sauce. Why not tender baby squid (tentacles and all) quickly wokked in a tangy, spicy marinade? As for the chicken, I wouldn’t even venture to try it.

It’s not that my local Chinese restaurant is particularly bad, there are probably thousands more just like it. But it’s not good. Yes, there are excellent Chinese restaurants if you know where to go but they’re not generally accessible when you want to grab a quick bite after an evening’s activity and a couple of pints.

And it’s not just Chinese food. Every high street is awash with places where mediocrity is the norm*: chewy pizza smothered with mousetrap cheese and industrial tomato puree distinctly unredolent of oregano and garlic plus all manner of incongruous toppings; burgers made from mechanically-recovered meat; less-than-fresh fish in soggy batter with tasteless, leathery or greasy chips.

But why? Surely it’s not that difficult to produce a few dishes that are tasty and nutritious? A smaller menu might help – better a few dishes with an emphasis on QUALITY rather than dozens of bland variations on a few uninspiring themes. Have they no pride? If I were in the catering business, it would grieve me to serve anything sub-standard.

Is price an issue? Surely customers would be prepared to pay a few quid more for a dish made from good quality, fresh ingredients – or at least have that option.

But a distressing thought has just entered my mind. Maybe some people actually prefer this crap. It wouldn’t surprise me.

[ * In fairness I should say that Indian restaurants do at least seem to be moving away from the bog standard British curry menu and attempting to provide something a little more authentic or adventurous, while Thai and Vietnamese cooks generally seem to take a lot more trouble both in the cooking and presentation than their Chinese counterparts.]

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