If you had to serve a meal to an ambassador from another country that symbolized your country's culture, what would you choose? Do you think s/he would love it as much as you do?
My country - England, or Great Britain if you so wish - is oft-maligned for it's food; especially in the USA. Much like its dentistry (which is much worse in the US) I've no real idea why - it has world class chefs and restaurants, a fantastic amount of fusion inspired cuisine, and a lot of food lovers. Hell - cookery programs are some of the most popular ones on TV! England even had one of the first cookbooks (the Forme Of Cury in the 14th century - not the first, but pretty close)!
But symbolized my countries culture? That's a rather hard and abstract thing to do. I certainly couldn't do it for the US (for California, probably - something with Mexican roots, a dash of Asian flavour, but made with an eye to French preparations, served with some southern BBQ sides, would probably do it). The US is too diverse a place to be summed up in one meal - it's states are large and varied in culture, so unless you can have a 50 course meal.. that's probably not going to happen.
But what about England?
Well it suffers from a similar problem. What the counties of old did, and now the broader modern groupings of areas do as well, is much the same as the state system in the US. It used to be that these were specific areas that were long to travel over; they had their own traditions and cultures; they grew up differently and slightly disconnected from each other. This is something that the US had for a while, but much less so. The UK has had differing cultural identities in different areas for over 2000 years! The US as we know it today really has only been around in a vague form since the Mexico Cession of 1848 - 160 years! And it's been interconnected with fast land travel for almost as long (1860's).
So if I can barely do it for one slice of the US - without resorting to pathetic stereotypes like Burgers & Fries - a country that is less than 1/10th as old and has had it's culture simmering for much less time - how can I do it for England?
Actually there are some helpers there - we've had a lot longer in the UK for the common threads of our country to bind and join. It's a lot more mature in many ways; it's also a LOT more dense (1/6 of the US population in an area smaller than the state of Georgia) so there is much more sharing and interconnection of those common threads and cultures. So much so that some things that are considered "English" wouldn't be seen elsewhere in the country, but are still held up as that by other areas.
So how would I do it?
Well I'd first avoid any particular dish that was created as part the post-war food that probably got us the bad reputation: food designed to be made from scraps and leftovers that a working-class populace had to make last while there was rationing. However this creativity and scrappy aspect would be nice to include.
I'd want to feature shellfish or fresh fish somewhere - England has always had a strong fishing industry, and the shell-fish pickers of mussels, cockles, winkles, and all the many varied beasts that frequent the river plains and sea beds are some of the tastiest you'll find. I'd probably not included the scary Thames Eels though - Jellied Eels may be a cockney dish, but they are also mostly gross, sorry.
I'd want to pay homage to our farming roots - strong cattle and pig farming roots are through a lot of England, as well as wheat & vegatables. The "meat and two veg" dinner, served with gravy, is a wonderful example of a traditional farming dish template that would give farmers the strength they need to do their work.
I'd want to include a shout out to our more modern cultural infusions - Indian specifically - that have infused our cultural psyche to the point where an Indian inspired dish that was made in Birmingham is now considered not only the most popular dish in Britain, but an ambassador for Indian food around the world (that dish? Chicken Tikka Massala - usually prepared wrong in the US I might add).
I'd want to include reference to our chocolates - something that is world class, and our very particular preparations are world famous, but also our puddings - unlike the gloopy american namesakes our puddings are more solid and are usually baked, boiled, or steamed; containing flour, eggs, or suet.
So.. what dishes would I use to do this? That's a tough one, and the following is just off the top of my head. I'd love for you to suggest ideas to me.
A vegetable medley, with carrots, parsnips, garlic, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, and marrow for a subtle spicy flavor. Served in a buttery basil infused broth.
A cheese course, served with a good light Ale, featuring a selection of English cheeses. Cheddar, Wenslydale (perhaps a Cranberry one), Buxton Blue, Stilton, Cornish Yarg, & a good Sommerset Brie would all make an appearance, as would a Woolsery Goat Cheese to keep it being a clean sweep for the cows. English grapes on the side as a palette cleanser.
Maldon Mussels, steamed and then lightly cooked with coconut milk, ginger, green chilies, & a mix of spices. A glass of white English Wine (from Kent or Dorset most likely) would make a good drink with this.
Braised Pork - slow cooked in milk - with garlic, sage, and juniper. Served with a baked broad beans, carrots, and parsnips, and accompanied by a selection of mustards.
A steamed fruit pudding, no cloves, served with a rich chocolate sauce and brandy cream. Served with Rum.
Sounds good to me - what do you think?