Chicken Tikka Lasagne: A crime against the laws of flavour?

A FEW YEARS ago I came across a frozen ready meal: a chicken tikka lasagne. Needless to say I didn’t hang around long enough to see if the manufacturers had indeed been so grotesquely consumerist to drown spiced chicken in béchamel sauce. I wondered if this attempt at “fusion” was a pinch of MSG too far. I’m a little sceptical of fusion food anyway, especially when countries so distinct in their cuisine are forced together, but that’s not to say fusion food doesn’t work. Caribbean and Mexican food could blend together quite well, I expect, as could Moroccan and Spanish, but there is logic to it. These cuisines are close to one another both geographically, culturally and in terms of ingredients, and so countries as far away as India and Italy cannot be coerced into a plastic tub, frozen, only to see the light of day again in an 800W microwave. It’s wrong on so many levels. Enough of that now, please, because it got me thinking in some depth – for a long time, in fact – about the importance of pairing flavours together.

You’d be correct in thinking the idea of a chicken tikka lasagne or a spaghetti alla Madras or whatever you like is off-putting to me, because I just struggle to see the two ever coming together. Some things, however experimental you want to be, just aren’t meant to be together. That’s why we never really hear of cheddar and mackerel or chocolate and melon. Yuk. However that’s not to say that unusual ingredients should never meet. Steak and shrimp, for example, wouldn’t have found their way onto a plate as Surf ‘n’ Turf without the curiosity of man, no more so would dousing salty and crispy streaks of bacon in amber, sweet maple syrup. Such combinations might be thought of as gastronomic madness by the book, and to a degree, perhaps they are. To take the bacon and maple syrup example again, salty and savoury pork in sticky sweet syrup… that’s essentially what it is. Now it sounds like something you’d buy on the streets of Hanoi, doesn’t it? Once you ignore the fact that it’s bacon and maple syrup we’re talking about, and focus on the flavours and the textures of the food, we realise that there is indeed method to this madness. Years ago, the idea of salt and sweet together would result in food snobs turning their noses up even further, but in fact, the combination of salt and sweet is an gentle assault on your tongue, one conflicting with the other, but at the same time pleasantly complementary.

Let’s stay with the Far Eastern analogy for a moment, because they’ve got this flavour science spot-on. Food in Asia is intent on harmony: marrying saltiness, sweetness, spiciness and sourness perfectly to provide a flavour sensation that satisfies not only the mouth but the soul. Too much of one component might tip you into gustatory upheaval. So if pairing flavours is so important, how is it done?

I’ve always said that “if they grow together, then they go together” and more often than not, it does seem to be the case. Not sure what I mean? Well, you can find examples all over the UK: apples and blackberries in Kent (the fruits, not the companies, of course…) or crab and samphire on the Norfolk coast to name a couple. But as you can imagine, it’s not just a British phenomenon: oranges and almonds in Andalusia, chilli and chocolate in Mexico, rum and coconut in The Bahamas, lemongrass and coriander in Thailand, beef and red wine in Burgundy, maple and pecan across North America, pine nuts and basil in Liguria… we could go on. When we look at it like that, it’s as though Mother Nature really did give it some thought before giving us the brains to go out and find them. How kind of her.

Of course the seasons play quite a big part in this. It’s no coincidence that Welsh lamb and and leeks end up together in spring, or why it’s ‘fruits of the forest’ and not just ‘fruit’. Sadly, exploiting the seasons to their full is something that we 21st Centurians have forgotten about, or perhaps neglected. It’s in the world around us that we can discover the true delights of flavour, not by delving into a deep-freeze and fishing out the cheapest and gaudiest offering our patience will allow us. I know I’m risking sounding like a 1940s farmer, but it’s a philosophy that I have grown a little obsessed about. The UK alone is teeming with first-class produce, some of which I’m sure you had no idea grew on our shores. At time of writing this (which was back in July), some of the foods in season include broad beans, loganberries, apricots, nectarines, lamb, sardines, strawberries, Swiss chard, cucumber, fennel, cherries, crab, watercress, tomatoes, beetroot, peas, peaches, artichokes, rocket, raspberries, mackerel…

Food, and all its flavours, have to be respected. And food in its purest type – fresh from a tree, from a butcher or from the sea – deserves the utmost respect (far more than frozen meal, at least). So like the Messiah, I ask you to “go forth” and explore what the land around you has to offer. One good thing is that the possibility of a chicken tikka lasagne is out of the question. Another is that you might be pleasantly surprised.

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