Anyone for mushy peas?

Obviously I have been breaking into spontaneous renditions of God Save The Queen at least three times a day since the Olympics kicked off, and cheering on our rowers, runners, riders and, er, beach volleyball players to make the most of their home advantage and win a hatful of medals. But in amongst all the Brit-related hoo-ha on television of late, the most amusing – and accurate – story had nothing whatsoever to do with sport.

Sekai Banzuké (世界番付 / World Ranking) is part of a sub-genre of Japanese programming that for want of a better phrase, I shall categorise as ‘Foreigners do the craziest things!’ and in common with its predecessors, pits a panel of comedians and celebrities against a panel of foreigners (a colleague of mine told me that he once spotted an ALT he used to work with on a ‘Foreigners do the craziest things!’ programme hosted by Takeshi Kitano). Sekai Banzuké presents a series of rankings – each week’s episode is based around a theme such as romance, money or manners – as the basis for multi-cultural debate and mutual Mickey-taking, and occasionally conducts its own hidden camera ‘research’ in several different countries simultaneously. One such experiment involved a tearful child pretending to be lost in order to see how many people would stop to help her, another involved a glamorous woman sashaying down the street and recording how many times she was wolf-whistled or chatted up, and for another, an actor ‘accidentally’ dropped an armful of oranges to see if anyone would help him pick them up (the Japanese proved to be the most helpful in this particular experiment).

The panel of foreigners on Sekai Banzuké is known as the G20, and its members speak Japanese with varying degrees of proficiency. One or two of them can be seen glancing down at their notes as they tell an anecdote, and Mrs M practically swoons over the ones who are the most ryuu-choh (流暢 / fluent), but for the most part, they have become regulars on the programme because they possess a recognisable comic persona: Ian from the UK is curmudgeonly and sarcastic; Simone from Brazil is big and brash; Christine likes to demonstrate how even children’s songs from her native Switzerland sound like terrifying Nazi rallying cries; Richard is constantly apologising for how boring life in the Netherlands is; the South African Prisca is an intimidating combination of soul singer and man-eater; and Gregory from New Zealand is a greasy-haired back-packer type with only a passing interest in personal hygiene.

Recent rankings have included: which country has the biggest homes (America), which country is the most linguistically able (Malaysia – the average Malaysian speaks more than three languages, while the Japanese were bottom of the list with an average of just 1.2), which country’s women are the most desirable (Brazil), which country has the most wedding guests (India), which country drinks the most alcohol (Latvia), and so on and so forth. Some of the statistics on which the rankings are based are more reliable than others, but despite the programme being played mainly for laughs, it does manage to be at least moderately informative.

One of the rankings in last week’s episode was ‘Which country has the most inedible food?’ – not an easy statistic to quantify, but anyway, Russia came in third, America second, and in a way that can’t have been entirely coincidental on the day before the Olympic opening ceremony, the UK came first. Once Ian had reacted with his most withering look, the programme cut to a pre-recorded segment in which the half-British model-stroke-celeb Joy (real name Joseph Greenwood) was packed off to London to investigate.

Joy’s first stop was Piccadilly Circus, where he asked foreign tourists if they agreed with the allegation (they did) and native Brits if they disagreed – they did, and all pointed to fish and chips as an example of British cuisine at its finest. With this in mind, Joy resolved to sample this signature dish for himself. Rather than seeking out an authentic British chippy, however, he went to one of those touristy dives in central London where the décor is cheap and nasty and the menus are an over-priced hodge-podge of fast food staples, aimed at the kind of tourists who don’t know where to find a decent eatery, and at the kind of pre- and post-pub revellers who wouldn’t know a decent eatery if they were delivered direct to their table in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

The ‘chef’ at said restaurant deep-fried everything from frozen – and for far longer than was necessary – resulting in fish that appeared to have fossilised over the course of several centuries, and chips like a mound of mini-breeze blocks. When Joy asked the waitress if she didn’t think that perhaps the dish was a little on the bland side, her advice was to add vinegar (Mrs M and I were watching the programme at the in-laws’, and onii-san made the point that particularly in the UK, customers are encouraged to add their own seasoning using the condiments provided – a kind of ‘I’ve cooked the food, you add the flavour’ philosophy). The production team then bought take-away fish and chips from four equally dubious central London establishments and delivered them to Parliament Square for Joy to conduct a taste test: perhaps unsurprisingly, he described each one as being ‘uniquely disgusting’.

Next on Joy’s itinerary was a kind of ‘ranking within a ranking’, for which he was made to sample the three most stomach-churningly foul British dishes in existence. Number three was the deep-fried Mars Bar, number two was another Scottish concoction, the haggis (to be fair, on a visit to Scotland in my pre-vegetarian days, I thought haggis was rather nice), and number one was jellied eels, which induced on-screen retching from both Joy and his manager (as you might expect, the Japanese way of preparing eel – aka unagi / 鰻 – is infinitely more palatable).

In order to find out what the average British family eats at home, Joy then headed for the suburbs and began knocking on doors, asking a succession of wary-looking strangers if they wouldn’t mind cooking him dinner. He was finally invited in by a young mum called Becky, who, almost as if she had been chosen beforehand, proceeded to ‘cook’ a stereotypically unappetising meal of instant mashed potato, instant gravy, microwaved sweetcorn, a medley of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli boiled from frozen (‘Frozen vegetables are the freshest,’ declared Becky, much to the dismay of the celebs and presenters back in the Sekai Banzuké studio) and a piece of chicken grilled to the point where it looked as if it had been caught in the epicentre of a nuclear explosion. While Becky couldn’t understand what Joy was saying as he tucked in to the dinner she had cooked for him, something in her sensed that the verdict wasn’t favourable, and he only managed to avoid being kicked out of the house by breaking into a spontaneous impression of Dobby from the Harry Potter films.

Cut to Joy’s interview with a food ‘expert’, who explained that after the onset of the industrial revolution, the British had less time to spend on preparing food, and that since lower income families found it difficult to get hold of fresh ingredients, they tended to overcook things like meat and fish to make absolutely sure they didn’t come down with food poisoning.

In the interests of – ahem – balance, Joy’s final port of call was a posh gastro pub, where he was served a dish of rare venison, accompanied by vegetables that in all likelihood not been boiled from frozen.
‘This is good!’ he exclaimed, his face a mixture of surprise and delight, and with that, the programme cut back to the studio, where Ian was looking even more withering and curmudgeonly than before.

Obviously the makers of Sekai Banzuké had directed and edited the piece with the express intention of a) making British food look revolting and b) making the viewers laugh, but while I suspect you will find equally disgusting food elsewhere in the world, they did have a point. Particularly when I was growing up, Britain was a country where it was all too easy to find oneself eating undigestible stodge, although I’m not sure this has anything to do with the industrial revolution. Most of us simply don’t care enough about food to demand anything better, and while a British housewife (or house husband) will throw together a packed lunch of sandwiches, a chocolate bar, a bag of crisps and an apple in a matter of minutes, her Japanese counterpart will get up at five in the morning to cook bento boxes from scratch for her husband and children.

As the expert pointed out, British cuisine has improved no end in recent years, and we can now boast a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver – an episode of whose series Jamie’s Great Britain was recently broadcast on NHK – both cooking and eating are seen as a pleasure rather than a chore, and if nothing else, Sekai Banzuké would do well to invite a British celebrity to Japan and see how they get on with the likes of shio-kara (塩辛 / fermented squid guts), sazaé (栄螺 / a green and black coloured, bitter tasting shellfish), fu (麩 / cubes of wheat flour dough that are used as soggy croutons in soups), and of course natto (納豆 / sticky, stringy fermented soy beans that smell like old socks).

5 thoughts on “Anyone for mushy peas?”

  1. Well, if you count the number of Michelin decorated chefs than Japan would squash the UK like a bug. I think Tokyo alone has about twice as many stars as all of the UK. Whether the number of stars is a way to judge food culture is a different story. If you use number of sold cook books maybe then the UK could compete?

  2. hey I’m a Kiwi and I can assure you that most of us wash at least once a day. However, when I lived in Japan the other Kiwi’s I came across were always a bit…. “odd” to say the least
    Thank for the article about the show. Been checking it out on you tube and it rocks.
    When I lived in Japan this was really popular;
    Once of the Japanese presenters from the G20 show was on that as well. Terry I think his name was. The chap with the hat and glasses.
    Great blog about life in Japan and a must read.

    1. Hello there Richard
      Glad you like the blog and thanks very much for the comment!
      Koko Ga Hen Da-yo was before my time, but sounds pretty similar to Sekai Banzuke – in fact, it may well have been the one that my colleague’s colleague was on.
      As for the personal hygiene question, Gregory claimed on the show that he had worn the same pair of socks for sixty days on the trot without washing them. Having said that, one of my best friends is a Kiwi and he has always smelled very fragrant, so I certainly don’t want to tar you all with the same brush!

  3. A great read sir and very interesting. I would have to agree that the food in the UK is sometimes embarrassingly bad. I think that when it comes to late night takeaway type places that serve fish and chips, kebabs, curries etc, the necessary passion for cooking is maybe not there. How can you be passionate about catering for drunks at 3 in the morning. Also there is a large culture of branded eateries in the UK and having worked for a few in my early years as a chef, i can say that no matter how skilful the chef, the food will all ways be standardised across the brand and dumbed down in order to ensure a product that is uniquely bland across all 50 restaurants in the chain. That can also be put down to a skills shortage as the chains have to ensure that even if you have Gordon Ramsey cooking in Harvester Milton Keynes, Johnny the cook in Glasgow who is just out of college still has to be able to produce food of exactly the same standard. So the menus and the processes of cooking the food are all dumbed down to ensure a standardised product.
    But more recently, i think that food in the UK especially in London is thriving with some hugely talented chefs who cook with passion and flare and not just in Michelin starred places but also in your local pub. I would rate the food in UK much higher at the moment than that of, say, France who are supposed to be the creators of modern cuisine. I suspect however that we will all fall well behind the food in Japan. In fact i am very much looking forward to visiting Tokyo for a 10 day restaurantathon at the end of the month. I have secured reservations at 9 of the cities most highly recommended restaurants and really can’t wait.
    Wow, that was a bit of a ramble.
    Anyway, once again i have enjoyed reading your blog and will continue to do so.

  4. I take your point about British food being a lot better than it used to be, and I also agree about the whole chain thing – I’m a pescetarian, so was initially pleased to find places like Loch Fyne and Livebait popping up around the country. That is until I ate in them…
    Thanks very much for reading and for commenting (and the ramblier the better, by the way!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *