I am a vegetarian, and unfortunately a little bit of a picky eater as well. England is generally heaven for vegetarians in that there is almost a curry house on every corner, and so in some ways I’m quite happy. It brings back fond memories of sitting in a favorite Indian restaurant in Minneapolis with a good friend, when I had the realization that to the majority of people sitting around me, it was just “food”. I had been waxing poetic about how I could eat Indian food every day, and of course it had not occurred to me until that moment that millions of people in the world actually did. So my life in England is very much about Indian or Indian-style food at least thrice per week and I am quite happy about that. But…
A major problem with English food is the ubiquitous lunch-time sandwich. There is a full aisle devoted to sandwiches at M&S. You can also buy them at the drugstore (Boots). But the fact of the matter is that I hate most sandwiches. This is a major manners problem of the culture shock variety: Every lunch meeting in my new job is accompanied by sandwiches. How is one meant to get through the meeting without eating one’s share of sandwiches and not seeming rude? People do ask why I’m not eating.
The problem for me is that vegetarian sandwiches try too hard. I would be happy with a grilled cheese—plain bread with plain cheese and no adornment. Or un-grilled cheese sandwiches would be good too. However, vegetarian sandwiches here are seldom this plain. The lovely things that I like when they are not on a sandwich, such as fresh mushrooms or cucumbers or tomatoes, inevitably make the bread soggy. I have a legendary picky problem with soggy bread. I therefore find absolutely no joy from vegetarian sandwiches.
It is not as though I had never suffered from a bad veggie sandwich in the US. Many work-related functions came with sandwiches there too. Although there they were normally in the form of “boxed lunches” that had one redeeming factor: potato chips. Or in England, “crisps”. Not a feature at my meeting lunches here in the UK. In the absence of good sandwiches, I have the option to eat fruit (although not normally apples, as would be common in the US) or dessert bars of different chocolate and non-chocolate sorts (but not cookies as would be found in American style boxed lunches). Alas, here there is no savory alternative for nibbling in the absence of a sandwich and a fruit and chocolate lunch is seldom appealing to me.
On the other hand, my favorite feature of English food is the persistence of rocket (arugula) as the leafy green of choice. I simply do not miss iceberg lettuce; romaine was even starting to become boring and my love for Caesar salad (no anchovies, please) had been diminishing in the states. I do not know if I had really tasted rocket before I started traveling to England—I suspect it is one of the “mixed baby greens” so common in salads in America, but on its own it is really potent stuff. The first time I came to the UK, I was having a guilty pleasure dinner in the TGI Friday’s in Leicester Square when I noticed that there was rocket in nearly every dish. Up to that point it had not occurred to me to check for the differences between the UK and US TGI Friday’s menus, but on closer inspection this was an obvious one. Now I find that rocket can be bought in the grocery store in bags just like spinach, and with just a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and shaved parmesan cheese it makes a salad worth writing home about.
So it’s a wash in the end: I dislike sandwiches, but I love curries and rocket. Most of the time I can find something suitable to eat—even when not in a curry house. And I have not yet mentioned the truly brilliant thing about food in England: in both the restaurant menu and the grocery store, a capital “V” (often in green lettering) clearly identifies products as vegetarian. It almost makes up for the sandwich thing.