Alternative Perspective

A look at British culture from an outside perspective and a look at American culture from an outsider living within it's borders.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Coriander... and guns

Yesterday, while picking Katy up from work (she'd had a flat battery in the morning so I'd driven her in) her employer asked me if I wanted some fresh coriander. Fresh coriander is a wonderful thing so there was no way I'd turn such an offer down. Her employers are a married couple, of Indian descendancy but who moved here from England, and like me find trouble getting hold of such things as fresh coriander.

Despite spicy buffalo wings being a popular dish in America, there's little else that's given much spice. Infact, American's as a whole don't seem used to spices at all, and they really can't take as much as the average English person can. That's no doubt down to the fact that curries aren't anything as popular here in America as they are in the UK.

Spices, you get a taste for them, but you also slowly build up some resistance to them. You never get to the point where nothing is too spicy, but you slowly go up through the levels from one level of spice to another. What would have had you rolling on the floor in pain, half a year or so later could be perfectly tollerable.

Many American's fail to see the enjoyment in spices, but there are plenty that fortunately do. America is a big enough country to offer just about everything, but depending on how popular it is can make it harder and harder to find.

In England I lived about ten minutes walk from Rushholme and it's famous curry mile. My parents in Derby lived only a short distant from my favourite Indian restaurant, Jee Ja Jees.

When I moved here, there was one single curry restaurant on the cape, instead of the dozens within a stones throw that I was used to. Funnily enough the curry restaurant that was on the cape was run by a couple that had relocated from Rushholme. Rushholme has a whole range of varying quality restaurants, and the lesser ones border on nasty, unfortunately this one was nearer those lesser restaurants. I could see how being on a peninsular with no other Indian restaurants would be far more appealing than being in a mile long stretch with of dozens and dozens like in Rushholme. We only went there once.

Supermarkets may carry some of the ingredients to make some curries, but it was a struggle getting together what I had in my head as the necessary ingredients of Chicken Tikka Massala.

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams joked that every planet had a drink called 'Gin and Tonic' but on each planet it was different. The spellings would be different but the pronounciation the same.

I wonder if he didn't get the idea from massala sauce. Chicken Tikka Massala has a relatively interesting origin. It's not a traditional Indian curry, but nor is it a horrendous English approximation of one. It was created by Indian's in England who were trying to appeal to English tastebuds. They achieved this rather well actually, as the Massala was not only imported back to India, but it became the single most popular dish in Britain. It surpassed fish and chips even... but unfortunately for me, I couldn't stand the cheap common versions of the dish.

Most people agree that it's a sweet, tomato, coriander and cream based sauce, but from there people seem to argue wildly. Tikka infers that the chicken has been marinated in Tikka spices and then grilled, preferrably in a Tandoor (a wood fired brick oven that gives chicken a very distinctive flavour)... though many people skip some or all of that and just use plain old boiled chicken instead of cooking the chicken seperately as you should.

Some places use coconut and some don't, the minority do use coconut but to my palette the kind with coconut is far superior. So I use coconut cream (fortunately sold so you can make Pina Coladas) and unsweetened dessicated coconut. That's where the sweetness of my massala sauce comes from. Without a tandoor, I can only skewer and grill my marinated chicken, but it comes out wonderfully.

The hardest ingredient to find was actually coriander. The sauce uses both ground coriander seed and fresh coriander leaves to give it it's distinctive flavour and I couldn't for the life of me find any. By coincidence I ended up settling with cilantro, which turned out to actually be coriander. Perhaps then it wasn't coincidence but my nose, but this renaming of a plant that was already well known by the time the American's moved here has always bemused me.

Still, once I had that, it was the missing link and I was able to make Chicken Tikka Massala at home and most importantly make it as spicy as I wanted.

So guns... I won't go off on any lengthy diatribe. I don't like guns, but unlike most people I know gun control wouldn't work here in the states. Not when there are already hundreds of millions of guns out there in peoples homes. In Britain, guns aren't a big problem. They banned hand guns a few years back after a madman walked into a school in Scotland with a bag full of them and just started pumping children full of bullets. I was nervous about what impact that would have on organised crime and the black market, but fortunately, it did do what was hoped and gun crime plummetted.

I know it's said that criminals don't obey laws, so how could a gun law do anything but make victims more victimisable, but certain laws did have a good effect. If you commit certain crimes but you have a gun with you when you do, the penalty for doing so is much stronger. Burgalers aren't looking for confrontations, and it had an effect.

Of course, a big difference is that in England, not even the police carry guns. They don't want to actually. But guns aren't part of British society. Over here, similar laws would most likely hurt more people than criminals just because the guns are so prevalent. The arguement goes, if only the police are allowed guns what if the police go rogue? A bit paranoid perhaps, but here, you couldn't disarm the police unless you could easily disarm the criminals, which you can't.

Would America be a safer place if there were *no* guns. Sure it would. The problem is that there are far to many to get to that stage.

Yes, guns don't kill people, people kill people, but there's a side of that arguement that people often overlook. Guns make it easier to kill people, and someone is more likely to die if they're shot at than if they're stabbed. The detachment of space between you and the other person, and that you only have to pull a little lever makes it very different from being right there in someones face plunging in a knife.

I know the constitution says you should have arms so if the government ever becomes corrupt then the people can take it back, but think about it. If the government comes corrupt they'll just change the constitution... it's already happening too. The government has already decided what is and isn't arms. I don't agree with the idea that people can own AK47s because the potential for killing the person you're pointing at and anyone else in the vicinity is fire higher than with a hand gun (and if someone mugs you, even in America the penalty for mugging isn't death).

So yes, I wish someone could click their fingers and make hand guns go away... but I also acknowledge that there are far too many for gun control laws to work. You can't look at American society in a bubble without comparing it to other countries without guns where death rates of violent crime have fallen since the hand gun ban, or without looking at places that allow guns but don't have anything like the problems America has with them, countries like Canada.

The constitution allowed you all to have guns to prevent corrupt presidents. Bush (this isn't a slam on Bush, because he didn't make the courts hand him Florida) didn't win the election the first time out fair and square. The votes in florida at the end of the day went to Al Gore... but a court ruled that it was too late to change the winner. Not the people of America, the courts. So a president who had had less of the popular vote than the other guy, as well as who should have had less of the electoral vote but was handed a state over the mess the recounts got into there, ended up in the white house. Someone who didn't fairly win an election took control of the country, and what did the gun carrying people of America do, finally given the chance to use their guns for the one reason that they're allowed to have them...

Nothing. They did nothing. In my eyes they waived the right to bare arms there and then... but it's too late now to just try and fix the problem with a few gun control laws. No, the first step is acknowledging that there is a problem. With American society and American guns.


At 4:21 AM, Blogger Poor Justin said...

A few comments here.

#1: Spices. You're trapped in New England, which despite the name resembles England about 200-odd years ago, not today's urbane UK. Everything in New England has a tendency to be bland and caucasian, including the food.

Step down south, or to the midwest. You'll find very creative rubs for barbecue, with tangy sauces to go along with the meat. You'll find chili in Texas and the southwest of every variety you've ever imagined and probably several that you haven't, and shouldn't. I've had chili at a local chili cook-off that borders on mad science. One gent makes a 'gator chili' with chunks of fish, enough green chilis to light a fire, and cilantro. Oh, and tequila. Some even mix the agave cactus itself into the chili as well as the tequila derived from it.

Suffice it to say, the lack of spice you find in America has to do with your immediate environs.

#2: Curries. You'll find them to be popular in New York, and wildly popular here in Los Angeles. Out here, we not only have widespread Indian cuisine, but also the Thai and Vietnamese variety. We also have the London/Tokyo variety you're used to. A few miles from my office, we have 'Hurry Curry' of New York, London, and Tokyo. They offer the kind of curry you're used to, and I can vouch for just how yummy they are.

#3 & #4: Guns and the 2000 election. I'm just not even going to go there. :)

(If you're confused on who this is...shame on you, you're not paying attention.)

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Unimaginative Pseudonym said...

Ooh, you have been away a while.

A decent proportion of the police in Manchester, Liverpool and London are armed these days (with MP5s), forming (with GMP anyway) 'Tactical Assault Units' to go alongside the 'Armed Response Units' (who also have snipers) - indicative of the rise in gun crime, perhaps - although they generally end up being used when storming houses (be it drug dealers or terrorists of whatever description), and definitely not for community policing.

The big counterpoint I've always had for people who insist that legislating firearms won't reduce gun crime is simply that proper legislation would immediately reduce the amount of ammunition available - you can't impact on the number of guns on the streets, but you can make it harder to use them as anything other than a fancy club.

Obviously the answer in the US isn't, as you said, to ban guns - but they can still legislate a little (particularly border & customs control) and make it harder for the criminals they do have.

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At 7:29 PM, Blogger Courtney said...

Ryan ~
About the mainstream U.S. take on spices...
I find that you are *right on*. Much of what you said, in fact, had me nodding my head as I read along.
Mainstream American cuisine is, by and large, vapid in comparison to, say, Indian food-- especially here in the Midwest.
My friends and I created an Indian spice blog, Naughty Curry, to serve as an oasis of flavor for ourselves, and also a stepping stone to the MANY folks who are oh-so-curious but oh-so-timid.

Oh and I loved the part about spices and resistance...:)


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