The British military is updating its rations, offering hungry soldiers new less-than-traditional British fare such as Chicken Tikka Masala and cassava stew. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the London Observer, who sampled some of the new offerings.
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MARCO WERMAN: Corned beef hash used to be a staple of British military rations, but no more. The British military has updated its food ration packs for the first time since the Cold War era. Soon, British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will be tucking into spicy curries or pasta pouches. There will also be vegetarian and Halal options. The new multi-climate rations, or MCRs, are designed to be eaten hot or cold and provide 4,000 calories per day. Jay Rayner is the restaurant critic for The London Observer. He also writes for The Guardian, and he's personally sampled three of the new dishes.
JAY RAYNER: One was a sweet and sour chicken dish; another was a beef with cassava stew; and a third was a vegetable corner. And I have to say, I went in with low expectations which were entirely unjustified. This wasn't bad stuff at all.
WERMAN: Right. What was the best thing you had?
RAYNER: I think the beef and cassava stew. I think what really struck me was these dishes have to be backpacked in silvery foil patches so they can be put on the backs of large, sweaty soldiers and carried through Helmand Province. There's no refrigerators. This is what's called an â€œambienâ€ product. It can be stored at any temperature. So I had very low expectations because of that, because generally, that's not a great way to hold a dish. However, the beef rib in this beef and cassava stew, once I had thrown in a little extra water and just heated it through was terrific. This was really, really good meat.
WERMAN: Presumably a lot of these MREs, or as the Brits call them, MCRs, try and give British soldiers a taste of home while they're out in the field. But beef and cassava stew? That sounds like street food from Lagos, Nigeria.
RAYNER: What is quite striking is the choice of dishes represent what can often look like an openly varied palate to people outside the UK. Certainly, your average young soldier will have eaten a wide variety of food. We all know that we've got a much stronger tradition of Indian restaurants in the UK than say in the US. So they're very familiar with Indian food or the British version of it. They're very familiar with Chinese food, hence that sweet and sour chicken dish which in my report I described as tasting like something from a takeaway circa 1983 â€“ but in a good way. And then there was the beef and cassava stew and all the pasta dishes. So what really is represented in these packs is the catholic taste of your average young British person.
WERMAN: I read that Chicken Tikka Marsala long ago overtook fish and chips as Britain's favorite food. How popular is it now?
RAYNER: Well, it's obviously a popular dish. Although, it's also a complete fake. If you went to India, nobody there would serve you Chicken Tikka Marsala â€˜cause it doesn't exist. It was entirely invented for the British palate which is why it is very sweet and quite cloying in my experience. It's a very popular dish. You'll find it on every Indian restaurant menu, and there is an Indian restaurant on every high street in this country. So yeah, there's a lot of it about.
WERMAN: It's kind of ironic, you know, all these foods from perhaps former colonies that are now maybe ending back up in those colonies in these ready-to-eat meals.
RAYNER: Well, it's true. I mean, it has to be said that if you want to look for the good ethnic cuisines in any country, look where they invaded and see where they colonized. So in France, the only good ethnic food you'll ever find is Vietnamese. In the Netherlands, the only good ethnic food you'll ever find is Indonesian. The UK, well we invaded and subdued almost everywhere so we have a lot of that stuff. Now, you're right, yes. We're taking them back on the backs of soldiers to far-flung corners of the world.
WERMAN: What's next for these meals? I understand they'll be sent out for troops for them to taste? Will they pass muster?
RAYNER: I suspect they will. I have to say, each box contains 24-hours worth of rations, so there's breakfast stuff in there. There's Musli as well, and endless cereals and fruit salads. I have to say, I've got a whole bunch of really great stuff for my kids pack lunches for school which I've rifled from these boxes. But I suspect that they will meet with approval. They look like they've been put together with serious care and attention.
WERMAN: Right. Now, having tasted them and I know you're not a soldier â€“ we preface this question with that. How long do you think you could eat these number of days in a row?
RAYNER: That's an interesting question. There's quite a lot of variety here. I don't believe looking at them that actually any soldier is meant to eat them for more than about a week. And I think that would pretty much sum it up. After about a week of just the sheer flavor of trying to get this stuff warmed up out on the sun in the middle of nowhere, it would drive me a bit nuts. Then again, as you say I'm not a soldier and I like my creature comforts.
WERMAN: Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The London Observer. His most recent book is â€œThe Man Who Ate The Worldâ€. Thank you very much, Jay.