Why, you might ask, am I reviewing a convenience dish manufactured on behalf of Tesco, our largest supermarket chain, when I am known to dislike supermarkets and convenience foods with equal measure?
In this case, I am working in Warwick during the week, and since Warwick is not easily commutable from my sleepy quarter of Essex, I’m staying over during the week in doctors’ accommodation for the princely sum of £18.50 a night. The Ritz it ain’t – a Spartan room and a basic kitchen, equipped with a cooker, microwave, fridge, a few utensils and a couple of pans. Not the best place to create a culinary masterpiece, all the more so because I can’t bring my store cupboard with me, and in any case I only have myself to cook for after a hard day at work, not to mention weekend commuting.
OK, I know your heart bleeds, but for the most part I’ve made do on easy reheated stuff. This gives me no sense of pride or satisfaction, quite the reverse, but sometimes needs must. In any case, my sense of civic duty has to be taken into account, so just as I’ve sampled and reviewed junk food so you don’t have to, I thought it reasonable to review a microwave meal – even if I never eat one again in my life.
Why would people buy food like this, other than in my circumstances? A cheaper alternative to a takeaway maybe, though I suspect it is at least in part because despite TV chefs coming out of our ears we have as a nation forgotten how to cook, and we can’t be arsed with trying things out, even if it’s better, cheaper and sometimes even quicker. No, more than that, we’re terrified to experiment and learn and improve, which is as sad an indictment of British attitudes to food as I can imagine: that we eat the least bad alternative to real food, stuff manufactured to make profit first and satisfy the consumer only so far as we can be fooled into buying more easy-cook pseudo-food.
In this case it is a Tesco Finest meal of “Indian King Prawn Tikka Masala & Rice” – even though Tikka Masala is entirely a British invention. For that matter, they make an “Italian Macaroni Cheese” with a sauce made from “cheddar” – another fine example of British comfort food inspired by Italians only in the loosest of senses.
But I digress. The description runs thus:
“Succulent king prawns in a creamy tomato and butter sauce, with cashew nut and finished with coriander and Indian spices blended exclusively for Finest. Serves with an aromatic lemon pilau rice. Serves 1.”
Frankly I would have less issue without flowery adjectives like “succulent,” but let that pass. Also worth noting that I often quibble over the portion sizes for these dishes, since a serving for one would barely feed a hamster let alone a human, though in this case it seems not unreasonable. Of the 475g maybe two-thirds is rice and one third sauce, though the containers in the plastic pot cunningly disguise this disparity. Appearance of the sauce is, on first sight, unpromising, though I won’t put you off your pot noodle by describing what it looks like!
The full price for this meal for one is £4.50 (I got it reduced for being on short date), which is clearly less than you would pay to have a dish cooked fresh at your local Indian takeaway, but which seems a tad pricy for a supermarket dish manufactured at some distant factory, hygienically sealed and chilled through distribution and storage until you buy it, dear customer.
That is one of my main gripes with convenience meals, the other being what actually goes into it. If I make a prawn curry I know precisely what ingredients are used, since I source them. Here, there may or may not be the ingredients stated, but you should never forget that to a mass market manufacturer of such foods, only three things matter:
1) Shelf life: so they will add preservatives and ingredients which extent usability and prevent wastage
2) Consistency: so they will add stabilisers and all manner of nasty ingredients to guarantee each batch looks, tastes, smells and behaves identically to the last
3) Cost: most important of all, they will do their utmost to shave fractions of a penny off the cost of each product to keep their margins high, which means that there are probably lots of very cheap things in any given convenience food you buy off the shelf, and often relatively small quantities of the expensive ingredients advertised on the front of the packet – like “prawns”.
But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a while and try the food with an open mind. You can oven-cook this dish, and it may well be better that way, but waving in the micro seems entirely fitting with the TV dinner malarkey. In this case, I pierced the film several times, slung in the microwave at full nuclear fusion power for the requisite five-and-a-half minutes, then left for two. I removed the film, gave both sides a good stir, transferred the plastic pot to a plate and sat down to eat.
With my initial impressions, please bear in mind that I have a nasty cold, so presumably my taste buds are not at their most effective. Even allowing for that, the rice seemed curiously to taste of nothing very much, and certainly not lemons; my hot lemon cold drink tasted far more lemony by comparison. It did however contain slivers of curry leaves (fenugreek) and other whole spices, for which some credit is due.
However, a rare hosanna for a shop-bought curry, since the sauce turned out to have quite a decent flavour – so the Indian spices blended exclusively for Finest were at least half way fresh and tasty. The sauce contained both single cream and butter, which would be too rich and calorific for some, but to my palate the spices cut through the greasiness.
The prawns too had a pleasant texture, which is obviously due to a technique common to chefs. Cook a prawn too long and it will turn to shoe leather before your eyes. So if you pre-cook the prawns and leave them in cold water, you can add to your cooked and cooled sauce ready for reheating without danger of massacring the prawns. Of course, immersing them in a curry sauce means you have no idea what flavour they might otherwise have had, since prawns are delicate flowers and would not taste of anything much in a robust sauce.
If this gives the impression that the dish was not as bad as I feared, you would be correct. It is quite edible and not unpleasant, but it is not a patch on a homemade curry in the hands of a cook sympathetic with his or her raw materials. If you, like me, have restricted choice, this may be a reasonable choice for the occasional dinner, but you would not want microwaved dinners all the while. For £4.50 I am confident I could do an excellent curry meal from fresh ingredients in well under an hour. Not five minutes, I grant you, but then cooking from scratch is therapy far more of us should be following – and not a hint of horsemeat in sight!
Just thank your lucky stars this wasn’t the lo-cal version – they taste appalling, are filled with water and nasty substitutes, and should be on nobody’s diet, ever, even if, no especially if you’re trying to lose weight!!