Let’s start off here with a clear distinction: much fast food may well be junk food, and vice versa, but the two are far from completely synonymous: you can get excellent fast food, and some junk food may err on the slower side. The problem is that the brush has been tarred with the likes of McDonalds, KFC and countless other foods deemed by many to be unhealthy through excess saturated fat, salt, sugar and many other hidden nasties. It doesn’t have to be like that, of course.
Also for the benefit of readers who may not have twigged, this is solely a blog about food bought for eating in situ, not stuff you’ve prepared at home – a whole different debate there!
The essence of fast food is that it is fast to serve and fast to eat, which does not necessary mean hand-held, though in the case of burgers, sandwiches, wraps, pies and pasties (now we go to Greggs for these) doughnuts and many more then it is true. As mentioned on my blog about picnics and festival food, pretty much any ethnic variety, from the orient to Mexico and beyond, can be translated quickly into a polystyrene tray and served with a fork, much as fish and chips has traditionally been served in the paper. Not necessarily easy to eat, but quite doable if you concentrate and don’t let it slide off. Pizzas served in flat boxes generally are hand-held but have a tendency to be floppy and occasionally the topping can separate from the base in a sticky mess. Kebabs, a British staple these days, are served in pitta breads but can be very tricky to eat, with or without a plastic fork.
Maybe the slightly messy nature of fast food can be part of the fun, but to be a success it must be instantly addictive and moreish, which is where the fat, salt and sugar content comes in: the products we love to eat are loaded with it, and an apple simply won’t do.
The things we should eat more of (see my recent blog on healthy eating) tend to be slower foods, longer to cook, not so easy to eat. And time is of the essence – we have little time for sit-down business lunches any more – lunch has to be something we can eat at our desk or on the go, though fast food is something eaten from dawn to dusk, then well into the wee small hours too. It’s eaten when we come out of the pub, when we are out and feel peckish, any time we need instant gratification.
Visiting India in 1994 was something of a revelation for me on the fast food front. Every Brit is aware that Indian street snacks have tended to be served in restaurants over here as starters – bhajis, samosas, pakoras, sheek kebabs rolls and the like. Over there they are genuinely served on the streets and small cafes for pennies, cooked to order and served with tamarind and chilli sauces, and in terms of flavour they are a revelation.
Even visiting Chinatown in London or Manchester can be an eye-opener. Just as with the Indian street snacks being served in our restaurants, you could say the same about Chinese dim sum – street snacks that come fried or steamed, are small and easy to eat, and generally taste delicious. These days they are big business and tend to be made in factories rather than home-made, unless you’re on the streets of China. But try the small bakeries and you can find an amazing array of small savouries and sweet pastries, including my two personal favourites: char sui bau (red pork bun) and curry pasty. Both are a world apart from the western equivalent, hand made and freshly baked with a skill that puts the Greggs of this world to shame. OK, still not the healthiest possible fast food but a big improvement in terms of flavour.
So what is a healthy but tasty alternative? Supermarkets, sandwich shops and other shops market a variety of salads in plastic packaging, often including the ubiquitous plastic fork. I’ve tried a few but haven’t found them satisfying. The best were possibly Pret a Manger, though I wouldn’t necessarily choose them. Pret also sell moderately good soups, which were certainly a growth market a few years back but seem to have receded as a fast food nowadays.
However, mass produced sushi has gained in popularity for a number of years, and being largely raw fish and sticky rice they are healthy staples for many. Always very definitely a minority interest, since Brits tend to regard raw fish (smoked salmon notwithstanding) with suspicion.
So where should fast food go? Doubtless as I write this there are hundreds highly paid design gurus working on ways we can get cheap appealing fast food meals that can easily be commodotised, and new vehicles for rapid eating, though personally I’d stick to my philosophy that we should where possible eat real food, slow food where we can spare the time, and if that means a little waiting, just be patient. Quality and flavour are what count most, and ultimately give the greatest satisfaction – and can you really appreciate food if your goal is to get it down your neck as quickly as possible? I think not. Taking time helps our digestion and refreshes the mind into the bargain.