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The little differences 10: Enjoy your meal

By Martin Pütter

We all eat. But what we eat, especially what we like to eat most, and our attitude to food – here, locals and expats can differ. And yet, they may have more in common than you think.

In early March 2015 one piece of news made many expats’ mouths water, particularly among the Brits. A takeaway had opened in Basel, serving fish and chips (it is called Tramways, and is located in Steinentorstrasse). The numerous comments on social media can be summarised as: Tramways serves up “proper fish and chips”. What they meant: the fish was not farmed pangasius or tilapia, but proper cod or haddock, and the chips were fried, not oven-baked.

Now I can already imagine many locals making snide remarks about the quality of British cuisine. But I have a question for them: What is the difference between fried cod or haddock and fried perch fillets? Probably only the price – with perch filets (mostly from Canada, Ireland or the Baltic states, and not local) being substantially more expensive than cod or haddock. It is still fish. And both are served with potatoes – either boiled (perch) or fried (cod, haddock).

And recently I found a recipe in a local paper which reminded me very much of another dish very popular in the United Kingdom (and maybe in other parts of the English-speaking world as well): pan-fried coarse sausages with mashed potatoes. I can already hear all British readers shout: BANGERS AND MASH! Another example? What is the difference between “Röschti”, served in eight out of ten restaurants in Switzerland, and hash brown? None …

Different fish

So, maybe for once there is actually not such a big difference between Swiss cuisine and British cuisine. However, during my years living in the UK I discovered one difference when it comes to fish (and wonder whether this is also the case on the other side of the pond or in the southern hemisphere): the only freshwater fish that Brits eat are salmon, sea-trout (both actually migratory fish) and trout, although some courageous Londoners might even eat jellied eel. In many mainland European countries, by contrast, people also eat char, carp, grayling, perch, pike, zander and many other freshwater species.

When I asked Brits (while I was living in London) or expats here in Basel about this, their answer was: “I prefer fish from the sea, they have more flavour than freshwater fish.” Knowing that the trout you get at retailers (fishmongers or supermarkets) are flabby and flavourless farmed fish, I asked whether they had tried other freshwater fish – in 99% of the cases the answer was no.

Actually, when it comes to fish from the sea, I noted one thing that expats here ask: “How can the sea fish they sell here be fresh?”. Well, in my early student years (longer ago than I care to remember) I worked for a fish import company (as delivery driver). My then boss told me that there is no difference in freshness between a Swiss fish counter and a fishmonger in the United Kingdom: “The time from boat to customer is the same.” He even thought that fish takes longer from port to retailer in the UK than from, say, a Dutch or French port to a Swiss retailer. Having personally experienced transport systems in the UK, I am very much inclined to believe this. Oh, and customers have not complained about (any lack of) freshness of cod or haddock at the new Basel chippy.

Just tuck in

When it comes to drinks, or ordering drinks, expats are very polite – see my article about different drinking etiquette in this series (Little Differences #3). However, when it comes to meals, polite customs seem to be lacking. Most mainland Europeans would wish each other “bon appétit” or similar. Expats, on the other hand – especially the newly arrived – tend to remain silent; and I also still see many Americans keep one hand under the table while eating – this constitutes a breach of table etiquette in Europe.

I remember the first time I cooked a meal for my flatmates during my year at university in Scotland. The moment I had served them their plates they started eating, and when I asked what they would wish each other before a meal (i.e. the equivalent of “bon appétit”) they looked completely flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? Just tuck in,” was their reply – and I had similar experiences over the years. With time, however, expats in the Basel area seem to adopt this cultural quirk – they either use the French “bon appétit” or say “enjoy your meal.” And so will I – especially next time I visit that chippy in Steinentorstrasse.

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