Forget Ferrero Rocher, Philip Corbett talks to Ameer Kotecha about how ambassadors impress and inspire with what they serve to guests around the globe
As I sat down on a plush leather sofa in the Foreign Office to talk to Ameer Kotecha, the author of The Platinum Jubilee Cookbook, there was a slight clink of glasses and the dull sound of conversation emanating from somewhere in the building, as if to highlight the point of the book for him. It is a celebration of that wonderful ‘culinary diplomacy’ that Britain’s embassies and missions have around the world. The 70 recipes, celebrating that 70-year reign of HM the Queen, come from all around the globe and are, Ameer tells me, a celebration of the ‘best Britain has to offer’. The project didn’t start with a Royal theme. Rather, Ameer has always been fascinated with the part food and hospitality play in diplomacy and he realised that no other cookbook collecting together recipes from our embassies existed. ‘Diplomacy,’ he says, ‘begins even in the most complicated of postings with food and hospitality’.
The collection is therefore a fascinating look behind the walls of the residences of our ambassadors both great and small. Ameer is particularly pleased that the Royal Household on learning about the project wanted to get involved. TRH the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall provide a wonderful foreword that readers of this magazine will connect with immediately. They highlight particularly the unchanging nature of sharing food that has a ‘profound, almost spiritual significance’.
There are, of course, over 200 embassies and missions flying the Union Flag around the world and so there had to be some difficult choices in order to select the recipes. Ameer is keen to point out that there is plenty of material for a second volume but that this one has a particular focus on the Commonwealth and British Overseas Territories. The latter are so often overlooked, or not even on people’s radars, so it is good to have recipes from places like Anguilla – and perhaps most especially in this commemoration year, the Falkland Islands. I am not sure whether I will be able to manage the recipe for ‘Blackened Toothfish with Asian Slaw and Jasmine Rice’ but as with all of the photographs in this book it looks mouth-watering and delicious.
Ameer goes on to speak about the importance of food. Because food is at the centre of many cultures and is so important when our embassies or High Commissions try to reflect something of the local cuisine in their recipes. Among Ameer’s favourites is the one from the High Commission in Singapore: ‘Lemongrass, Pandan, and Gin-cured Salmon’. He speaks with some relish about the way in which a Singaporean twist is given to two items that are the ‘best of British’: Scottish salmon and gin. Both of these are wonderful exports and are wonderful ways to advertise and promote British products. The way in which they are served shows that some thought has been put into the menu in order to reflect local culture and indigenous cuisine. This work is essential to British diplomacy.
The recipes in the book fall into three categories: local recipes, British recipes, and fusion recipes. Ameer readily admits that his favourite recipes are the fusion ones which take superb British produce and give them a local twist. I agree with Ameer that one of the most exciting and interesting recipes in this light comes from the High Commission in Kuala Lumpa. It was created for the visit of TRH the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in 2017 and takes British beef and combines it with Malaysian flavours to create ‘Rendang Beef Wellington’. It is a ‘marriage of that most traditional of British dishes the Beef Wellington with one of Malaysia’s best-loved dishes the beef rendang’. It certainly does look fabulous and a delightful mix of flavours and aromas. Royal visits inspire some of the other recipes as well. Beef Mochomo is the offering from the High Commission in Kampala, Uganda, and again uses British beef but combines it with Ugandan flavours and cooks it in the Ugandan style – Mochomo simply means ‘roasted meat on a stick’. The meal was originally served to HRH the Duke of Edinburgh at Queen Elizabeth National park during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007; a tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh’s love for the barbeque and his own skill as a cook.
Ameer tells me the wide range of embassies and ambassadors means that this collection contains ‘something for everyone’. I ask him whether the recipes have simply been sent in from Ambassadors’ chefs de cuisine. Not at all – some of the Missions are so small the ambassador is their own chef, preparing the food for visiting delegations and guests. Other recipes have a personal touch as well. Hugh Elliott, HM Ambassador to Spain, offers his family’s recipe for marmalade. This brings together something very Spanish, the Seville orange, and something very British, marmalade. One can’t help but wonder if it was marmalade from the Ambassador in Madrid that the Queen had in her sandwich on the evening of the Jubilee concert. The Ambassador tells the reader that for many years the Royal Alcazar in Seville had provided oranges to Buckingham Palace but the tradition had lapsed. He therefore resurrected this in 2020 with oranges grown by the Commander of the Alcazar, picked by the Consul General, and sent on to Madrid. Some of this marmalade has indeed been dispatched – diplomatically, no doubt – to Buckingham Palace. It is good to know that even ambassadors took to marmalade and jam-making during lockdown!
There are also some lovely local tales in a number of the smaller missions. The rather remote island of St Helena has a wonderful story to tell. In the grounds of the Governor’s Residence lives Jonathan, the world’s oldest living land animal – a giant tortoise. There is a charming photograph of the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret meeting Jonathan with their father HM King George VI in 1947. Jonathan will celebrate his 190th birthday this year in his honour, St Helena offers its own version of High Tea, with pumpkin pudding, fudge and coconut fingers. Rather than tea, however, the Governor recommends a good cup of St Helenian coffee.
Ameer was keen that the book should feature essential British products and that these shouldn’t just be high-end items but things that every British person might crave after time abroad. I well remember my own parents filling suitcases with tea, marmite and digestive biscuits when we travelled back to Asia after our annual trip home, and the excitement when someone was coming out to visit as to what they might bring! And so Ameer has included items with the Royal Warrant such as the Queen’s favourite Bendick mints alongside more normal staples like OXO cubes. All of these go together to make up Brand Britain. Indeed, Ameer was pleased to report that sparkling wine made in Sussex is to have its own regional designation and perhaps one day we will be asked ‘Champagne or Sussex’ when ordering our aperitif.
It is clear that British food and culture are part of the soft power that places Britain at the forefront in world affairs. Whether it be our food, Paddington Bear, or James Bond, these brands are immediately recognisable as British and help to build up our national prestige and influence. The very act of sitting down to a meal together is important for diplomacy and it is all the more important when the host has gone to the trouble of sourcing local delicacies and produce offering them in fusion with the best of British. Ameer has a real passion for the recipes he has collected together and that overflows into the conversation, this book has been a true labour of love.
I cannot encourage people enough to go out and get a copy of this cookbook. It is so much more than a collection of recipes. It is a reminder of our ties with the Commonwealth, our rich history, our wonderful brands and our role in global diplomacy. It is also a beautifully produced book with wonderful photographs and amusing and interesting anecdotes. All in all, it is a special and meaningful tribute to HM the Queen on her Platinum Jubilee. She more than anyone knows the power of sitting down and breaking bread with other people and she has overseen some sticky diplomatic issues in her reign with grace and charm.
The collection serves to remind us that nothing happens without careful thought, preparation and consideration and we should be proud that we are served around the world by such dedicated public servants who seek to promote British interests. It is wonderful that we have been given a glimpse into the Ambassadors’ kitchens, the only question is what to cook first. I for one will make a ‘marmalade martini’ and think – it’s what Paddington would do!
The Platinum Jubilee Cookbook by Ameer Kotecha, with a foreword from HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, ISBN 9780993354069. 336 pages. £30.