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Scott Begbie: MasterChef conjures tastes of years gone by

Stovies... a staple dish of all Scottish households for decades.
Stovies... a staple dish of all Scottish households for decades.

Big round of applause to Ross Smyth who was flying the flag for Scotland on MasterChef this week.

It’s a pity the Carnoustie cook didn’t make the quarter-finals – his lobster thermidor looked lush. I have to admit I think rival Madeeha was a worthy qualifier, but then I’m biased.

You see, she was cooking up fine, spicy, fiery curries and exotic dishes and I’m a lifelong fan of those.

Ross Smyth from Carnoustie featured on the latest series of MasterChef.

Actually, maybe not lifelong. You see, like most other Scottish kids raised in the 60s, my staple fayre as a child was simple but wholesome stuff like mince and tatties and stovies. This was back in the day when fried egg and chips was considered a meal fit for kings.

Spaghetti Bolognese was pushing the envelope

This was also when things like Chinese and curry were considered far too exotic for the likes of us. I mean, Spaghetti Bolognese was well and truly pushing the envelope. Mind you, my mum’s spag bol was sublime, meaty and tomatoey and made with proper, really long spaghetti. The stuff you get in the shops these days is a cutdown imitation to save space on supermarket shelves, if you ask me.

The good old days when spaghetti was long and slurpy.

I am of an age when I remember the first Chinese takeaway opening up in our area in the early 70s. It was the Lucky Star and it set up shop in a wee shop opposite my primary school. It was the talk of P7 and some of the posher kids would boast about fine feasts with their families.

Curious, me and my mate Craig Jack clubbed together our coppers to cough up the 50p to buy a spring roll. We took one bite each, said “yuck” and tossed the rest down a drain. Beansprouts clearly weren’t to the tastes of a couple of 11-year-olds.

However, as the decade went on more and more “foreign” food started creeping into mainstream diets. I remember my mum getting really adventurous with chilli con carne (always con carne back then, never just chilli).

Spring rolls were not to the taste of a couple of 11-year-olds in the 70s.

It was summoned into being courtesy of a packet mix and a pound of mince with a tin of – ooh, get you – kidney beans. For some reason mum always served it to us with hot buttered toast, never rice. It was delicious though.

Grainy sauce tasted vaguely of liquorice

And then came the revelation of boil-in-a-bag meals when Vesta ruled the fast food universe. They were banished in our house, as my mum prided herself on her cooking skills too much to simply chuck plastic bags into a pan of boiling water.

I had no such reservations and with one of my first pay packets from my paper round bought myself a Vesta beef curry. I thought I was Archie, tucking in to it on a Saturday lunchtime, what with its uniform shaped chunks of “meat”, grainy sauce that tasted vaguely of liquorice, and sultanas. Yeah, they were a thing in curry. All that sitting on congealed rice.

Despite that, I got a taste for spiced cuisine a world away from the plain fair of braised sausages and gravy of my youth (which I actually liked and still do).

Fish tanks were all but mandatory in posh Chinese restaurants of the 198os.

By the time I was working at the tender age of 17, Edinburgh had a fine selection of posh Chinese restaurants.  I took my first serious girlfriend to a particular upmarket one, the sort that had a giant fish tank, treating her to a meal out while showing off my taste and sophistication.

I even had a spring roll – but I think I failed on the sophistication bit. The bill came on a little decorated woven-bamboo saucer which I thought was mine to keep – I even announced: “Oh, that’s a nice touch” and left the restaurant with it. My older self still cringes at the thought.

But while I enjoyed Chinese scran, it was about this time my real food love affair began. Curry.

Chicken Madras with pilau rice and naan bread… Scott’s go to curry in his early days.

My mouth is on fire

It began when some work colleagues discovered I had never been in an Indian restaurant and took me to one on Lothian Road, reckoned to be the best in Edinburgh at the time. It offered a dizzying array of options – korma, Madras or vindaloo, with either chicken or lamb.

They were all basically the same sauce, differentiated only by the heat quotient ranging from the Vesta-strength for innocent palates to the “oh dear Lord, my mouth is on fire and I can no longer see”. It was a sign of being macho to order up the hottest one, then sit and pretend you were absolutely fine, while sweat beaded your brown and trickled down the small of your back as you tried not to give in to the racking cough waiting in the wings.

To be honest, I was a middling Madras sort of bloke. I liked a bit of spice but didn’t want my food to hurt me. Over the years, I built up towards vindaloo, finally plucking up the courage to go for it.

Not in a restaurant, of course. I didn’t want either mates or strangers smirking as I gasped like Michael Sheard being Force choked by Darth Vader in Star Wars.

Nope. I ordered a takeout vindaloo to eat on the comfort of my couch. I was in my underwear by the time I was half-way through, as my internal temperature soared. It was one of the few curries I never finished, putting the remains in the bin.

The ill-fated Admiral Ozzel, in Star Wars as played by the late Michael Sheard.

During that night, however, I was awoken by a terrible noise of yowling. Our cat had knocked over the bin (as was his want) to eat what he could find. I found him crouching over his litter tray, wailing like a banshee, with a yellow muzzle of vindaloo stains. He didn’t trouble the bin much after that.

Accidentally created CS gas

But that traumatic incident – more for Bogart the moggy than me – didn’t deter my love of curry.

And it only got better with time with different regions, ingredients and spices coming into play to the point where it is now the world-class cuisine I will turn to over any other.

I even learned how to make a mean curry from scratch – my lamb and spinach Balti is to die for, even if I say so myself. And no cats are hurt in the making of this dish.

Chili con carne, cutting edge cuisine in the 70s.

Well, other than that time I was following a Jamie Oliver recipe and put some chilli flakes into a too hot pan, accidentally creating CS gas. The whole house was choking, but none more so than our then pet puss, Squeaky, who was gasping, bulging eyed, until the smoke cleared after we opened every window in the house. He always scarpered when I produced a wok after that.

Which brings us back to MasterChef… a programme on which I will never appear. I can rustle up all sorts of meals and really enjoy making dinner. But I’m aware of the fact I’m a bloke cook – curries and chilli.

And sometimes I even have the latter on buttered toast. Thanks mum.