By Dalrymple, Theodore
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4588
One of the great lessons of Singapore for the rest of the world is that fast food need not be disgusting. This is not an unimportant lesson, because the fast-food industry is one of the world's largest, and half the British now seem to eat nothing else.
For the price of a hamburger, it is possible to eat a wide variety of delicious and instantly served Asian food in Singapore. The explanation of how this is possible cannot below wages: workers in the Singapore fast-food industry are probably better off than their British counterparts. Certainly, they are mentally more alert.
In the circumstances, not merely the survival, but the world conquest, of the hamburger itself requires an explanation. It is certainly not one of man's greatest culinary achievements.
It is undoubtedly the case that culinary fashion is not wholly determined by the quality of the cooking or its end result. One of the more desirable effects of the collapse of the British empire was the retrocession of the worst cooking in the world. It is still possible, occasionally, to find it in outposts where happy memories of the British live on: for example, some years ago in a hospital in a former colony where I worked, the cook served a little expatriate boy a dish of fish boiled in custard, under the impression that this was the kind of thing that the British ate and liked. When the boy protested to his mother, she made him eat it all the same, because it was good for his character not to complain. He has grown up into a fine young man.
But as the British declined, the country with the second-worst culinary tradition in the world, America, ascended, and achieved a position of power and influence undreamt of by the British. The Americans terrible food is now everywhere--I am writing this on the way home from Singapore, sitting in a shopping mall in Dubai, opposite a cafe with a pink neon sign advertising "the finest American pastries", which elegantly head-covered ladies are eating (nearby is a clothes shop for Russian prostitutes, catering to an expanding market). Needless to say, a fine American pastry is a contradiction in terms, but the cafe does a roaring trade.
If the Americans are the most technologically advanced nation in the world, can it be that they do not know so simple a thing as how to eat? …