From India to Belgium and Brazil to Poland, meatballs, meatloaves, burgers and koftas have all had an egg added to rival our gastropub favourite
The Scotch egg – as comfortable these days in a trendy gastropub as it is in the chiller cabinet of a petrol station. They’ve come to rival the pork pie as the country’s patriotic snack of choice. But are they really as British as we assume? History, and the Scotch egg’s doppelgangers around the world, suggest otherwise.
Fortnum & Mason would like to take the glory for inventing the Scotch egg – a portable snack for coach travellers first sold in 1738, they say. Food historian Annie Gray is not convinced. “Anyone who has eaten one will know the breadcrumbs fall off; I’m sure they started life as part of dinner, not as a traveller’s food,” she points out. “Plus, if you’re travelling and rich enough to shop at Fortnum’s, you’d be stopping at an inn for lunch, not stuffing an egg in your pocket.”
If we follow the breadcrumb trail right back, Scotch eggs do indeed begin life on a dinner plate – with a dollop of gravy, as they appear in the 19th-century domestic bibles of Maria Rundell, Margaret Dods and Mrs Beeton. Could the great ladies of British housekeeping have been inspired by something they’d eaten before?
Mince of Persia
“I think you can pin down the Scotch egg’s introduction to Britain to the late 17th or early 18th century, and I suspect it came from India,” says Gray. Its forebear may well have been the nargisi kofta or “narcissus kofta” – named after the flower’s white-and-yellow petals – which came to India from Persia with the Mughal emperors, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, and is a popular Indian supper dish today. “The Mughals influenced two major regions with their cuisine – Awadh and Hyderabad – hence there is a spicy and a non-spicy version of nargisi kofta,” says Deep Arneja, chef at the Oberoi hotel in Agra. “The egg is generally wrapped inside lamb mince and fried, then served in a brown, yoghurt-based gravy.”
The Low Countries
The Dutch and Flemish-speaking Belgians’ riff on the Scotch egg is known variously as vogelnestje (“bird’s nest”) and gehaktbal kiekeboe (“peekaboo meatball”), not forgetting the to-the-point eierbal (“egg ball”). Food writer Suzanne Vandyck publishes a recipe in her book 150 Dutch and Belgian Recipes, serving the bird’s nests with tomato sauce and potato puree. She traces the dish to Catholics in medieval times, when it was a way of using up the eggs – forbidden during Lent – that had been boiled to make them last the 40-day fast.
Another school of thought traces the Dutch egg-in-a-meat-jacket tradition back to the Dutch East Indies, with the rijsttafel (“rice table”) – an elaborate colonial feast of dishes from across the region. One such dish might have been bakso telur (“meatball eggs”) which Jakarta resident Ditya Wicaksono thinks originated in Java. Served in a veal broth with noodles and bok choy, the bakso telur are made with a smooth minced beef paste seasoned with garlic and white pepper. “Sweet sauce and a bit of vinegar and chilli sauce spice the broth up, and the secret to good meatballs is to have the meat a little bit chewy,” says Ditya.
The Dutch and Belgians don’t have the monopoly on edible bird’s nests – Polish Scotch eggs, jaskółcze gniazda, have the same moniker, and are also served with potato, although with a fresh horseradish cream sauce. “It came from Silesia, a working-class mining region,” says Andrzej Wica, a Polish chef who serves the dish in his São Paulo restaurant Maria Escaleira. “It started off as a big egg-stuffed roulade, and over time it transformed into an individual ball with an egg inside.”
Always embracing passing fads, the residents of São Paulo have developed a taste for the bolovo – a nominal fusion of the bolinho (deep-fried croquettes that are the mainstay of Brazilian bar menus) and ovo (egg) that’s almost identical to the Scotch egg, albeit with minced beef. Now as modish as its British counterpart (there’s even a food truck cruising the streets of São Paulo that serves nothing else), it was, until recently, a little-known gem on the odd bar menu in São Paulo’s countryside towns, although its origins are hazy. It may have come to the city with British immigrants, or with the Lebanese, via their egg-stuffed meat loaf, kafta bi beid, in the late 18th century.
Meatballs, meatloaves, burgers, koftas – they’re all just variants on a theme, and have been gracing tables for centuries. Who can say at what point – and where – one or more bright sparks thought to slip in an egg – a no-brainer, surely? Or do we have the Mughal Empire to thank for the Scotch egg? Either way, it’s the simple things that remain the best, the world over.
This article was written by Catherine Balston, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 28th July 2015 10.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010