Josh Barrie’s dishes that can do one: Halloumi fries

Log off: Halloumi fries are dull, dull, dull  (Raelle Gann-Owens/Unsplash)
Log off: Halloumi fries are dull, dull, dull (Raelle Gann-Owens/Unsplash)

I was looking at pictures of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) on the internet earlier and realised the material, when used in the form of slender, rectangular beams, reminds me of halloumi fries.

RAAC, as bubbly oblongs of long and fragile grey, is fixed into the ceilings of countless British schools. The material makes for a cheap, apparently risky canopy but was once heralded as an architectural wonder. It is not dissimilar to halloumi fries in that respect. Both are strikingly affordable. The two compare by design, too: thin, sleek blocks, unassuming but unguardedly potent. Of course, only one is intended to be dipped in sweet chilli sauce.

But perhaps the duo’s most profound commonality is their inescapability. Both RAAC and halloumi fries are absolutely everywhere, carelessly and ineffectively providing lacklustre ballast to so much of Britain.

You see, halloumi fries have become a hard-and-fast fixture of any middling menu, a seemingly necessary inclusion for fear of diner-based retribution; they sit comfortably among the calamari (often rubbery), the chicken skewers (see: “satay”) and arancini (admittedly, these are usually a relatively safe bet wherever you find yourself).

They are boring. They are business food, not food born out of love or sharing

Halloumi has soared in popularity in Britain this past decade. We are now its biggest foreign market in the world: 40 per cent of what’s shipped from Cyprus comes to us, weighing in at around 12,000 tonnes a year. The squeaky cheese is a tremendous success story, despite once being an obscurity: only a few decades ago, it had to be airlifted to Cypriot expats in London by one of the country’s leading producers, a man named Yiannos Pittas — yes, a wondrous culinary nominative determinism.

So today, to restaurant groups — especially those aiming for chunky profits above all else — halloumi fries are cardinal. To that end, these cheesy logs have become boring. They are business food, not food born of love or sharing. I’ve said before that I want hospitality in Britain to do well. That hasn’t changed. But the merry-go-round of tired obsession, of menus on which burrata is king, hummus and flatbreads a nonchalant queen and various nibbles featuring chorizo are oily little princes? A royal mess.

Obviously my issue isn’t with the cheese itself. I give due countenance to any chef in Britain seeking to further broaden its appeal. But, as with so many foreign bodies in these lands, halloumi is misunderstood and misused. As fries, it arrives near-burnt on the outside and wobbly and tasteless within. A dish of little imagination, ventured fleetingly, as if, like potatoes, we’ve all been cooking with it for centuries. Fries must be potatoes: we learned this when ones constructed of sweet potato started plaguing dining rooms.

So eat halloumi. Have it for breakfast with fried eggs and spicy sausages as the Cypriots do. But as overcooked, rubbery batons in greasy jackets, they’re about as worthless as RAAC, and just as deserving of an inquest.