The Brits have had a long reputation of being terrible in the kitchen. And it’s not hard to see where this reputation comes from: a culinary history based largely on sausage, roast, mash, and pie can, in the wrong hands, be bland or downright awful. And with a love of things the rest of the world finds peculiar if not revolting – like the infamous Marmite – many North Americans think you’ll have a tough time finding a good meal in the UK.
But with names like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Yotam Ottolenghi and Heston Blumenthal producing delicious and innovative dishes not only in London kitchens, but around the world, Britain’s culinary reputation is top of the class.
But you don’t need to go to a Ramsay restaurant or The Fat Duck to get a taste of British cuisine. Some of its best is on the streets and in the pubs. And, okay, there are some truly awful (to some) concoctions out there – but it’s all part of the British experience to try them. So here are our picks for the British foods you absolutely have to try – the good and the bad.
1. Bangers and mash.
The quintessential British pub food. Bangers and mash done poorly can be bland at best, but with quality ingredients and precise cooking, this basic dinner is transformed into a deliciously soothing comfort food. Hearty sausage, warming and rich mash, and real gravy make for a nostalgic and filling dish. Vegetarians can partake in many places, such as Mother Mash, where veggie sausages and mushroom gravy are on offer.
2. Fish ‘n’ chips
Also available in pubs, but most authentically sought at a chippy, a takeaway shop specialising in fish ‘n’ chips. Wrapped in newspaper or packaged in styrofoam, look for light batter, moist fish, and chunky chips – and don’t forget the vinegar. Our best were had in Moreton-in-Marsh, but Camden Market serves up a decent portion for a lovely takeaway experience along the locks.
A pickled egg is a traditional side that can always be found in large jars at chippies; I’ve never actually seen one ordered though. Mushy peas is another classic side that has a bad reputation, but I quite like done well.
3. Cornish pasty.
If you’ve been to London, you’ll notice many tube stations have West Cornwall Pasty Co. stalls selling hot pasties – you might smell them before you see them. A Cornish pasty (pronounced pa-stee not pay-stee) is basically a hand-pie or large turnover filled with savory ingredients – most traditionally, beef and a variety of vegetables. This type of Cornish pasty, like champagne, port wine, Stilton cheese, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, has Protected Geographical Status, meaning you can’t call it a Cornish pasty unless it’s…well, from Cornwall. On my second visit to London in 2008, I met WB at Victoria station and the first thing he had me do was buy a pasty. It was a warming, welcoming, and hearty snack after a long plane ride and bad airplane food. There are vegetarian ones too, but of course they aren’t the original Cornish pasty.
Come on – you have to try it. Marmite divides even the Brits: you either love it, or you hate it. And what side you choose says a lot about who you are.
5. Scottish, old and new: Haggis + Irn-Bru
Sure, haggis is made from offal and oatmeal simmered in a stomach, but what exactly do you think hotdogs are made out of? Our resident meat eater says it tastes like spiced sausage; and its incredibly feeling and cheap.
Irn-Bru, “Scotland’s other national drink” (whisky being the first), is a concoction of equally, if not more, horrifying ingredients – all of which I cannot pronounce. Its testosterone-y packaging shows a javelin thrower, but its innards tastes like bubble gum. It’s a confusing, but essential Scottish, experience. Maybe not with the haggis though. That might be too much for one stomach.
6. Full English
In breakfast joints you may overhear patrons ordering a “Full English” or a “fry-up.” This is a breakfast meal consisting of fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried onions, toast, sausage, bacon, baked beans, and hash browns, though this might vary or accumulate add-ons depending on who you speak to. Vegetarian fry-ups were our weekend tradition, and WB took advantage of the meat available when we were out or travelling. Oh – and don’t forget the brown sauce!
Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all have their own versions of a full breakfast.
7. Branston Pickle
There are some weird, unexpected differences in British English that I was not aware of and did not expect when I first arrived. One is the use of “pickle.” I knew they often used “gherkin” instead, but I didn’t realise that ordering “pickle” on a sandwich would get you a weird, brown, relish-like spread – not slices of pickled cucumber. Branston Pickle is a bit like a chutney made of chunks of vegetables in a vinegary tomato-apple-date sauce with a variety of spices like mustard, coriander, nutmeg, garlic, and more. It is often served in a sandwich with cheddar cheese; so be warned, non-UKers: a “cheese and pickle” sandwich is not what you think it is.
Bitter is a British pale ale. It isn’t fizzy like North American beers (though North America’s most widely consumed beers are actually lagers), has very little head, and it isn’t served cold. For North American tastes, it’s warm: it’s served just below room temperature. Some popular brands include Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter and London Pride. India Pale Ale is a strain of bitter, but don’t base your expectations of a pint of Alexander Keith’s: they are worlds different.
If bitters aren’t your style, there are plenty of other British ales to try: brown ale, like Newcastle, and of course porters and stouts. Most popular lagers in Britain are imported, the highest selling being, peculiarly, the North American Carling, followed by Australian Foster’s.
England doesn’t officially have a national food, but if it held a contest bangers and mash, fish ‘n’ chips and Sunday roast would certainly be in line for the title. But a lot of people imagine tikka masala to be Britain’s true national dish. Tikka masasla, also called chicken tikka or chicken tikka masala (one of my pet peeves, as these translate to “chicken chicken” and “chicken chicken masala” respectively) is a creamy, spicy, vibrantly orange curry dish that is extremely popular in England. If you can’t decide what to get, this would be a traditional pick! Brick Lane is the place for curry, but you can find excellent curry houses all around London (and the UK).
10. Tea and scones.
You can’t leave the UK without a spot of tea; and why not indulge in a scone while you’re at it? Clotted cream is the closest thing to Heaven on earth that I can imagine, so be sure to slather it on liberally. Don’t be ashamed to eat it with your fingers (though maybe not at Kensington Palace)
11. Sunday Roast
Well, I couldn’t stop at just ten without mentioning Sunday Roast. Served in homes and pubs across the country every Sunday afternoon, a traditional British roast is just what your grandmother ordered: roast beef, mash, gravy, veg, and – of course – Yorkshire pudding. Nowadays pubs offer vegetarian nut roasts and mushroom gravy for their herbivore customers so everyone can participate in the tradition.
What is your must-try British food?