12 Popular English Foods To Try Out
Britons’ relationship with food has for years been the subject of ridicule. Not only is it seen as bland, boring, and visually unappetizing, the Brits are accused of failing to value it socially, unable to see a table of nourishing nosh as a way to forge bonds with friends and family.
But why? How did it get such a rep and is it true?
Many have tried to make sense of it. Most often the two world wars are blamed. Rationing and frugal living meant cheap food boiled or stewed and sapped of taste. But, if rationing spoiled our culinary crafts, what were they like before? No one has offered any pre-rationing gourmet gorgeousness.
And if it was food shortages, that can only be half the story. Italy suffered big time in the Great Depression of the 1930s, doing little to harm their culinary rep.
It’s not the ingredients so much as what you do with them.
And what you do with ingredients comes down to your attitude to food. Another argument says British cuisine‘s decline began well before the wars. The Victorians were scared of raw foods, contemptuous of simple preparations, and in excessive awe of French food.
But, again, why?
One beat-yourself-up reasoning says British food is bad because British people are too repressed to cook food correctly. We don’t love enough, don’t like our families, and are too sexually inhibited to enjoy the sensuality of food preparation. Speak for yourself, Aisling.
There is a good explanation, and it’s one that goes beyond the lazy thinking behind blaming rationing or the British psyche.
The British people used to have a perfectly healthy relationship with the land and all its produce. There were longstanding rural food traditions that gave the people of the British Isles the same knowledge, familiarity, and confidence with food as all their European counterparts.
Then began the Industrial Revolution.
Now, you might be thinking big, smoking factories. But it began with agriculture. How do you establish commercial sheep production when peasants are using the land for cultivating food, animal grazing, and the gathering of berries and fire wood?
Well, you take the land away. You fence it off, take away common property rights, and force the peasants out. This was not a peaceful affair, as the riots and rebellions of the English countryside bear witness.
The peasants fought back valiantly, but, ultimately, lost. Landless and destitute, they had no choice but to move into the towns and find work in the factories.
Didn’t this happen everywhere? Well, yes it did. But it was faster and more vicious in Britain than anywhere else. In 1800, 20% of Britons lived in towns. Just 80 years later it was 60%. And just to put that into perspective, by 1880 only 30% of Germans had gone urban. And it wasn’t until 1950, well after World War II, that the urban French population reached 60%.
The British have a poor relationship with food. But that doesn’t mean British food doesn’t have a distinctive character or that it has nothing good to offer.
In a couple of generations, the land was wrenched away, severing the people’s ancient ties and destroying local food production. Wartime rationing took the shape it did because of an already weakened food culture.
So, yes, it is true. The British have a poor relationship with food. But that doesn’t mean British food doesn’t have a distinctive character or that it has nothing good to offer. In fact, modern British cuisine is reinventing the staples of the Isles into fine cuisine.
Here we look at the classic treasures of the English table. The fayre of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales is enough for their own articles.
1. The Humble Pie
Encasing meat in pastry has its origins in Ancient Egypt. A recipe for chicken pie was carved into a tablet there over 4,000 years ago. The dish traveled then to Ancient Greece and along the Roman roads to the British Isles. The pastry casing at this time was less for eating than for helping the meat to last longer on sea voyages.
By medieval times the pie had become something of a celebrity. Cooks would try to outdo each other with the contents – four and twenty blackbirds for example and there’s even an account of live musicians emerging from a pie as the lid was removed.
It wasn’t long before we began casing fruit in pastry. The first apple pie recipe was printed by no other than the father of English literature and author of the Canterbury Tales Geoffry Chaucer, back in the 13th century.
Today the pie still has a special place in English cooking. The most popular are steak and kidney, steak and ale, and chicken and mushroom – rich pastry holding chunks of meat and thick gravy, served hot as part of a main meal or eaten on their own as a snack.
Then there’s the pork pie, served cold. A golden pastry shell topped with a lid crimped round the edge and filled with coarsely ground, heavily seasoned pork mixed with the baker’s secret combination of herbs and spices, all surrounded by a thin layer of wobbly jelly.
These originated in the east Midlands as a by-product of the cheese industry – whey was free and pigs eat anything. They became a popular snack for farmhands in the Melton Mowbray region, where the most famous are still produced today.
2. Cornish Pasty
A circle of pastry folded over a filling of beef, potato, onion, and swede with the edges crimped into a thick crust. As meat became more expensive, more vegetables were added.
Why Cornwall? The region was the home of tin mining and pasties were perfect for dropping down the dark, damp mines to provide sustenance for the workers. They worked at such depths they couldn’t get out for lunch.
3. Beef Wellington
We love wrapping things in pastry, even the most expensive of beef cuts. A fillet of beef, brushed with mustard, wrapped in a layer of blitzed mushrooms, parma ham, and puff pastry – succulent, melt in the mouth, and oh so tasty.
The dish was supposedly created to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo. But it’s more likely it was stolen from the French as it closely resembles the filet da beouf en croute.
Not a dish, an ingredient – the ingredient for the famous English pudding.
Suet is made from the fat around the kidneys and other organs (usually beef). Separated from the meat, the fat is clarified, chopped, and boiled in water to release the impurities. Once cooled, the water and fat separate and you have suet. There are, of course, vegan alternatives now.
It’s used in pastry, giving it a distinctive taste and spongy texture that evokes cozy childhood memories, for certain generations. Our eldest talk of steamy, sweet-smelling kitchens where the suet pud boiled away on the stove. Now they come in plastic pots for microwaving – shame, as they really are not the same – I’m told!
Suet is so English that it’s difficult to find anywhere outside the British Isles. And we do fabulous things with it.
Steak & Kidney pudding – make a pie with suet pastry and steam it rather than bake it and you have a steak and kidney pudding. Chunks of beef and offal, swimming in a rich brown gravy oozing from the thick spongy pastry – magical on a wet and windy winter’s day.
Or suet dumplings, bobbing on a thick beef or chicken stew – the absolute best part.
But the most famous dishes are the sweet puddings – jam roly poly (and custard!) – suet pastry brushed with jam, rolled up and steamed; spotted dick (and custard!) – suet pudding with dried fruit; Sussex pond pudding – a whole lemon wrapped in suet pastry.
The variations are endless and the classics have enjoyed a revival over the last few years, taking pride of place on some high-end menus.
5. The Balti
Curry has been a favorite in the land for many years, since way back in the 19th century, at least; spices have been a key part of English cooking since the Crusades of the 11th century. The first curry house opened over 200 years ago, and so important is it for English history, the site in George Street, London, is marked with a Green Plaque.
But the Balti was born in Birmingham. In 1977, Mohammed Ajaib needed a dish that distinguished his establishment from the competition in Birmingham’s fiercely competitive Indian restaurant market.
The actual curry is much the same as the Indian original, though for the last ten minutes, it is cooked at a high temperature in a distinctive, small flat-bottomed wok – the balti (bucket). Then fresh spices, herbs and chilis are added, making it highly flavorsome and colorful.
Related: 50 Famous Indian Dishes
The Balti Triangle, bordered by Ladypool Road, Stratford Lane, Durham Road, and Highgate Road – I know, 4 sides, call it poetic license – now has its own trade association and restaurant guide. It is testament to the multicultural makeup of the country that the curry is a much-loved favorite dish.
6. The Full English
This is a breakfast of centuries-old tradition, a true English affair.
The basics are bacon, egg, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, black pudding, and fried bread. You might also find kidneys, bubble and squeak, hash browns (but they are an inferior import from the States), or fried potatoes. Some even pile on baked beans, too. But, really, beans have no place on a breakfast plate!
It began with the well-off of the 13th century, displaying their wealth and feeling good about themselves. But it took on, and by the mid-1900s, pretty much half the population would start the day with a fry up.
So popular is it that cafes dedicated to serving it sprang up. Otherwise known as greasy spoons, they began in the industrial and manufacturing areas and close to ports, but today they can be found in just about any shopping area around the country.
7. Fish & Chips
Go anywhere in the world and ask what is British food and they will tell you fish and chips. The Brits may have laid claim to the dish, but it’s as much an immigrant as the people who brought it to the country.
In the 17th century, Jewish settlers introduced the deep-fried battered fish recipe to these shores, bringing it from Portugal and Spain. They sold it on the streets from huge trays they hung round their necks.
And the chip? Peru. Not English, or French. Chips didn’t team up with the battered fish until around 1850. And that’s how traditions are born.
8. The Sunday Roast
This is as English as they come – a plate of roast meat (any meat, beef, pork, lamb, or chicken), vegetables, and Yorkshire pudding topped with gravy made from the juices in the roasting pan, or, god forbid, gravy granules.
It’s been the main meal of the week for over 300 years, with the leftovers fried up or put in pies or sandwiches over the next couple of days. Quintessentially English, it can be found in pubs and carveries throughout the land – and not just on Sundays.
9. Lancashire Hotpot
This staple of 19th century Lancashire cotton workers has become a nationwide favorite. Chunks of lamb, sliced onions and carrots in stock, flour, and Worcestershire sauce, all topped with sliced potatoes and left to baked for a couple of hours.
Once they returned from the mill, the workers would find a flavorsome stew, the lamb fusing with the vegetables. If they couldn’t afford much meat, oysters, very cheap back in the day, would be added to bulk it out.
Just south of Lancashire is Liverpool. And while the dialect here, Scouse, shares little in common with its neighbors, its famous regional dish uses much the same ingredients as the hotpot. But Scousers, the people of the city, prefer to stew theirs on the stove rather than bake it in the oven.
The word scouse is said to come from the Norwegian lapskaus (the dish itself is likely to have originated in Norway). Brought to the region by sailors, the cheap dish took on among the people of the region. Every child of Liverpool, Bootle, and Birkenhead knows scouse.
11. Shepherds Pie
Another cheap dish and often made from Sunday roast leftovers, shepherds pie is a classic of nursery cooking.
Originally, the meat was encased top, bottom, and sides in mashed potato, though the version most cooked today simply has a mashed potato topping, browned in the oven.
I’m not finished with puddings – the sweet variety. Queen of puddings, bread and butter pudding, treacle tart, treacle sponge pudding, summer pudding: everyone has their favorite, but so great are they all that second, third, fourth faves come very close behind.
Before you go, check out our round-up of the Traditional Christmas Dinner and Desserts in England.