British Food: 16 Traditional Dishes You Have to Try
Exploring the food culture is perhaps not at the top of your to-do list if you’re visiting Great Britain. But British cuisine is often surprising in its range and quality.
In this list, we’ve steered away from the Michelin-starred creations of London’s top chefs and focused on traditional British dishes you’re likely to find in the cafes, pubs, and restaurants across the country. Some recipes date back hundreds of years, while others are trending right now.
We’re going to demystify their weird and wonderful names, so when you spot them on menus, you’ll be able to order and try them out with confidence!
1. Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties
Let’s start with a traditional Scottish favorite. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland. First, a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs are minced, mixed with suet and oatmeal, then seasoned with onion, cayenne, and perhaps other spices. Finally, this mixture is stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Haggis is often served with boiled turnips and potatoes (‘neeps and tatties’ in Scottish dialect.)
Although you can sample haggis in almost any pub north of the border at any time of year, it plays an essential role in Burn’s Night celebrations on January 25th.
Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, immortalized the dish in his ‘Address to a Haggis’ and helped it become famous worldwide.
2. Bangers and Mash
Mash is easy – it’s short for mashed potatoes. Bangers are a common name for British sausages, and you’ll find this hearty and delicious meal in most pubs. The whole thing is often covered in rich brown gravy.
Although British sausages aren’t as varied as, for example, those in Spain, it’s worth looking out for some tasty regional specialties. The Cumberland sausage is generally considered to be the finest, but you’ll find endless variations, including pork and garlic, pork with sage and onion, and even vegetarian versions.
Why are they called bangers? No one knows, but it could be because, unless the skin is pricked with a fork before cooking, the contents will burst out in a mini-explosion. Though, we’ve never heard one actually go ‘bang.’
3. Welsh Cawl
Cawl Cyreig, as it’s called in Welsh, is a winter lamb and root vegetable stew. It’s traditionally served on March 1st to celebrate St David, the patron Saint of Wales.
As this is a typically homemade dish, you’ll find countless variations on the basic recipe. It may include turnips, shredded green cabbage, or parsnips. Celeriac is sometimes used, though celery is a readily available substitute.
So look out for this delicious example of traditional family cooking in pubs and restaurants throughout Wales during the entire month of March.
4. Spotted Dick
The first recipe for spotted dick, a traditional steamed pudding, appeared in 1849. Ok, let’s talk about the name. This dish is also known as spotted dog. ‘Dick’ and ‘Dog’ are both thought to derive from the word dough, so nothing to giggle at here. And the spotted part of the name? That refers to the currents inside the pudding.
You’ll find it on pub menus across the UK, where it’s typically served with hot vanilla custard. Scrumptious!
5. Black Pudding
Not a pudding at all. Black pudding is a type of sausage, traditionally most popular in the North of England, but now quite fashionable among the trendy chefs of top London eateries.
You might also find it included in a full English breakfast.
Thought to date back to the days when the Romans occupied Britain (so perhaps it could be considered Italian), it’s also known as blood sausage.
The ingredients? Blood, of course, is mixed with oatmeal and spices then cooked until it’s thickened. Tastes much better than it sounds, and believe it or not, you can even find vegan versions these days.
If you want to try black pudding, it’s better to go to a quality restaurant, as the cheap version sometimes offered in pubs and cafes won’t give you a true idea of the unique and delicious flavor.
6. Cullen Skink
The name may not make it sound appetizing, but Cullen skink is a hearty Scottish fish soup packed with smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions. Milk or cream are used to thicken it and to produce a wonderful silken texture, and then it’s finished off with the addition of roughly chopped parsley.
The dish originated in the town of Cullen, where it was traditionally made with the local Finnan haddock. You’ll find this robust and warming soup served in pubs and restaurants across Scotland, although it’s rare to find it south of the border.
7. Toad in the Hole
You’ll be glad to know that in this dish, there’s not a toad in sight. It’s popular comfort food, easy to make by wrapping a sausage (or sometimes other meat) in a Yorkshire pudding style batter (which has nothing to do with a pudding, but we’ll come on to that later).
It’s a basic midweek supper kind of dish, unlike the closely related pigs-in-blankets, that are a party favorite.
You’ll find toad in the hole on many pub and café menus. But, of course, the final product will depend on the quality of the simple ingredients, so many chefs opt to include gourmet sausage varieties, such as Cumberlands.
8. Pie, Mash, and Liquor
Pie, mash, and liquor is a London specialty, most likely to be found in cafes and pubs around the east of the city. Its origins stretch back to the 19th century when the river Thames was too polluted for fish, but eels were cheap and plentiful. So they were baked into pies, served with mashed potato, and smothered in the juice the eels had been cooked in.
You’ll be relieved to learn that the pies no longer contain eels – these days, they’re stuffed with minced beef. And the liquor doesn’t get its alarming fluorescent green color from eel juice but from fresh parsley.
You’ll find this iconic dish in any of east London’s pie and mash shops. The good news is that it’s not only eel-free, it’s delicious and makes for an intriguing “what I had for lunch” Insta post.
9. Bubble and Squeak
This humble family dish, which has been around since the 18th century, is made by forming a basic mixture of cabbage and mashed potato into patties then frying in butter or lard. In the beginning, meat was used in place of the mashed potato, but since WW2, when meat was strictly rationed, it has fallen out of favor somewhat.
Bubble and squeak was seen as a great way to use up any leftovers from the traditional Sunday dinner, so it was most often prepared by frugal housewives on Mondays and served for breakfast.
You’ll find it on menus across the UK, but if you’re looking for the last word on this staple, there’s a café in Amersham, northwest of London, that serves only bubble and squeak, prepared to the pinnacle of perfection.
10. Scotch Egg
After the names of the previous dishes that bear no resemblance to their ingredients, it may come as a relief to learn that a scotch egg is actually an egg. It just has no connection with Scotland!
Scotch Eggs were introduced to England by soldiers who’d enjoyed something similar in India – nargisi kofta.
The egg is hard-boiled, possibly covered with a layer of minced ham, then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried until crispy. Scotch eggs are an indispensable part of any British picnic, as they’re tasty and they’re always eaten cold.
These days you’ll find Scotch eggs in cafes, takeaways, supermarkets, and delicatessen counters across the UK as they’re a cheap and tasty snack food.
For the ultimate Scotch Egg experience, why not buy some from the upmarket Fortnum and Masons store on Piccadilly in London, where it’s claimed that the first ones were created in 1738 to sustain wealthy travelers on long carriage rides.
11. Jellied Eels
Ok, we’re back in London, and eels are on the menu again. Jellied eels are prepared by boiling chopped eels in a nutmeg and lemon juice stock until they dissolve into a gelatinous consistency.
They’re traditionally eaten cold and you’re unlikely to find them outside London and the seaside towns of the southeast.
If you’re taking a trip to the Northwest of England to visit Liverpool, birthplace of the Beatles, and a lively, cosmopolitan port city, why not try a plate of local Scouse? It’s a simple stew, a variation on working-class dishes found all over Europe, containing cheap and plentiful local ingredients.
Scouse is traditionally made with meat, potatoes, and carrots, then served with beetroot and pickled red cabbage on the side. However, these days vegetarians can request a “blind scouse” for a meat-free version.
You’ll find Scouse on pub menus all over the city. It’s even given the city’s residents their famous nickname – they’re known everywhere as ‘Scousers’.
First, laverbread isn’t bread. Laver is a kind of seaweed found in Wales. It’s gathered fresh from the seashore, then boiled and minced, and sometimes mixed with oatmeal before being fried.
You’ll find laverbread in upmarket cafes and restaurants in Wales, traditionally served with mushrooms, bacon, and sausages for breakfast. You may even find it spread on toast or with shellfish.
As you might expect, it has a naturally salty flavor, and the texture after boiling is quite mushy. If you need the motivation to try this unique local vegetable, remind yourself that, like most seaweed, it’s packed to the gills with essential nutrients. And, of course, it’s vegan.
14. Bacon Butties
Buttie is the slang term for a sandwich, and the term is most widely used in the North of England. And a simple bacon buttie is undoubtedly the king of sandwiches. Fresh, excellent quality bread, spread with salted butter and stuffed with newly fried bacon, makes the ultimate anytime snack. A slice of cooked tomato or some brown sauce are simple optional additions.
You’ll find bacon butties (aka bacon sarnies in the south) served in pubs, cafes, and roadside snack bars everywhere. Traditionally they’re accompanied by a giant mug of steaming tea made with milk.
15. Chicken Tikka Masala
Indian food is a British national obsession. A typical night of pubbing or clubbing has to end with a trip to the nearest Indian restaurant for a curry. Saturday night at home in front of the TV? Start the evening with a trip to the nearest Indian takeaway (or call for delivery) for a selection of spicy dishes that the whole family will love.
It may seem strange to include this dish that has its origins in the Indian subcontinent, but Chicken Tikka Masala is regularly voted as the nation’s favorite dish.
It’s often pointed out that it doesn’t exist in India and is dismissed by curry purists. The legend is that it was created in Glasgow, Scotland. When a customer complained that his chicken was too dry, an enterprising chef quickly whipped up a creamy, lightly spiced tomato sauce.
But there’s no doubt that Chicken Tikka Masala is a firm favorite with families, as even the fussiest kids love it. You’ll find it everywhere – in cafes, takeaways, Indian restaurants, and ready prepared in supermarkets.
16. Fish and Chips with Mushy Peas
Last but not least, a traditional dish with a straightforward name. We couldn’t finish without mentioning this true British classic. Fish and chip shops are not as common as they once were, but you’ll still find them in every town and city. You’ll find the freshest and best quality fish and chips in coastal towns, where the mouth-watering smell of frying fish permeates the air.
Mushy peas? You’ll find them served as accompaniments to many traditional British dishes. They’re large marrowfats, slowly cooked over low heat until they’re on the point of dissolving. Delicious and easy to prepare at home as a change from pert, bright-green cannonball peas.