In the old days, British cuisine was an oxymoron. One did not come to the UK for the food or the weather. While the weather hasn’t improved, food culture is alive and well in the UK, with great restaurants, food shops and markets abounding. Chefs such as Michel Roux Jr., Monica Galetti, Marcus Wareing, Tom Kerridge, and not to mention Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are all over Britain’s television schedules, and their cookbooks line shelves. Popular TV shows include competitions such as MasterChef and The Great British Bake-Off.
If you go to Scotland, traditional foods to try include haggis, potato (or tattie ) scone, black pudding, tablet or clootie dumplings. Fish, lamb and game such as wood pigeon and venison are also great (if you are not a vegetarian).
There is a curious supermarket culture in the UK. One’s class (and income) historically determined where one shopped. The recent arrival of discount German supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi, along with on-line delivery services such as Ocado, has changed this a bit. The old hierarchy was: Waitrose and Marks & Spencer (though is in a bit of a financial pinch these days), then Sainsbury’s and Tesco, then Morrisons, and Iceland. “Overheard at Waitrose” (https://www.facebook.com/overheardinwaitrose?fref=ts) makes the most of it, mocking some of the pretentious statements made by shoppers. Whole Foods has come to London, and it is very expensive, but sometimes you need a dose of American food during your time abroad. Do be careful venturing in around Thanksgiving, it can get fierce in the turkey aisle.
As foreigners, feel free to disregard all class markers and shop where you like (Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are more expensive generally, but look out for their discounted sale stickers on food). You will have no trouble finding vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free food, though supermarket supplies will vary. Check the markets in Chinatown for tofu, bulk rice, sesame oil and vegetables. You can also easily find Kosher or Halal food in the UK, though smaller cities might require more looking.
A-Z of British Food
Aubergine: An eggplant
Bakewell tart: A baked open pie consisting of a pastry case lined with jam and filled with almond sponge cake.
Biscuit: For the British, ‘biscuit’ covers everything from cookies to crackers… but never the same as what an American means by biscuit!
Black pudding: A sausage containing pork and dried pig’s blood. Not for the squeamish but fans of black pudding argue that it’s an indispensable part of a Full English breakfast.
Cheese: Good cheese is much cheaper in the UK than at home, so now’s the time to go for it! Try a mild and crumbly Wensleydale or a tangy Cheddar from Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Blue cheese lovers may like to try some British stilton!
Chutney: A relish/pickle, basically. Essential accompaniment with your cheese.
Coronation chicken: Created to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II! A cold chicken dish made with mayonnaise, dried fruit and mild curry powder, often found in sandwiches.
Cranachan: Scottish dessert usually made from a mixture of whipped cream, whisky, honey and fresh raspberries, with toasted oatmeal.
Crumble: A dessert a bit like a cobbler, sometimes using oatmeal in the sweet topping to the fruit.
Curry: One of the dishes which Britain does best! In fact, Britain’s favourite dish is said to be Chicken Tikka Masala—a dish adapted from an Indian classic to suit the British palate and taste for plenty of sauce with our meat. For the best curries, try Brick Lane in London or so-called ‘Curry Mile’ in Manchester or the Golden Mile in Leicester.
Custard: You’ll find plenty of hot custard ladled on top of most traditional British desserts, particularly if you’re eating in the canteen of any educational establishment.
Eton mess: A summer dessert which combines crushed meringues, whipped cream and fruit. Commonly believed to have originated at the elite school, Eton.
Fish and chips: One of Britain’s favourite dishes, although whether or not we invented it is another—controversial!—story. Your chips should be short and fat and covered in malt vinegar—the batter should be crispy and golden. Be sure to go to a proper fish and chip shop and ideally somewhere near the sea—an overpriced pub in central London is no place to have your fish and chips experience!
Full English/ fry up: A dish close to many British hearts… and I don’t just mean because all that fried food tends to cling to our arteries (although that too, frankly). Ideas of what should go into a fry up vary but it usually includes variations on eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, toast and lashings of tea. In Scotland you might get a bit of haggis with it, in Northern Ireland a potato scone. Whatever the combination, people say that it’s a great way to see off a hangover…
Gravy- The French have historically accused the English of having ‘only one sauce’, and this is it! A dark brown sauce usually made with meat stock and a key part of your Sunday roast dinner. Please note, mentioning white gravy will confuse and disturb the average British person.
Jam—What Americans call jelly.
Jelly—What Americans call jello.
Joint—Yes yes, this could mean a marijuana cigarette, but don’t be alarmed–it’s also the term for a large piece of meat cooked all in one piece, the sort of thing the British might eat with roast potatoes and vegetables on a Sunday. Presumably if someone offers you a joint you’ll be able to tell which it is from context.
Leeks—Now if I’ve got this right, Americans call these green onions…? Anyway, national vegetable of Wales so make sure you don’t scorn them if you’re venturing over there!
Marmite—A divisive spread! It’s a viscous, dark brown substance made from yeast extract, which doesn’t sound great I’ll admit. But if you’re a Marmite lover like me, you’ll consider this stuff so essential that you’ll pack a small jar if you have to leave the country. Best spread (very) thinly on buttered toast but also a good base for a vegetarian broth.
Mince pies—Not quite what it sounds like. Mince pies feature absolutely no minced meat although, vegetarians please note, they sometimes feature suet. It’s a sweet treat eaten only at Christmas time, made from apples, raisins and brown sugar. A little mince pie hot from the oven and dusted with icing sugar is a beautiful thing.
Porridge: Oatmeal. English people add sugar but those sturdy Scots argue that it’s a salty dish.
Pudding: Another of those deceptive terms with a much more elastic meaning than you might anticipate! Pudding can be used to refer to any dessert—you can have a chocolate mousse for your ‘pudding’, for example. But it’s also what we call a heavy, steamed savoury pie with a spongy crust like a steak and kidney pudding. Don’t worry, even we don’t put sweet ingredients and kidneys in the same puddings.
Roast dinner: Traditional fare for Sundays! Roast meat, roast potatoes, plenty of gravy and maybe even a Yorkshire Pudding or two. Try a bit of horseradish with a nice bit of medium rare beef. Roast dinners have become fashionable again recently and you’ll find sophisticated versions in gastro pubs, with some good vegetarian alternatives on offer too.
Roly-poly pudding: A heavy jam and pastry dessert, the sort of thing British people ate to get them through the war years!
Spotted dick: You’ll catch British people sniggering at the unfortunate name of this dish too, but there’s no changing it now—it’s tradition! This steamed pudding with currants in it is served hot with lots of custard.
Toad in the hole: No toads were hurt in the making of this dish. It’s actually made from sausage and Yorkshire pudding.
Yorkshire pudding: One of those savoury puddings I warned you about! Its really more like batter, or a puffed up savoury pancake. Great for soaking up the gravy of your Sunday roast.