Whenever the issue of English food comes up in class, I’m always entertained as my students describe the awfulness of the food that they were served on a trip to the UK (“Que asco!”, “Era como comida de gato”, etc.).
I’m also a little confused. Having spent years of my life living in England, I have only the fondest of memories of delicious pies, spicy curries and creamy desserts. So what is it that provokes such horror in my students? I have a feeling that, rather than being related to the actual food my students ate in England, their reaction has more to do with the terrible reputation of typical English food. Some suggest that this infamy originated during World War 2, when it was difficult to find fresh, varied food in the UK. Unfortunately, the historical bad reputation has stuck, despite being a clear myth in modern-day England, which is now home to many of the world’s best chefs and restaurants. Read on for some unmissable dishes which show the delicious reality of English cuisine.
This must be the most typical, and ceremonial, of all English dishes. It consists of roast meat (usually beef), roast potatoes, vegetables (perhaps carrots, broccoli, or peas - or even all three!), gravy, and of course a Yorkshire Pudding (a small, circular pastry). The famous "roast" is the typical meal for family gatherings at lunchtime on a Sunday or on other special days. There are many small variations on a roast dinner but all involve serving a mini-mountain of food on one plate. After such a large lunch, a short nap on the sofa is entirely necessary, meaning the roast is actually a really effective way to avoid family arguments on a Sunday afternoon
It’s not surprising that the English would be so fond of curry. First, there’s the English love of spice (anybody who’s tried a red-hot English mustard would agree with this idea). Second, there’s the huge population of English Brits whose family origins are in India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. In fact, some people argue that certain curries (like Chicken Tikka Masala) originated in Asian communities in the UK itself. While many types of curries are popular in England, recent surveys show that general tastes are growing ever spicier. The most popular curry these days is Jalfrezi, which involves marinated meat or fish, lots of spices, tomatoes and of course, hot green chili.
Ever seen the famous musical Sweeney Todd? It’s a delightfully horrific tale of two murderers who chop up their victims to make delicious meat pies for their unsuspecting customers at their pie shop in Victorian London. Well, don’t worry, English people don’t (usually) eat human flesh. They do, however, love pies. English pies can be sweet, vegetarian, or filled with meat. The most famous is probably Steak and Kidney Pie. As you can imagine from the name, this is a big round pastry, filled with steak, kidney, mushrooms and sauce and then baked in the oven. A delicious, hearty feast and the perfect accompaniment to a nice pint of beer.
Fish n’ chips
It’s not just a stereotype for tourists, fish and chips is actually a popular dish in England. In fact, most towns and neighbourhoods have their local chipper or chippy, which is usually a small shop where people queue up to buy take-away fish n chips (or sometimes chips with chicken, chips with sausages, even the infamous chip sandwich known as a chip butty). As the name suggests, fish n chips consists of deep-fried fish like cod or haddock with deep-fried potatoes and is often accompanied by mushy peas, tartar sauce, coleslaw (cabbage with mayonnaise), or even - you’ve guessed it - curry sauce. You can expect to find huge queues at the chipper late at night. Most pubs close before midnight, meaning that the chipper is the perfect place to satisfy hunger pangs after a few drinks.
When it comes to home-cooking, a recent survey showed that the stir-fry is the most popular dish in the UK with one in five British people claiming to eat it at least once a week. Originating from Chinese cuisine, variations on the stir-fry are popular in England because it’s such a tasty, simple dish. You just need a wok to quickly fry some vegetables (like onion, peppers, broccoli, etc.) and possibly some meat or tofu with spices (like ginger, garlic, etc.) and a sauce (often soy sauce). Usually served with rice, the stir-fry is a meal that can be prepared for all the family in a matter of minutes while still being packed with nutrients due to all those crunchy, fresh vegetables. Click here for our post about simple dishes which even younger members of the family can prepare.
If the stir-fry is at one end of the health spectrum, the fry-up is surely at the other. Also known as the full English breakfast, the fry-up is a combination of fatty foods that would give your cardiologist a panic attack. Sausages, bacon, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, baked beans, buttered toast … the exact contents of the fry-up are open to suggestion, as long as they include copious amounts of fat and salt. In previous generations, the fry-up was thought of as the healthiest way to start the day as it provided so many calories. These days, people eat fry-ups less frequently but the dish is still popular and is seen by many as the perfect way to start a cold winter’s day, especially when combined with a piping hot cup of tea.
Ok, the sandwich isn’t exactly a dish. But how could we not include it in a list about English food? In England, the sandwich is more than a quick snack, it is an institution. A recent survey showed that England’s most sandwich-obsessed city is Leeds, where people eat an average of twenty sandwiches a month (so basically, one a day from Monday to Friday). Before you roll your eyes and judge, let’s remember that sandwiches in England tend to be more substantial than two slices of bread and some ham. Any sandwich shop will offer a huge variety of breads, meats, cheeses, fish, relishes (pickled vegetables), and salads. Sandwiches often contain various different ingredients and can even be double-deckers, like London’s buses.
Sticky toffee pudding
One of the most-watched TV shows in the UK is called The Great British Bake Off, in which contestants compete with each other to see who can create the most delicious cakes and desserts. The show’s popularity is a measure of the nation’s level of obsession with pudding (the name which the English use to refer to all desserts). One of the most mouth-watering is undoubtedly Sticky Toffee Pudding. This is a sweet sponge cake made from finely-chopped dates and slowly baked in the oven with a sticky toffee sauce. It’s usually then served with a topping of fresh cream and/or custard. Don’t spend too much time counting calories for this one, just try to convince yourself that cramming your mouth with delicious, warm sponge is necessary for survival in that harsh English weather.
One final point to mention is the sheer diversity of food in England. A trip to any English supermarket will show you the huge choice that exists for all tastes and diets, whether you’re looking for vegetarian, gluten-free, halal, kosher, or whatever your requirements. So the next time you travel to England, forget those out-dated notions of dry, tasteless dishes. Find a nice pub or restaurant, open your mind, and then your mouth, and before you know it you’ll be coming back to Spain with dreams of becoming the next Jamie Oliver.