British Food: In Defence of a Defeated Cuisine

uk flag on creased paper

I’ve grown up on British food, but I’ve had the fortune of meeting and working with chefs from across the world. Many of them have shared their tips and secrets behind the foods of their homelands. Rarely have any of them shared the same passion for the culinary traditions of their adopted country, Britain. For them, it was a non-entity, a joke, a culture of ridicule. Yet, speak to a Brit, and they’ll celebrate the memory of the comfort foods of youthful days.

British chefs revel in the magic of homegrown British produce, which they use to turn pub food into gourmet experiences. Yet, the rest of the world thinks British food is bland, stodgy, and always overcooked. It’s brown, dull, and unappealing. It’s unhealthy, fatty, and devoid of any nutritional value. The pinnacle of British culinary ingenuity is the combination of meat and two veg. A nothing meal, boiled vegetables, roasted meat, and a thin gravy. Where is the excitement? But indeed, there’s more to this country’s cuisine, a food culture I’ve grown up with and still love for all its different complexities.

cooked meat on white ceramic plate
Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on

What Is Traditional British Food?

To pinpoint what British food is quite tricky. Numerous countries make up the island of Britain, and each has its own varying culinary traditions. The nations of the United Kingdom include England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. The Republic of Ireland, an independent country, still forms part of the British Isles and shares a few similar culinary ideas with the UK.

Foreign foods have become synonymous with British cuisine due to immigration from former British colonies. The most famous example of this is the British classic Chicken Tikka Masala. Still, traditional sausages and cheddar cheese remain an ever-present and popular mainstay in the modern cultural landscape. English food is strongly associated with roasted and stewed meats, often served beneath pastry or potatoes in some form of a pie.

Britain’s culinary reputation sits rock bottom of the cuisine pyramid. Yet, it’s given the world several fantastic cheeses, such as cheddar, Caerphilly, double Gloucester, Stilton, and Wensleydale, to name but a few. Strawberries grown in the UK are deliciously sweet, and families gather to pick local strawberries fresh from the ground. The country produces the best rhubarb, and the full English Breakfast is a meal fit for a medieval feast.

Scotland produces whisky with flavours ranging from sweet to smoky, with notes of every ingredient imaginable from a single grain. The English make beer and cider with tasting notes to match. Gin combines aromatic spices to create a spirit loved across the world. So, if we can do all that with one ingredient and ingenuity, where does this reputation come from?

Toad in the Hole made with English Ale
Toad in the Hole with English Ale

Where Did This Reputation Come From?

The war. Well, maybe the war. France was invaded during the war, fell to the nazis, and split into two different regions and still tops the culinary league table. So, what separated Britain from the rest of Europe and the world since their food traditions remained?

Desperate to boost its war effort, Britain implemented national rationing during the war. Every person living in Britain was issued a ration book, allowing them to exchange the prescribed items in shops. Some of the rationed foods were excessively so, resulting in a change to the national diet. Meat was limited and would be bulked out with vegetables grown at home due to the Dig for Victory campaign. This campaign promoted homegrown produce as it was cheaper to grow vegetables. It allowed more people to devote their time to the war effort. However, the British tradition of boiling may have come about due to the lack of fats on sale at the time. Water, however, was available at the twist of a tap.

The Americans entered the war and made the problem worse. The visiting American soldiers didn’t take too kindly the local foods, missing the comforts of a homeland free of rationing. The rumours of Britain’s bland diets may have started here, but it’s impossible to say it began with the Americans. Still, it’s fair to say that their modern counterparts share the same belief in British food’s reputation.

British Food in a New World

Rationing in the UK continued into the 1950s while war-ravaged Britain recovered. In fact, after the war, rationing increased. Bread wasn’t rationed during the war but was put on ration cards in 1946. This further reduced the number of foods available to British home cooks. The idea of the British boiled meat and two veg was becoming a new normal as it was all that could be created consistently. Even then, meat wasn’t always available, resulting in a further reliance on potatoes and other root vegetables.

Baby Carrots with Mint & Lemon

But the end of rationing wasn’t all dinner parties and afternoon teas. Britain struggled financially, the empire hung in ruins, half of Europe found itself sealed behind an Iron Curtain, and everything, including international trade, had become expensive. The old traditions of venturing into the world and returning with Indian spices and American vegetables had long disappeared. Now, our little island relied on ingredients it could primarily obtain at home.

However, trade and travel boomed during the fifties and sixties as more people ventured abroad to discover delicious foreign foods. Immigration boomed, and with it came a host of new foods for the locals to enjoy. Chinese, Indian, Kebabs and American Burgers left the old prewar British traditions to die as a more exciting period started, the period of food immigration. Where once British expats brought their mismatched versions of foreign dishes such as kedgeree, now immigrants were doing it for us to suit our tastes, giving rise to new British classics such as the chicken tikka masala.

And things only got worse.

French chefs took over fine dining, with every restaurant serving French haute cuisine. These meals were packed with butter and cream, further alienating the new British tradition of boiling or frying using lard. French food became the new holy grail of the British food scene. At the same time, our Friday night takeaways were dominated by the multitude of Chinese and Indian restaurants, slowly overlooking the traditional Friday night battered fish. The best British food and whatever else was left, our reputation remained confined to our homes.

Was British Food Culture Always Like This?

Modern Britain has changed its culinary perception through top-quality restaurants and eateries. Cooks across the country seek to restore Britain’s culinary heritage. Top restaurants and chefs promote local British produce and celebrate our meat, cheese, and regional takes on once-foreign concepts such as wine. These modern British celebrators know only too well how good the British culinary reputation once was and now seek to reinvent it.

British cuisine was once highly regarded. Medieval cooks were revered for their proficiency in the art of roasting meats. Roasted meats may have been reserved for the rich at fancy banquets. Still, these banquets, potentially the precursor to the Sunday lunch, were the envy of the known world.

It was a reputation so respected the French called us “Le Rosbifs” or “the roast beefs.” Some argue this name may have been meant to be derogatory. Still, it’s like referring to the French as “frogs’ legs” or as “having garlic breath.” Demeaning as these terms may be, they seem to harbour envy as frogs’ legs are a delicacy in French fine dining, and garlic has become everyone’s favourite little bulb, thanks to garlic bread.

But it wasn’t just roasted meats.

British cooks had gained a reputation for their bread, their stews that were perfect winter warmers in the cold British winters, pies encased in pastry or potatoes such as a cottage pie or Lancashire hot pots, and their desserts.

Nowadays, British food can seem a little weird. Yet, beneath its strange names, rustic appearances, and simple methods lies a cuisine steeped in tradition, economical choices, and, above all else, comfort. After all, to be British has always been about making do. I mean, what can be more comforting after finding yourself caught in torrential rain again, for the third time in four days than a large bowl of lamb stew, a large scoop of cottage pie with creamy mashed potatoes, or a quick serving of the oddly named toad in the hole. And that’s before we’ve even got to pudding.

Mashed Potato
Mashed Potato

A Thoroughly Great British Food Menu

British food has had a bad reputation, often cited as being bland and boring. Yet, while our food may lack the vibrant colours of Mediterranean cuisines, British food still has some culinary classics that bring pure joy and comfort since it’s a cuisine that was built on survival and celebration. There are plenty of dishes that I’ve enjoyed growing up and still want to eat to this day. These dinners still reign supreme for me, my family, and many of my friends and their families.

Here’s an example of 6 of them.
  • Full English Breakfast – Kicking the list off with the most important meal of the day, the full English breakfast. Traditionally, it includes bacon, sausage, black pudding, eggs, toast, tomatoes, and occasionally mushrooms. It’s the perfect way to start the day if you don’t mind consuming your daily calories in one sitting. I’ve limited the list to five, but it could last forever.
  • Cottage Pie – A cottage pie makes the perfect winter warmer. Stewed minced beef and vegetables are topped with creamy mashed potatoes and cooked until the top has browned. When cooked properly, the mash becomes crispy outside with a light and fluffy underlayer. Another popular version is made with lamb and is known as Shepherd’s pie.
  • Fish & Chips – Everyone associates British cuisine with fish and chips, yet our reputation continues to suffer. Cod or haddock coated in a deliciously crispy batter, then deep fried. It’s then what we lovingly refer to as chip shop chips, which aren’t often crispy but are perfect for smothering in malt vinegar. Other accompaniments include tartare sauce and mushy peas.
  • Chicken Tikka Masala – This may not appear as traditionally British initially. Yet, legend is that it was born in a Glaswegian curry house. It refers to Britain’s dark imperial past and shows Britain’s love for its former colony’s cuisines.
  • Roast Beef & Yorkshire Pudding – As stated earlier, the French call us “le Rosbifs”, but I don’t know the French for Yorkshire pudding. A Yorkshire is a batter-based pudding, traditionally made with beef dripping, but this has become less common. Nowadays, Yorkshire Puddings are served with all types of roasts, not just beef.
And then, Dessert
  • Eton Mess – Not everything on this list involves heavy main courses. Eton mess is an old English classic named after a famous college in Eton. It’s made with crushed meringues and British strawberries, an ingredient synonymous with Britain and all its phenomenal produce.
Beef & Ale Cottage Pie with Garden Peas
Beef & Ale Cottage Pie
So, British food has a terrible, unjust reputation.

It’s based on our suffering during the war and beyond. Much of this reputation comes from our own doing; we may have brought it on ourselves. My parents used to boil their vegetables before putting the joint of meat in the oven, so maybe the outsiders have a point.

However, the small list above highlights a few great British classics and says nothing of toad in the hole, a whole range of pies, beef wellington, Lancashire hot pot, potted shrimps, pork pies, scotch eggs, and beyond. This list could be endless, but I doubt its length would change anyone’s mind about British cuisine. However, my heart remains firmly planted in the realm of the supposedly unhealthy, dull, yet comforting.

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