If British food has come in for a bit of mockery over the years, it isn’t because the recipes are wrong. It’s because they’re misunderstood.
We call sausages “toads.” We cover offal in gravy, wrap it in pastry and call it a “pudding.” We eat eels! Real, no foolin’ eels!
None of it really makes sense to the casual observer. But that’s just one of the things that makes British cuisine so special, whether it be from any of the four corners of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Eating British food is not just eating. It is a surrealist expedition into a magical parallel universe that will challenge almost everything your eyes, your palate and your gut know to be right and proper.
These are some of the classic British dishes:
We’re not about to claim that we’re the only nation that eats eggs and fried pork products in some form for breakfast.
But we would humbly suggest that we’ve taken the whole notion of the “cooked breakfast” to more ambitious places than anyone else would probably dare.
A proper British fry-up requires more than a plate. It requires a vast platter capable of accommodating not just predictable eggs and banal bacon but their exotic cousins: kidneys, fried bread, a sausage made entirely of blood (see black pudding, below) and a concoction of leftover potatoes and vegetables that we inexplicably call “bubble and squeak.”
See also: The Full Scottish.
Pudding, for you non-Brits, is what we in the UK call dessert. But the Yorkshire pudding is a liar.
It looks all puffy and mouthwatering like a pudding, right? But don’t let its friendly appearance fool you. It is not a pudding at all. Like 95% of all British cuisine, it is comprised entirely of eggs, flour, milk and fat.
Before Prozac arrived, this was often the best available alternative.
Exactly the same as the above recipe but with sausages and therefore 3.7 times tastier.
Despite the name, there’s no mistaking this one for a dessert. It’s a sausage made out of blood. Congealed blood. And oats.
The trick to eating this successfully is to shut your eyes and try not to think or breathe. That way it’s actually quite exquisite.
They gave you this in English schools in the ’70s and ‘80s when Margaret Thatcher ruled the land with a fist of iron. In fact, it might have even been her idea.
Spotted dick is a dense and delicious combination of sugar, flour, currants and the raw, shredded fat found around the loins and kidneys of a sheep. And if that’s not sophisticated enough, it is traditionally drenched in the national beverage: custard.
Imagine the biggest slug you’ve ever seen. Then imagine eating it.
A glorious way – no, the only way – to consume as many carbs as possible in one meal. Pastry on the bottom, a different type of pastry on the top, unidentifiable flesh in the middle and a tsunami of mashed potatoes.
Another national dish built upon a tissue of lies. Not a pie but a gigantic swamp of brown meat and gravy hidden beneath a thick blanket of mashed potato. Excessive consumption of this dish risks triggering a neurological condition known as “mash psychosis.”
By which we mean, fish sticks, oven-cooked french fries and canned beans in tomato sauce.
By the age of 16, the average British child will have eaten this dish 4,160 times.
Gone to a friend’s house for dinner? Fish fingers, chips and beans. Got a friend round for dinner? Fish fingers, chips and beans. Mom and dad had a few drinks again? Fish fingers, chips and beans.
Proust had his madeleines. The Brits have oven chips and frozen sticks of reconstituted haddock.
An egg wrapped in a sausage. What could be better except maybe …
A sausage wrapped in an egg (and various other ingredients that make up pastry).
Can’t decide on dessert? Let trifle solve the conundrum. Layer one pudding on top of another pudding on top of another and cover it all with whipped cream.
For good measure, douse the whole thing in fortified wine then chuck on a bunch of brightly colored sprinkles and a cherry.
Brits will put a cherry on top of anything and call it dessert.
The heroin of desserts. In some upper-class areas of Britain, you can’t move for the aristocrats passed out in the gutter having overdosed on this intoxicating mixture of meringue, cream and fruit.
How do you like your steak? Medium rare and served with peppercorn sauce? Gently seared with a crisp green salad on the side?
Or perhaps the way that the Queen of England (probably) preferred it during her long life: cut into chunks, combined with the vital organs of a sheep and stuffed inside a gigantic bucket of pastry?
In China, it’s fried with egg. In Japan, it’s served cold with raw fish. There’s only one way we serve our rice in Britain: overcooked and drowned in milk and sugar..
A rolled up cake made of shredded fat filled with jam. Something like this could only be conjured from the imagination of a nation that also gave you The Beatles, the World Wide Web and fox hunting.
Nothing – not the Union Jack flag, not the White Cliffs of Dover, not the BBC, not even the chilling sight of Cliff Richard singing at Wimbledon – is as British as fish and chips.
Everything about this greasy delight is British, from the cod, caught in cold Atlantic waters off the coast of Iceland, to the potatoes, originally cultivated by native Americans and first brought to Europe by the Spanish. All deep fried in oil, imported from, among other places, Latin America.
Traditionally, served wrapped in newspaper, you’re nowadays more likely to have it dished up in a carcinogenic, non-recyclable box. Yum.
History will probably one day reveal that the English Civil War of 1642-1651 was started by two idiots who couldn’t agree on whether the jam or cream went on the scone first.
This is still a cause of division in the country that makes our bickering over Brexit seem tame and reasonable by comparison.
Was it the 18th-century literary giant Dr. Johnson who said that when a man is tired of Christmas pudding, he is tired of life? That said, Johnson suffered terribly from gout.
We stole plants from China and India, sailed all the way back home, dried them, crushed them, drowned them in boiling water then mixed the whole thing with milk and sugar.
We now delude ourselves that there isn’t a crisis that can’t be resolved simply by brewing up a pot of tea.
This story was originally published in 2019. It was updated and republished in June 2023.