In general terms, British cuisine has a bad reputation. Some people think there are almost no traditional dishes in the UK, or that it’s only about fish and chips and full English breakfast, and maybe some tea with chocolate brownies.
However; although they don’t have a deep cuisine tradition such as in France, Italy or Spain, they do have a few traditional dishes worth trying, as follows.
This would be my number 1 recommendation for a traditional British dish. After living for nearly 10 years in the UK, a tasty and warm roast accompanied by a real/cask ale is one of the most enjoyable things to eat on a Sunday (especially in winter).
It consists of roasted meat (chicken, pork, beef or lamb), roast or mash potato, and accompaniments such as Yorkshire pudding (see bottom left on the picture above), stuffing, bread and mint sauce, roasted vegetables (normally carrots, parsnip and more) and gravy.
“Cask ale or cask-conditioned beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised beer which is conditioned (including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure.” [Wikiedia] The absence of that extra pressure is the reason for those different drafts and the need for pulling a few times when serving.
Visit our Best Sunday Roasts in London Islington post for some good recommendations in North London (N1 area).
Full English Breakfast
A Full English Breakfast is a substantial breakfast meal that typically includes bacon, sausages, eggs, black pudding, baked beans, hash browns, tomatoes and mushrooms, and it is often served with a beverage such as coffee or tea and toasts.
This is probably the most popular dish on the list, as it is normally served everywhere, including pubs, coffee shops and hotels (sometimes outside the UK as well). Most of the times there are a few variations that can be ordered, including vegetarian.
Fish and Chips
This is the most popular traditional meal associated with the United Kingdom. It was originated in England in the 1860s and nowadays there are more than 10,000 shops in the UK.
You can find anywhere. To have an idea of its popularity, the British government safeguarded the supply of fish and chips during World War I and World War II; it was one of the few foods in the UK not subject to rationing.
It is simply fried fish in batter served with chips. The most common types of fish are cod and haddock, but vendors also sell many other kinds of fish, especially other white fish, such as pollock, hake or coley, plaice, skate, and ray (particularly popular in Ireland); and huss or rock salmon (a term covering several species of dogfish and similar fish).
My favourite place in London to have fish and chips is Rock and Sole in Covent Garden.
Steak and Kidney pie
Steak and kidney pie is another British favourite, available in most pubs and traditional restaurants along the UK. It’s a savoury pie that is filled principally with a mixture of diced beef, diced kidney (often of beef, lamb, or pork), fried onion, and brown gravy.
The gravy typically consists of salted beef broth flavoured with Worcestershire sauce and black pepper and thickened with refined flour, beurre manié, or corn starch. It may also contain ale or stout.
Pis are normally served with mash potatoes and liquor, but variations can include roasted vegetables or pea mash. Liquor is a savoury, non-alcoholic parsley sauce. It was originally made with eel water.
Unfortunately, this traditional food is losing popularity and some historic shops have closed, such as F Cooke on Broadway Market, M Manze in Islington, A.J. Goddard in Deptford, and Nathan’s, near West Ham’s former Boleyn Ground stadium.
My favourite pie shop is G Kelly, established in 1939, a real institution in East London.
A Scotch egg consists of a soft or hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated in bread crumbs and baked or deep-fried. They were apparently created in 1809 by Maria Rundell.
They are quite popular all along the UK and can be found in most street markets, and in plenty of coffee shops as well.
Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead. It’s normally served with mash potatoes and salad.
It became Scotland’s national dish with the publication of Robert Burn’ poem Address to Haggis in 1787.
One good place to try Haggis in Edinburgh is The Royal Mcgregor pub.
Shepherd’s or Cottage Pie
Shepherd’s pie (lamb) or Cottage pie (ground/minced beef) is a meat pie with a crust or topping of mashed potato.
The recipe has many variations, but the defining ingredients are minced red meat (“cottage pie” refers to beef filling and “shepherd’s pie” refers to lamb), cooked in a gravy or sauce with onions and sometimes other vegetables, such as peas, celery or carrots, and topped with a layer of mashed potato before it is baked. The pie is sometimes also topped with grated cheese to create a layer of melted cheese on top.
This dish is also popular in other countries where it is known by different names. For instance, it’s “Pastel de papa” in Argentina, “Hachis Parmentier in France and “Filosoof” in the Netherlands.
Afternoon Tea is more of a ritual or activity than an actual meal, but it can also be considered a British tradition. It was introduced in Britain in the early 1840s and has evolved as a traditional activity performed by locals and tourists.
The meal itself is composed of small sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, sweet pastries and cakes. Tea is also included, of course, but some of them can include Champagne or Prosecco as well.
There are plenty of places where you can get Afternoon Tea, especially in London. Normally you need to book in advance and some places may even require a dress code. Some traditional hotels are popular for this, such as The Savoy and The Ritz. Harrods also offered the service.
For a good compilation of places in London visit this post. For bookings, you can use this website. And some recommended tours including Afternoon Tea are:
- London: Afternoon Tea Cruise on the River Thames
- London: Kensington Palace Gardens Tour with Royal High Tea
Toad in the Hole
Toad in the hole or Sausage Toad is a traditional English dish consisting of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter, usually served with onion gravy and vegetables. Historically, the dish has also been prepared using other meats, such as rump steak and lamb’s kidney.
The look of the dish resembles a toad poking its head out of a hole, and that’s where it gets its name from.
The Cornish pasty is the most famous food in the English county of Cornwall. It is made “by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one half of a flat shortcrust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.”
The traditional Cornish pasty has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in Europe since 2011. It is filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (also known as a turnip) and onion, seasoned with salt and pepper and is baked.
They are easily found all along with the UK. Most train stations have at least one shop selling them.
If you are interested in Cornwall, visit our post Discover Cornwall by a 4-day trip from London.
Beef Wellington is a preparation of filet steak coated with pâté and duxelles, which is then wrapped in parma ham and puff pastry, then baked. Some recipes include wrapping the coated meat in a crêpe to retain the moisture and prevent it from making the pastry soggy.
It is available in restaurants and in all supermarkets such as Tesco, Waitrose and M&S. And you can also find vegetarian and fish variations, the latter normally with pink salmon.
The origin of the name is unclear, with no definite connection to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.