It’s surprising how often you still hear people say that food in Britain is ‘terrible’ or ‘boring’. It’s a remark that’s usually a sign someone hasn’t been to the UK for quite a while.
We’re a few generations on from Second World War rationing. Global food distribution has long since transformed the variety of vegetables available in the UK and given how much the British embrace worldwide influences, it’s no wonder the British food scene is as exciting as it is.
If you really want to get to know how people in the UK eat and cook, I’ve selected a few recipes from some of Britain’s best chefs to start your culinary journey.
1. Steamed Pudding
Puddings are often steamed in the UK. Traditionally they involve self-raising flour, water and suet. The unusual use of suet as the fat is what gives the puddings their ethereal lightness. Yes, that’s right. Forget the cold stodgy bricks of so-called ‘pudding’ found in European cake shops. A proper steamed pudding should never be left around to get cold, for it will seize up. On the contrary, it should be eaten straightaway after turning it out of its steaming basin, its juices or syrup oozing into light, moist sponge.
Why not try Sussex Pond pudding – a dish first recorded in 1672. You’ll need a pudding basin and a large cooking pot.
Other favourite puddings to try at home or if you see them on a menu, are Treacle Pudding, Sticky Toffee Pudding, or – as a hearty winter main course if you’re feeling brave – Steak and Kidney Pudding.
2. Treacle tart
Treacle tart will seduce even those who claim not to have a sweet tooth. This recipe uses brown breadcrumbs, which I recommend (or even semi-wholemeal) so you don’t have to feel quite so guilty. Adding a bit of citrus cuts through the sugar; I love it with blood orange instead of lemon. Add some roughly chopped walnuts for some extra bite. Do-able with store cupboard ingredients, treacle tart is one of the world’s most more-ish things. Make this at your waistline’s peril.
3. Cream tea
Scones are having a bit of a moment. I’ve even seen them served up with a boiled egg for breakfast in Belgium, which is wrong for all kinds of reasons, not least, they don’t fit inside an egg.
Scones are meant for tea-time. I’m talking about the type of old-fashioned ‘afternoon tea’ that some people like to imagine people in the UK tucking into every day. (Spoiler: they don’t – but they so drink tea at all times of day and night). An afternoon tea or ‘cream tea’ on the other hand is usually served as a treat between 3pm and 6pm and involves plain or fruit scones smothered in butter, jam and clotted cream.
If you have never tried it, clotted cream is a dreamy confection made by thickening full cream cow’s milk and is traditionally made in the UK’s West Country. The order in which you pile your toppings onto your scone indicates whether you are pro the county of Devon or pro-Cornwall apparently.
Scones are incredibly easy to make. Add cream of tartar for lightness and don’t overwork the dough. The real question is, where are you going to get your clotted cream?
A lovely alternative to a scone is a Welsh cake, made with dried fruit and cooked on a griddle.
Yes, yes, you can call the British ‘rosbif’ all you like, but in fact curry regularly tops the list of the nation’s favourite dishes, a love going back to the British exploitation of spice routes out of India.
The first Indian curry house opened in 1810 in London and curry has been working its way up the popularity rankings ever since. Queen Victoria is known to have enjoyed chicken curry with dal and pilau. But it wasn’t until after the war when immigrant communities bought bombed out premises and began turning them into restaurants that served late night post-pub crowds that ‘curry night’ started to become the phenomenon it is today.
I recommend reading Camellia Panjabi, particularly 50 Great Curries of India. She introduces all the main ingredients of the curry pantry, explains what the ingredients do and offers up a selection of approachable authentic recipes, from ‘homestyle’ to more hi-falutin dishes. This sweet, sour and hot curry is one of my favourites, and can be made with prawns as suggested, or fish, or chicken or veg. Because preparing the spices is one of the more time-consuming parts of making a curry, it’s worth making up a jar of the dried spice powders for your favourite recipe in the right proportions, so you always have some ready.
5. Smoked fish pie
Everybody knows about the UK’s love of battered fish and chips but smoked fish is also a beloved delicacy across the Channel. In coastal resorts like Aldeborough in Suffolk, smokery huts sit along the seafront selling direct to the public. Smoked fish pie is often made with haddock, but you can use any kind of smoked fish. A creamy, parsley sauce takes the edge off the smoke, sometimes with cheese, and is topped with buttery mashed potatoes, then baked. Heaven.
6. Shepherd’s Pie
Shepherd’s Pie is another potato-topped pie and could be seen as the British moussaka. A rich lamb ragout, traditionally made with leftover Sunday Roast meat for household economy, it is topped with buttery mash and baked until bubbling, golden and crunchy. Similar to a French ‘hachis parmentier’ (but humbler and better of course).
7. Cornish Pasties
For a meat pie made with dough, not potato, you can’t get much more British than a Cornish pasty. Sturdier than a chausson and larger than a Latino empanada, these classic meat turnovers were often taken into the fields or mines by workers. Sometimes they even had the main course in one end and a fruit dessert in the other (don’t worry this is rarely seen these days).
Pasties are wrapped in a flaky or shortcrust pastry, the ‘thick’ end of which served as something to hold on to when you were eating with dirty hands. The trick if you’re making a pasty is to understand the importance of swede (also known as Swedish turnip or Rutabaga). This sweet earthy winter vegetable, considered cattle fodder in many countries, adds authentic flavour to a Cornish pasty. Plenty of pepper is needed too. When the short-lived swede season happens in Europe, I rush to the markets to stock up. It’s just not a pasty otherwise.
8. Jerk chicken
Jerk flavours came to the UK with communities from the Caribbean. These days at festivals and on high streets around the country, you’ll find restaurants and street food vendors cooking up a storm on the barbecue with chicken legs smothered in signature scotch bonnet chilli heat, all spice berries, lime, sugar, spring onions and thyme. The classic accompaniment for jerk chicken is fried plantain or rice and ‘peas’ (kidney beans) cooked with coconut milk and aromatics. Note: the jerk recipe shown here does not use nearly enough scotch bonnet in my opinion but adapt it to your taste. Once you’ve found a jerk sauce or rub that you love to eat, it’s worth making it up in big batches, so you’re only ever one marinade away from lip-smacking barbecue goodness.
9. Scotch Egg
Scotch eggs are a classic picnic or buffet food. You can buy them in almost every corner shop or supermarket and many pubs, but they are extra delicious when home made. Like a luxurious croquette, it involves a medium soft boiled egg bundled in sausage meat, breadcrumbed and fried.
Seaweed or dulse is traditional fayre all over the island of Ireland, with many varieties of local recipes, including in Northern Ireland. And as Irish mussels are some of the best in the world, why not try this mussel dish made with dulse. Dulse bread is delicious too.