Seen by many other nations as bland and stodgy, we seem to get a lot of stick for our cuisine here in the UK. Although some of it may be a bit on the stodgy side, I wouldn’t say it is bland and it certainly isn’t lacking in flavour. It’s just different horses for different courses. In hotter countries, with the sun beating down, the last thing you need is a huge steaming plate of food that will lie heavy on the stomach. Simple lighter meals accompanied by salad are a much more sensible option. But in the UK, a country often blighted by the cold and rain, Brits yearn for food that is going to make us feel snug and cozy. We are more likely to shy away from the healthy option, going instead for food that will give us a warm loving hug.
Just for the banter, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favourite British meals. Leaving your belly feeling satisfied and comforted, each one can be found not only in pubs and restaurants, but also at family dinner tables up and down the country. As food is all about personal taste, I’m sure everyone will have their own opinions about what should be in the top 10 and indeed the order they should appear in. However, I am fairly confident that most of the dishes I have chosen would score highly with most natives from the UK. In an attempt to choose traditional meals that are mainly typical to Britain, those that could just as easily be found anywhere else in the world have been discounted. As a result, some of my big favourites such as steak, salmon, pork belly and lamb shank have been sacrificed.
So without further ado let us start the countdown!
10 – Gammon, Egg and chips
A big favourite of mine growing up, this meal is also very popular in pubs. A nice thick juicy slice of gammon, a fried egg or two, a few chips and you can’t really go wrong. Having said that, the optional addition of a pineapple ring atop your succulent slice of gammon has been known to cause the same kind of controversy that occurs when pineapple is added to pizzas! You may wonder what the difference is between gammon and ham. The answer is quite a subtle one. Both are delicious cuts taken from the pig’s hind legs. Gammon, however, is meat that has been cured – by being salted, brined or smoked – and sold raw, whereas ham is meat that has been dry-cured or cooked, and is sold ready to eat. So when you’ve cooked your gammon it effectively becomes ham. The appeal of gammon over ham, however, is that when it is freshly cooked it is served hot and tastes better. Gammon is also traditionally served at Christmas, usually glazed in honey, thus taking its yummy levels up another notch.
Interestingly, gammon has taken on a new meaning in recent times. Popularised in British political culture, ‘gammon’ is a derogatory term used by lefties to describe either those on the political right or those who support Brexit. The term makes particular reference to the colour of a person’s flushed face when expressing their strong opinions, which is seen as a similar shade to gammon.
9 – Pie and mash
There is something so incredibly satisfying about the glorious pie! Enthralling us for centuries, it is the perfect remedy to the harsh British winter. Served with a nice creamy mash, the pie has always been a big favourite on our little island and features heavily in pub menus everywhere. There are so many different ones to choose from and we just can’t seem to get enough of them. Perhaps the most popular and, indeed my favourite, is the steak and kidney. The ingredients include beef, kidney, fried onion and gravy all wrapped up in a delightful golden pastry. Strong rivals would be steak and ale, chicken and leek, chicken and mushroom, meat and potato or corned beef. A special mention must also go out to the pork pie, a cute compact pocket rocket of a pie that put Melton Mowbray on the map.
Although it feels like cheating due to its slightly different form, the pasty must also be contemplated in any serious pie-based discussion. The Cornish, similar to the Argentinian empanada but larger, is a pasty stuffed full of meat and vegetables. Cornish pasties first became popular among tin miners as they were easily transportable and eaten without a plate or cutlery. Nowadays, the humble pasty plays an important part in British food culture. For anyone interested in sampling the delights of pies and pasties a visit to Greggs, the largest bakery chain in the UK, is essential.
8 – Scampi and chips
Food porn from the 1980s, scampi and chips was to main courses what prawn cocktail was to starters in this epic decade for exotic British food. Another big hitter on the pub circuits, scampi and chips is a dish that conjures vivid memories from my childhood. I always remember the thrill when they were served to me and my brothers in a pub or restaurant. We would frantically count them and there would be hell on if one of us had been given more than the others. When my mother used to make them at home she had to be really careful to ensure we all received equal amounts, otherwise there would be ructions at the table.
Scampi is an Italian word which has migrated all over Europe. In most countries, especially Italy, it actually means the peeled tail of pretty much any kind of prawn but in the UK it refers to the meat of just one special prawn, the langoustine. It is a small lobster found in the colder waters of Scotland, Ireland and Norway. It is also known as the Dublin Bay Prawn, and as the Norway lobster.
7 – Beef Wellington
A traditional Beef Wellington consists of a beef tenderloin or fillet steak wrapped in layers of pâté, duxelles (a finely chopped mushroom mixture), Parma ham, and puff pastry. The coated meat is wrapped in the Parma ham to help retain the moisture and to prevent it from making the pastry go soggy. As the meat used is the most tender and juicy part of the cow, it can sometimes be on the pricey side. As a result, this somewhat decadent dish is often only made for special occasions or holidays. It is also served in posh pubs and restaurants up and down the country.
The origin of Beef Wellington comes from a man called Arthur Wellesley, national hero and the 1st Duke of Wellington. Famous for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, he would also go on to become a British prime minister. Rumour has it that the Iron Duke, as he was also known, counted the dish among his favourites. When I was a young boy I always had the idea that the name Beef Wellington had something to do with Wellington boots (who also took their name from Wellesley), imagining the meat with the pastry wrapped round it to be like a leg in a boot!
6 – Mince and dumplings
Nothing spells out comfort food more than this absolute legend of a meal. Mince and dumplings, otherwise known as mince cobbler and puddings in the corner, is a traditional North East of England meal found all over the UK and Ireland. If you are ever seeking solace from the harsh British weather, this dish will welcome you with the warmest of embraces. It is hearty beyond compare and another one that I remember fondly from my childhood days.
To make this one pot dish add some finely chopped vegetables (onion, celery and carrots) to your minced beef together with a nice bit of gravy. The savoury dumplings are made from self-raising flour and suet. They are bound together by cold water to form dough and seasoned with salt and pepper. You can even throw in some parsley and other herbs for added flavour. Once made into balls, drop your dumplings on the mince and pop in the oven to cook. When ready, the dumplings should be soft on the inside and lovely and crispy on the outside. Serve with some vegetables and enjoy. It is simply dumpling diddlyumptious!
5 – Toad in the hole
Extremely special times await he or she who samples the mouth-watering delights of this sausage and Yorkshire pudding heaven on earth extravaganza. It is a classic and, due to its easy recipe, can be made at home. All you need is Yorkshire pudding batter, identical to pancake mixture, and some delicious sausages. My Mam also adds a chopped onion or two for added flavour. Pop them in a baking tray and stick them in the oven to cook. When ready, serve with some lovely potatoes, vegetables and a generous portion of gravy and Bob’s your uncle, you have an absolute winner on your hands!
Although I’m sure the Germans would have something to say about it, British sausages, also known as bangers, are possibly the finest you will sample in the world! Personally, I don’t think you can beat the Cumberland, a beautifully formed sausage that is juicy and full of flavour. And anyway, Dave from the Hairy Bikers says they are the best so they must be! The Lincolnshire sausage is also a fine tasting sausage and a more than worthy runner up. Historically, toad in the hole has also been prepared using other meats, such as rump steak and lamb’s kidney. Apparently, the name comes from the appearance of these bits of meat looking like toads in holes.
4 – Shepherd’s Pie
A wholesome and classic British meal, shepherd’s pie originated in Scotland and the North of England and is primarily made from minced meat and potatoes. Although the dish can occasionally be found in pubs and restaurants, most Brits would agree that shepherd’s pie is best eaten at home with your family. It is often confused with the equally satisfying cottage pie. The key difference is the kind of meat used. As shepherds look after sheep, a shepherd’s pie uses minced lamb, whilst a cottage pie uses minced beef (not that cottages look after cows, doh). That said, my mother refers to it as shepherd’s pie, even though she always uses minced beef as opposed to lamb. I don’t think there are that many food snobs who would quibble too much over the name as it is basically the same dish, just made with the meat of a bigger milkier less fluffy animal.
Built on a tissue of lies, neither the shepherd’s nor the cottage are actually pies, well not in the true sense wrapped in pastry. Prepared in a large dish, finely chopped vegetables, which may include carrots, peas and onions, are added to the mince together with some gravy to make a delicious sauce. Then mashed potato is put on top, grated cheese is sprinkled over for a lovely cheesy topping and there it is, a dish to warm even the coldest of hearts.
3 – All day breakfast
A medley of taste sensations all vying for your immediate attention, never has breakfast been so varied, so delicious and so satisfying! Admittedly, it is also a heart-attack on a plate and if eaten regularly will send your cholesterol levels to another dimension, but that’s another story. Also known as a fry-up, a cooked breakfast or a full English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish depending on which corner of the British Isles you are, I cannot wax lyrical enough about this triumphant plate of food. Effectively, it consists of every breakfast food you can conceivably imagine. This could include bacon, sausages, eggs, beans, toast or fried bread, hash browns, tomatoes, black pudding, mushroom and much more if you can get it to fit on your plate. And if you can’t, simply find a bigger plate. Depending on where you are in the British Isles, there can be slight alterations to its make-up. In Scotland, for example, square sausage may be included, as may haggis. In Ireland, white pudding may be preferred to its blood brother, black pudding. And in Wales, laverbread, made from a type of seaweed, may make an appearance on your morning fry-up. Although traditionally a breakfast, it is such a hearty plateful of food that it is regularly served at lunchtime or as an evening meal, hence why it is called an all day breakfast.
When I’m away living in Spain it is probably one of the things I miss the most. This is especially true when I’m staying in a Spanish hotel. Having to sit down to a boring continental breakfast, rather than a mouth-watering fry-up, always makes me cry inside. For foreigners visiting Britain, our world-famous fry-up can sometimes be too much to face first thing in the morning as, understandably, it is a bit of a shock to the system if you’re not used to it. A foreign ex-girlfriend of mine came to visit me in the UK and we stayed in a hotel that did an excellent cooked breakfast. Unfortunately it was too much for her poor little stomach, so whilst she happily ate toast and jam every morning, I would get stuck into a double cooked breakfast, polishing off mine and then hers. The things we have to do for love!
2 – Traditional Sunday dinner
Brits love their Sunday roast and it isn’t too difficult to see why! The dish is made up of roast meat (usually beef, pork, lamb or chicken), roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and all the trimmings. The trimmings refer to all the additional vegetables which may include a selection of roast parsnips, turnip, peas, carrots, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Sweet potato is another vegetable making more of an appearance these days and seems to be very much in vogue. The gravy and any additional sauces add the finishing touches and there you have it, a dinner fit for Winston Churchill.
The humble roast dinner actually began life as a meal that was eaten after the Sunday church service. The meat and vegetables would be left in the oven to cook while the family was out at worship. Today, a Sunday roast is still an important part of British life with around one-fifth of British people sitting down to one every week. Thanks to the incredible cooking abilities of my Mam, our family used to feast on a delicious roast dinner every Sunday, with beef or pork being the most popular meat choices. As every self-respecting pub in the country has a roast dinner menu, going out for a roast is also very popular in the UK.
Before we leave the subject of Sunday dinner, an extra special mention must go out to the Christmas dinner. Basically a jazzed up version of Sunday dinner, a large turkey is roasted, and takes the centre-stage of this glorious festive occasion. Together with the usual trimmings, you might also see sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce, sausage meatballs, Brussels sprouts and the delightful piggy in a blanket (little sausages wrapped in bacon). If Sunday dinner is king, Christmas dinner is God.
1 – Fish and Chips
Perhaps nothing is more synonymous with British food than fish and chips. As far as I’m concerned, there is no better sight in the world than cod or haddock fried in a lovely crispy golden batter served with nice chunky chips and a side portion of lovely mushy peas. Everyone seems to love them and it is no surprise they top my list of British meals. I have very fond childhood memories of eating fish and chips and, although it is tradition to eat fish on a Friday, we would feast on them every Saturday lunchtime. Although there are fish and chip shops all over the UK, most would agree that they are at their most delicious when eaten by the sea. And living close to the Northumberland coastline, I am quite spoilt for choice. Probably some of the best I have sampled are at places like North Shields Fish Quay, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay, Seahouses, Amble and Whitby, to name a few. However, the best fish and chips I have ever had were at the Harbour View in Seaton Sluice. The cod I had that day was enormous, in fact it was probably the size of two large fish, an absolute whale. I thought I would never finish it, but with a few tactical breaks and several slurps of my tea, I somehow made it.
The earliest known fish and chip shops were opened in London during the 1860s by Eastern European Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin, and by John Lees in Mossley, Lancashire. By the 1930s there were over 35,000 shops as fish and chips became a stock meal among the working classes in Britain. Today the love affair continues as fish and chips are still enjoyed regularly by an adoring British public.
So there you have it, my top 10 British meals. There are a few dishes that unfortunately didn’t quite make it. Bangers and mash, for example, were eliminated from the list as the British sausage features so prominently in toad in the hole. Beans on toast you might argue should be in there. However, beans make an appearance in a fry-up so just missed out. I could have gone with a chicken tikka masala or a lamb balti as both were invented in this country by Indian immigrants. But even though the British consume obscene amounts of curry every week, it didn’t feel right to include a curry dish, with its Indian origins, on a list of traditional British food. The Lancashire hot pot was a strong contender as was the Irish stew, but, with competition so high, there just wasn’t room for them all. When I asked my Argentinian girlfriend if she could think of any famous British meals, fish and chips was the first thing she mentioned, followed by an all day breakfast and Sunday dinner which, revealingly, are the dishes that make up my top 3. I’m sure there will be disagreement over some of my choices on the list, and the order they appear in, but on the whole, I think most of the sharp shooters of British cuisine have been included in the conversation.
Often misunderstood by foreigners, British food is certainly a little different. It might be a bit stodgy on occasions, but it is always hearty and wholesome, full of flavour and a glorious antidote to the harsh weather we sometimes have to face on our little island.